The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsay Ashford. Faction and death in the Austen Family

The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen - Lindsay Ashford

Thanks to Honno Welsh Women’s Press for sending me a paperback copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

I do like Jane Austen’s novels. Some more than others (Pride and Prejudice is my favourite at the moment, although there are some that I can’t even remember if and when I read them, so this could change), but I am not an expert on the subject or her number one fan. Still, when I was offered a copy of this book, I was intrigued. I had written a post about Jane Austen for my series of guest classical authors and it proved one of the most popular in my blog, and I remembered from checking her biography that she’d died quite young after a somewhat unclear illness. So a book exploring her death, and backed up with research into the archives at Chawton House, in other libraries, and also by careful perusal of some of her best known biographies was intriguing. (I’m also a doctor, but not in internal Medicine, and no Dr House either).

The book is narrated in the first person by Miss Anne Sharp, a governess who goes to work for one of Jane’s brothers, Edward, and his wife, Elizabeth, at Godmersham. Her personal circumstances are difficult, and not that different from those of Jane herself, a single woman, educated but of no independent means. In Miss Sharp’s case, she does not have a family to rely on and she considers herself lucky obtaining a position with a wealthy family, even if her standing is unclear (she is neither a servant to share the world of downstairs, nor a member of the family who can participate in all their social gatherings). She meets Jane when she visits and they are kindred spirits, well-read and less interested in fashion and finding a husband than in cultivating their minds and observing the world and the society around them. They soon become friends, and correspond and see each other often over the years, despite changes in circumstances, until Jane’s death.

The novel mixes well-researched data with some flights of fancy (the intricacies and complexities of the Austen’s family relationships are rendered much more interesting by suggestions of illicit affairs involving several family members, which then become one of the backbones of the hypothesis that Jane was poisoned with arsenic, providing a possible motivation). I’ve read reviews stating that if this novel had been published within 50 years of Jane’s death it could have been considered slander. This is probably true (I won’t go into detail, as I don’t want to give the plot away) but hardly the point. Yes, there are suppositions that would be virtually impossible to prove, but they help move the story along and serve to highlight the nature of the society of the time.

I liked the portrayal of Jane, indirect as it is and from the point of view of a fairly unreliable narrator. She is presented as a bright, humorous and fiercely intelligent woman, devout of her family but fully aware of their shortcomings. She is a keen observer of human nature and a good amateur psychologist, producing wonderful portrays of the people and the types they come across. There isn’t much detail about the process of getting her novels into publication, other than what the narrator conjectures, as she is no longer in the Austen’s circle at that point.

In the novel, Anne Sharp has feelings for Jane that go beyond friendship, but she never reveals them to Jane, and three is no suggestion that Jane reciprocates her feelings. One of the keys to the novel is the narrator. Although I thought the observational part of the novel was well achieved (I’m not an expert on the literature of the period, though, but I felt there was enough detail without getting to the point of overburdening the story), I was not so sure about how rounded Miss Sharp’s character was. She can be self-restrained one minute (in her relationship with Jane) and then throw all caution to the wind and risk her position with no solid basis for her accusations. And some of the theories she works with and then rejects felt a bit forced (yes, I had worked out who the guilty party was going to be well before she gets there). I didn’t dislike her, but wasn’t fully convinced either.

I enjoyed the book. The story moves along at good pace and it made me want to read more about Jane Austen’s life, and, especially, revisit some of her novels. As a murder mystery of the period, it is perhaps closer to a cosy mystery than to a police procedural (for evident reasons), with the beauty that the background and the period are well researched and fascinating in their own right. I would recommend it to readers in general, particularly to people who enjoy or are curious about Austen’s work, although I suspect that to real scholars of the subject it might appear too little and too fanciful. But if you want a good read, go for it.