REVIEW by Laura Stowe


The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

by Lindsay Ashford

Much speculation surrounds the death of Jane Austen, who passed away on 18 July 1817, aged just 41. A very distinctive set of symptoms have led modern-day doctors to speculate on a variety of causes including Hodgkins Lymphoma, Addisons Disease and Bovine TB…. but is it possible she was murdered?

The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen is a novel about the life of the author and the complex web woven by her family members. It delves into the possibility that one of Britain’s greatest and much-loved writers did not succumb to natural causes, but was in fact killed by one of those closest to her.

The story was born when author Lindsey Ashford moved to the Austens’ village of Chawton in Hampshire. Here, she had intended to write her next crime novel, but this was abandoned when she became immersed in the mystery surrounding Jane’s death. The resulting book is the product of a great deal of research. It is evident throughout that Ashford has an in-depth knowledge of both the Austens’ family history and of the medical clues Jane left behind; the latter helped by the writer’s own experience in criminology.

Our narrator is Miss Anne Sharp, believed to be Jane’s best friend and the inspiration behind the character Mrs Weston in Emma. Very little is known about Anne Sharp but Ashford succeeds in giving her a distinct narrative voice. Anne is a strong-willed and opinionated character and someone you could quite imagine Austen herself bringing to life. Our guide is also hopelessly in love with the great author which, through misplaced good intentions, leads her to make some unfortunate decisions along the way:

I would be taking a huge risk in confronting him with what I suspected but I clung to the belief that he was, at heart, an honourable man who, if he could not stop what he was doing, would at least see the wisdom in behaving more discretely.

The main strengths here are the varied and fascinating characters, a reflection of Austen’s books which are famously character-led. Henry, a key villain of the piece, leaves the reader with mixed feelings; you know you ought to dislike him but his charm is infectious even from afar. Then there is Austen herself who leaps from the pages with warmth and humour; a character we all wish was our best friend and who is testament to Ashford’s admiration of her subject.

With so much new research and character work underpinning this story, it is a shame that its structure is not more considered. We know from the title that this book questions how Austen died, but no details of that death come until 250 pages in when Jane writes to Anne describing her ill health. The prologue gives some sense of setting but the reader is made to wait an awfully long time for any sense of momentum. Instead, the book painstakingly outlines the complex relationships between family members and the evidence of Henry’s extra-marital affair. Adultery is, sadly, a problem so common today that modern readers may not find the scenario gripping enough to keep going for the big reveal.

However, the author’s research raises some interesting questions about the Austens’ family and indeed about how Jane died. Although The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen pertains to be a work of fiction, Ashford herself has stated in interviews that she is certain Austen was poisoned with arsenic. This book has the potential to inflame heated debates and I am sure that lovers of a good conspiracy theory will be engrossed.

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previous review: The Beautiful Indifference
next review: Swamplandia


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