Please welcome Lindsay Ashford, author of The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen!
by Lindsay Ashford
I’m lucky enough to have a writing space that many authors would give their eye teeth for: the library of a five-hundred-year-old house that once belonged to Jane Austen’s brother.
The Elizabethan manor house is in the English village of Chawton, a stone’s throw from the cottage where Jane lived with her mother and sister. I moved there in 2008 when my fiancé was offered a job at Chawton House. The old mansion was restored a few years ago by American philanthropist Sandy Lerner, who is a big fan of Austen. She decided it would be the perfect place for her collection of early English women’s writing and the room that was once Edward Austen’s library is now full of fascinating old books, including a wealth of material about the Austen family. It was while working in this room that the idea for The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen came to me.
I was reading a collection of letters written by members of the Austen family and a sentence that Jane penned just a few months before she died jumped out at me. Describing the weeks of illness she had suffered, she wrote: ‘I am considerably better now and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour…’
As a writer of crime fiction I’ve researched forensic techniques, including the detection of poisons. What Jane had described sounded very similar to the effect of arsenic poisoning, which creates dark and light patches on the skin when taken in small doses over a long period of time. She died at the age of just 41 and no-one has been able to fully explain her symptoms. Could she have been poisoned, I wondered?
What seemed a wild idea was given credence by something I learned a couple of months later. In the cottage where Jane lived – now a museum – is a lock of her hair. I discovered that the person who donated the hair – a wealthy American collector of Austen memorabilia – had it tested for arsenic back in the 1940s and the test proved positive. This was the moment when the idea for the novel took root in my mind and began to grow.
The story is told in the voice of Jane’s best friend, Anne Sharp – governess to the children of Edward Austen – to whom the author wrote one of her last letters. Anne lived on many years after Jane died – long enough for medical science to have advanced to the point where human remains could be tested for the presence of arsenic. It’s a well-documented fact that Anne was sent a lock of Jane’s hair when she died by Jane’s sister, Cassandra. What would you do, I wondered, if you suspected your best friend had been poisoned and you had the means to prove it?
This is an extract from the novel, describing the first meeting between Jane Austen and Anne Sharp at Edward Austen’s other great estate – a place called Godmersham in Kent:
‘When I first met Jane her life, like mine, was an indecipherable work in progress. I had no notion, then, of what she was to become. But in the space of a few weeks she rubbed away the words other hands had scrawled beneath my name and inked me in; made me bitter, passionate, elated, frightened…all the things that make a person jump off the page.
Godmersham was where I lived in those days, although I never would have called it home, for I belonged neither above stairs nor below. I was one of that strange tribe of half-breeds, a governess. Educated but impoverished. Well-born, but bereft of family. To the servants my speech and manners made me a spy who was not to be trusted. To Edward and Elizabeth Austen I was just another household expense. My only true companions were books. Like friends and relatives, they fell into two categories: there were the ones I’d hidden in my bed when the bailiffs came – old, familiar volumes that smelled of our house in Maiden Lane – and there were the ones I was permitted to borrow from the Austens’ library. This held many favourites, expensively bound in calf or green morocco, with gilt edging and endpapers of crimson silk. Their pages brought back the voices of all those I had lost.
Jane arrived at Godmersham on a wet and windy day in the middle of June. I remember the first sight of her, still clad in mourning for her father, her eyes bright with tears as she greeted her brother. The hall was bustling with servants, eager to organize the newcomers, and I could tell from the way she held her head that she found it all rather strange and discomfiting. I saw, too, the way Elizabeth looked her up and down like a housewife buying a goose. Feathers rather sparse and shabby-looking, I caught her thinking; not really fit for our table.’
I loved researching the novel. It was like nothing I had ever written before – partly because the people I was writing about had actually lived in the house I was now working in. Jane, her family and her friend Anne Sharp had dined, danced and slept at Chawton House. Sometimes I felt I could hear Anne Sharp whispering in my ear. That might sound far-fetched but it’s the only way I can describe the way this character took me over.
If you decide to read it I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.