12 October 2015
Published in October 2011, 'The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen' is a historical mystery, researched and written while the author Lindsay Ashford was living in the former home of Jane Austen's brother. Dr Emmeline Burdett critiques the suppositions proposed in the novel from the perspective of the lives of women in Georgian England.
*Spoiler alert: This review reveals details of the novel’s plot*
Lindsay Ashford’s 2011 novel The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen concerns the events surrounding the death of the English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) and to the prevailing theories that Austen met her premature end due to cancer, lupus, Addison’s Disease or bovine tuberculosis, the novel advances the darker possibility of arsenic poisoning.
Here, however, I want to focus on Ashford’s decision to implicate Jane Austen’s sister-in-law Mary (second wife of the novelist’s brother James) in the supposed crime. Whilst researching her book, Ashford came across a description given by Jane Austen of herself not long before her death, in which she described her face as having been ‘black and white and every wrong colour’. Ashford, a seasoned crime novelist, realised that this remark could refer to the ‘raindrop’ pigmentation which is often symptomatic of arsenic poisoning, and which results in patches of the poisonee’s skin going black or brown, whilst other patches go white. In support of her thesis, she pointed out that, in the early nineteenth century, poisoning by arsenic was a common method of murder, particularly because, prior to the development of the Marsh test in 1836, it was not possible to test for its presence in human remains.
In addition, it transpired that, in the late 1940s, Henry G. Burke of Baltimore, the husband of an American philanthropist, had a lock of Jane Austen’s hair tested for the presence of arsenic. The test was positive. Nevertheless, Ashford’s contentions have not proved universally popular with Austen scholars, with the President of the Jane Austen Society noting that it was no surprise that the lock of hair in question contained high levels of arsenic, because, at the time, the drug was commonly prescribed for the treatment of various medical conditions, including rheumatism, which Jane Austen herself had. This reaction, however, is commensurate with other attempts by Austen scholars to sanitise problematic details of the lives of Jane Austen and her family.
Two prominent examples of this are, firstly, Jane Austen’s aunt Mrs Leigh-Perrot, and secondly, the existence of Jane Austen’s brother George, who, having various( unspecified) impairments, was sent to live apart from the rest of his family, and subsequently omitted from wills, and also from the Austen family tree. In 1800, Mrs Leigh-Perrot appeared at Taunton Assizes on charges of grand larceny (stealing lace to the value of twenty shillings). Austen family members and scholars have portrayed Mrs Leigh-Perrot as the innocent victim of unscrupulous shopkeepers who attempted to blackmail her, but it now seems more likely that this was a smokescreen, and that Mrs Leigh-Perrot was actually guilty.
There is, however, an added layer of difficulty with the ‘Mary Austen poisoned Jane Austen’ story, and it is a difficulty which has hitherto gone largely unnoticed by reviewers of The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. Namely, Mary Austen had had smallpox in childhood, and this had the not uncommon result of leaving her disfigured with a scarred, ‘pockmarked’ face. The protagonist of Ashford’s novel is Anne Sharp, real-life governess to Jane Austen’s favourite niece Fanny. Sharp draws explicit links between Mary Austen’s disfigurement, and the development of her character, telling the reader:
‘I could just imagine the ten-year-old Mary, lying in her sick bed as snatches of the doctor’s conversation with her mother reached her from beyond the bedroom door; … I wondered if rather than leaving her bereft, his pronouncement had forged an iron determination to prove him wrong….’ (p.271)
In the novel, the conversation overheard by Mary is that between Mary’s doctor and her own mother, during the course of which the doctor tells Mary’s mother that the smallpox blisters on Mary’s face will inevitably leave her so disfigured as to be ‘unmarriageable’. We do not know if this reported incident occurred in real life, although it might conceivably have done. It is easy to understand that this experience would be likely to have had a devastating effect upon Mary’s self-esteem. In addition, the eighteenth century was not a period during which women had many opportunities, and marriage was often one of the only ways they could be in a position to leave the family home to embark upon a new life. Inter-related social stigma directed at ‘old maids’ may well have meant that, as she grew to adulthood, Mary was even more acutely aware of the precariousness of her situation.
The problem is that in The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen, Lindsay Ashford makes no real effort to understand what life may have been like for Mary Austen as a disfigured woman in Georgian England, but merely pathologises her, making the overheard conversation the only motivation for any of Mary’s actions in later life. This is strangely unaffected by the fact that Mary became the second wife of Jane Austen’s brother James, and that she bore him two children. Clearly, Mary Austen was not ‘unmarriageable’ at all.
Once Ashford’s protagonist has hit upon the idea that Jane Austen was poisoned, it does not take her long to decide that Mary was the culprit. Rather predictably, the conversation that Mary overheard as a child has, in Anne Sharp’s view, given Mary the requisite personality traits to enable her to commit what would have been ‘murder by degrees’, involving the administration, over some months, of small quantities of arsenic to a victim who became progressively sicker:
‘Such crimes would require ruthless determination and a complete lack of conscience. I recalled the image I had formed of the little girl, lying in bed with smallpox, overhearing the doctor say her prospects of marriage were ruined. Yes, I thought, determination she has in plenty. Her conscience or lack of it was something only she could answer for’. (p.299)
This approach turns Mary Austen into an ‘all-or-nothing’ character, in the way of asking the reader to accept that she experienced no significant life events, and had no significant thoughts, in between overhearing the pronouncement that she was ‘unmarriageable’, and making her decision to poison Jane Austen.
As The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen is primarily a ‘whodunnit’, encouraging the reader to think deeply about the circumstances of the alleged perpetrator would probably be contrary to the novel’s purpose. Nevertheless, Ashford’s portrayal of Mary Austen is a highly stereotypical one. It is not stereotypical in the sense of trying to argue that, for example, Mary was so embittered by her disfigurement that she decided to take a peculiar ‘revenge’ upon someone who was not disfigured, but it encourages the reader to look at Mary as a person who had no positive personality traits and only one significant life experience.