Saturday, March 16, 2013

A spotlight on Lindsay Ashford's The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Honno ed., 2011
I bought a copy of Lindsay Ashford's The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen last year, based on the description in the online catalog of its publisher, Honno, an independent press featuring Welsh women's writing. After reading another novel of theirs in 2009, Margaret Redfern's Flint, I knew their editors had discerning tastes.

I didn't know at the time, though, that its author, a popular British mystery novelist with an academic background in criminology, had been interviewed by the Daily Mail and the Guardian about her controversial revelations or that her novel had been picked up by Sourcebooks for publication in the US.  (Although the latter should surprise no one.  Sourcebooks has cornered the market on Austen-themed fiction, and this was a smart purchase.)

Behind its dark yet unassuming cover lies an absorbing and disturbing recounting of events from the life of one of England's most beloved authors. Following extensive research, Ashford has run a poisoned comb through the dynamics of the large and close-knit Austen family and come up with a provocative notion that nonetheless—I can't help but admitlies within the realm of possibility.  Did Jane Austen die from unnatural causes?  If so, how did this come about?  Was she murdered, and by whom?

The mystery hinges on two sources.  In one of Jane's letters, written just before she died at the young age of 41 in 1817, she described her looks as "black and white and every wrong colour."  Also, some years later, after forensic techniques had sufficiently developed, a lock of Austen's hair tested positive for arsenic.

Ashford's novel offers her interpretation of these facts and others, all taken from Jane's daily life and known activities and those of her relatives and friends.  The "detective" (a term used loosely, as the book doesn't read like typical crime fiction) is Anne Sharp, governess to the children of Jane's wealthy brother Edward Knight.  Anne, a bluestocking with no marriage prospects, sees Jane as a kindred spirit and conceives an unrequited love for her—a curious assumption the author makes.  Many of the other undercurrents swirling throughout the novel, however, actually existed.  Anne's keen observations of Jane's other relationships allow her insight into what may have been the cause of her dear friend's death.

Sourcebooks ed., August 2013
Saying more would be revealing too much of a tale that readers would be best off discovering on their own. I feel uneasy about the depiction of some historical characters, and whether or not I bought into the solution, I found it a fascinating read.  The settings are delightful and deftly rendered, as readers follow Anne from the Knights' isolated country house at Godmersham Park in Kent to Bath's famous Pump Room, where she overhears some startling conversations, to her new employer's home in Yorkshire.  

Although I'm far from an expert on Austen or her novels, I visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath last year, learned more about her family history, and saw all of the exhibits and related memorabilia.  It had the effect of piquing my interest in her life.  Halfway through reading this book, while doing some online research, I also learned that Anne Sharp was a historical character, one of the few individuals to whom Austen had sent a presentation copy of Emma.  That knowledge added even more to my reading experience.

If you're at all interested in Jane Austen's writing, life story, and the places and people that surrounded and influenced her, give this insidiously compelling book a try and draw your own conclusions.

The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen was published in 2011 by Honno Press (£8.99, trade pb, 331pp). This August, Sourcebooks will publish The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen in the US and Canada ($14.99 US / $16.95 Can, trade pb, 432pp; note the slight change to the title).


  1. I will not buy or read this book. The number of writer-opportunists sitting like vultures on Ms. Austen and her works seems to not to be ebbing at all.

    The real life of the real Jane Austen is more than adequately fascinating.

    Fortunately, Jane Austen the author and her works are greater than any lesser writer attempting to make money by slandering her superiors in art and talent. Ms. Austen and her novels -- and her family ties, biographically, shall survive.

    As does Shakespeare and his works despite all the debunkers and opportunists -- even margarine commercials.


    1. I fully understand that not everyone will be thrilled about this novel's existence, and some may be offended by it. It may be either a convincing piece of detective work, or an imaginative fabrication. My feeling, after reading it and doing a considerable amount of outside reading into the dynamics within her family circle afterward, is it's somewhere in the middle. Many of the tensions, rivalries, and family secrets depicted in the book existed - they weren't made up by the author.

      I didn't feel, though, that Austen herself was defamed in it -- unless the act of writing a work of biographical fiction about her, or anyone, could be considered libel or defamation in itself. As a character, she's presented with respect, imho, although of course her dialogue is invented.

    2. This is a good post with interesting comments: I think it gets at the heart of what a lot of good historical novels are, to me: something between "detective (historical/genealogical) work" and "imaginative fabrication." It's really only a matter of where on this continuum a book is positioned.

      It sounds like the author stayed close to primary source material (which I can imagine is voluminous and perhaps contradictory, and yet probably incomplete). And I think depicting some characters in ways that make readers uncomfortable can be a virtue in a novel. After all, we read so that we may be challenged as well as soothed and entertained. It may be true that there is some opportunism involved, but I don't think that has to be slander, and it can actually be a tribute to a superior in talent.

    3. Thanks for your comments, Jack. I agree. There is perhaps some opportunism involved in writing about any well-known person, but I think the great many Austen sequels and fictionalizations out there are written primarily out of long-time interest and admiration rather than the desire to slander anyone or make money off someone else's fame. (That said, in the case of living authors who don't like "fan fiction" about their work - I feel novelists should respect that.)

      In the case of this book, my thoughts are that the author went rather too far in her depiction of some characters - but her research led her to those conclusions. There are different ways to put together the pieces of a literary mystery, and different readers/writers will have their own interpretations.

  2. Caitlin C9:58 AM

    To be completely honest I've never taken the time to read a Jane Austen novel (I know, it's shameful). However this novel does sound potentially appealing. Primarily because it does not rely on historical facts alone the author also incorporated some of her own ideas. The fiction/mystery side of the story would probably be the only reason why I would take the time to read it.

  3. Anonymous8:16 PM

    This book does sound fantastic. I had never know the mysterious circumstances surrounding Miss Austens death and having a historical take on what may have happened as interpreted by evidence sounds like a great read.

  4. Anonymous9:40 AM

    I have never read nay historical fiction before. However, the review of this book does fascinate me. I am truly a lover of mystery novels, and the fact that the book has a mysterious death to it makes it interesting. However, I heard that historical fiction can be more slow-paced, and I quickly lose interest in books that do this.

  5. Matt G10:28 PM

    I love when this sort of thing happens. Someone dares to shake things up and consider other possibilities. It may or may not hold any weight in reality, but it's fascinating regardless. We don't really know exactly what happened in the past, at least not every detail, so it leaves a lot to the imagination. I think it's clever to write in this manner, as it's interesting and controversial.