Before she bade me farewell Martha said: “Jane sets great store by your judgment, you know. She says she never came across anyone so aptly named as you.”
I feasted on this crumb of comfort as the coach trundled across the boundary between Sussex and Kent. Gratifying as it was to hear that Jane valued my intellect, it was adoration, not admiration that I craved. That much at least I knew.
(from The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen)
Lindsay Ashford imagines a more sinister explanation for Jane Austen’s sudden demise at the age of 41 in The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen. Told from the point of view of Anne Sharp, former governess to Jane’s niece, Fanny, and a close friend of Jane’s, Ashford deftly weaves together biographical facts and fanciful fiction to tell a story of forbidden love, adultery, greed, and possibly murder.
Anne meets Jane when she visits her brother Edward Austen’s estate, and they quickly become friends. They both are devoted to Fanny and enjoy books, and it’s not long before they are writing a play together…and confiding in one another about the scandalous behavior of certain members of the Austen family. Anne is as sharp as her name suggests, and she sees things others have missed. Her devotion to Jane, her desire to protect Fanny, and her misguided attempts to confront the wrongdoers put her on a path toward ruin.
Years after Jane’s death, Anne remembers the last letter she received from her seriously ill friend, who described her own face as “black and white and every wrong color.” Suspicious that someone may have wanted to harm Jane, Anne begins to piece together the secrets and the dark side of the Austen family, and when a test shows excessive levels of arsenic in a lock of Jane’s hair, she must decide whether her suspicions should be brought to light and whether to exact revenge.
The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is quite the page-turner! I haven’t done an in-depth reading of Jane’s life yet, so I had no idea what to expect, but even if I had, I never would’ve expect such scandal. Even while the murder plot seems a bit out there, Ashford makes Anne’s reasoning sound completely plausible, and the book took so many twists and turns in and out of various characters’ lives that I had no idea how it might play out. Ashford does a wonderful job making Jane come to life; she was every bit as intelligent and witty and delightful as I imagine she was in real life. She also creates a believable friendship between Jane and Anne, and I could understand Anne’s lifelong devotion to her and her deep despondency after Jane’s death.
With a book like this, it is important for me to be able to discern the fact from the fiction, so my only complaint is that instead of including a few paragraphs in the Author’s Note at the end detailing what aspects of the story are imaginary, Ashford directs readers to Deirdre La Faye’s A Chronology of Jane Austen and Her Family and Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen, a Life to figure it out for themselves. While it did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel and made me dust off my copy of Tomalin’s book, I must admit I was a little disappointed to not be able to satisfy my curiosity while the events of the book were still fresh in my mind.
The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is a rich, complex novel about a woman unwilling to let go of the only person she ever really loved who was taken from her too soon. Anne recognized the loss not only to herself and Jane’s family but also to the world, as Jane could have completed many more literary masterpieces had she lived longer. As when anyone is struck down in his or her prime, Anne longs for a reason, some explanation that makes more sense than an unnamed illness, and Ashford takes this longing and spins it into a creative and shocking tale that is impossible to put down. The cause of Austen’s death has long been speculated, and adding murder to the mix certainly makes for an exciting novel. I just wonder what Jane would think about this one!
Disclosure: I received The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen from Sourcebooks for review.
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