|Honno ed., 2011|
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 admit—lies 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|
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).