I rediscovered this novel deep within my Kindle and decided that if I was ever going to read it, now would be as good a time as any. As far as spin-offs go, this one begins with a very bold supposition, posing the question whether Jane Austen met with an unnatural end. An analysis of her hair taken a century after her death found an unusually high level of arsenic and it is this strange fact which Lindsay Ashford makes use of in her novel. There is something about the apparent purity of Jane Austen’s private life which seems to inspire attempts to sully her name and summon up scandal, no matter how spurious. The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen is affectionate towards its subject matter but unfortunately lacks not just substance but also has very little in the way of style.
The precise cause of Jane Austen’s death has been a matter of some debate for centuries, with a diverse range of ailments from Addison’s disease, lymphoma to tuberculosis being named as culprit. In one letter however Austen remarked on how the colour of her face had turned black and white while ill, a known symptom of arsenic poisoning. It is the lingering suspicion which prompts Ashford’s protagonist, Austen’s real-life close friend Anne Sharp, to post off her treasured lock of Jane’s hair for analysis, with the recently-developed Marsh test offering clues as to the fate which might have befallen her friend. Dissatisfied with the reply and still more unimpressed by the biography set down by Jane’s nephew James Austen, Miss Sharp sets down her own version of events and we are invited to her theory of the crime.
The main problem with this novel is its main character. Anne Sharp was governess to the children of Jane’s brother, Edward Knight, until she was obliged to give up the post due to ill-health. She and Jane kept up a steady correspondence however and Miss Sharp was even presented with a first-edition of one of Austen’s books. Anne received one of Jane’s last ever letters and it was Cassandra Austen who wrote to inform her of Jane’s untimely death. Miss Sharp rose above her circumstances and ended her days leading a girls’ boarding school near Liverpool. There can be little doubt that Miss Sharp was an interesting and driven person in real life – but in The Mysterious Death she is colourless and more than a little creepy.
To be a governess in the nineteenth century was to be an object of ridicule – neither fish nor foul, a lady of that profession was as out of place below stairs as she was above it. Yet it appears an added indignity that even in the twenty-first century, the governess cannot be allowed to be a person like anyone else. She has to be ‘odd’ – Miss Sharp is jealous of her young charge Fanny’s affection for her aunt – no doubt the reader is intended to pity someone so starved of love that they feel possessive over the feelings of a child who is not even theirs but there is very little about Ashford’s version of Anne Sharp which inspires warmth. When Miss Sharp and Miss Austen finally do meet, rather than Sharp becoming a more interesting character, instead she becomes even creepier, developing an obsessive love which borders on the stalkerish. Her descriptions of rubbing Jane’s legs, doing her hair, all of this while Jane is unaware of her feelings, is uncomfortable and reminds me more of Harriet from Gillespie and I rather than any narrator whose judgment of events I would be inclined to heed.
Even stranger was the way in which Ashford has tried to create a Regency feel in her prose but continually dropped modern clangers which shook the reader out of any suspension of disbelief. Henry Austen is described as ‘rolling in it’, other characters ‘grin’ and remark on how it has been ‘ages’ since they last saw each other. Even more unsettling is Ashford’s summation of the state of play within the Austen family – they are all a bunch of priapic weirdos. Henry, the brother of whom Jane was most fond, becomes a sexual incontinent and any sense of family kindness is dismissed as artifice. It might perhaps have been interesting had Ashford manoeuvred a last minute twist in the tale but instead all is predictable. Ashford’s one saving grace was that her subject matter is untrodden so that her book is not as winceworthy as other similar offerings such as Death Comes to Pemberley. I finished The Mysterious Death quickly and was glad when it was over but was passably entertained. We will never know exactly what carried off one of the finest novelists of all time and we can be fairly sure that this book does not contain the answer but still, for an afternoon’s entertainment, it does little harm.
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Published by Isis on 2013
Genres: Fiction, Mystery & Detective, General
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