Review: The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen

ImageTitle: The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen

Author: Lindsay Ashford

Rating: ★★

Provided Synopsis: When Jane Austen dies at the age of just 41, Anne, governess to her brother, Edward Austen, is devastated and begins to suspect that someone might have wanted her out of the way. Now, 20 years on, she hopes that medical science might have progressed sufficiently to assess the one piece of evidence she has – a tainted lock of Jane’s hair. Natural causes or murder? Even 20 years down the line, Anne is determined to get to the bottom of the mysterious death of the acclaimed Miss Austen.

Review: In her book, The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen, author Lindsay Ashford weaves together facts surrounding the famous novelist’s death with the workings of imagination. The fact is as followed: when a piece of Jane Austen’s hair was tested to determine the cause of her death the results declared there to have been large amounts of arsenic in her system. When the deadly amounts of arsenic are considered along with the young age in which she died, Ashford was able to create a story to attempt to explain the dynamics of the Austen family and how it might have contributed to Jane’s death.

Now, was any of what the writer has to say about Jane’s favorite brother, Henry Austen, true? He is painted in such a terrible light; he has charm, to be sure, yet also plenty of sins to answer for. The illicit relations he is hinted (and never proved) to have had are vile. Characterizing Henry Austen in this manner — since Jane Austen is a critical observer of what her brother is doing — pushes the plot forward. His secrets are what lead to his sister and many others’ downfall in the story. Lindsay Ashford takes a large creative liberty with this assessment of Henry’s character, and when all is revealed at the end I am not sure it is one that pays of. I think others will also find it difficult to imagine that the sequence of events could have realistically played out like that.

As a fan of Jane Austen’s work I think I wanted a lot more from this story. Besides the fact of arsenic poisoning being in a sample of her hair there is very little I learned about the woman behind so many literary masterpieces. It is difficult to write about her when so much of what is known about her has been shaped by her family and lost when her letters were forgotten/destroyed over the years. Being such a master of character creation, I do not even think Miss Austen would have appreciated the way the characters in this book are formed and play out. The worst one, in my opinion, was Anne Sharp, who is the narrator. She was a friend of Jane during her life and is determined to write what she knew of her friend’s life and family to prove the identity of a murderer. Anne’s narrative voice was so bland, however, to the point that she read like a version of Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. And lets be honest, there is a reason why Jane Austen never focused heavily upon Mary Bennet: that being that the character is just not of any interest.

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