Was Jane Austen murdered? Lindsay Ashford’s The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen offers an answer.
How did you come to study the Austen family?
My fiancé was offered a job at Chawton House Library, the former home of Austen’s brother Edward, and we moved to the village where Jane Austen lived. I spent my days working in the library, which houses a fascinating collection of early women’s writing as well as archive material relating to the Austen family. My intention was to begin work on another in the series of my novels about forensic psychologist Megan Rhys, but instead I became completely absorbed in the Austen story.
And that led you to the mystery of her death?
Yes. One day I was reading a letter the novelist sent to her niece, in which she described the illness that ended in her death. She described her face as being “black and white and every wrong colour.” Having carried out extensive research into forensic pathology, this made me stop short. It sounded very much like the symptoms of arsenic poisoning, which causes a characteristic black-and-white pigmentation of the skin when taken in small doses over a long time. I didn’t give it much thought until, a month or so later, I was chatting to a New Yorker called Elsa Solender, who asked me if I’d seen the lock of Jane Austen’s hair on display at the museum down the road. She told me that she was a friend of the couple who bought it at auction back in the 1940s, Harry and Alberta Burke of Baltimore. They donated the hair to the museum, but before they did so, they had it tested for the presence of arsenic and the test proved positive. As far as I know, I’m the first writer to have made the arsenic theory public.
But what made you think she could have been murdered?
I had one of those “light bulb” moments. The archive material hinted at dark undercurrents within the Austen family and the question that popped into my head was, “Could Jane Austen have been poisoned?” That was how the novel came about.
Is it true that Austen used her family experiences as bases for some of her novels, as your book suggests?
There’s no documentary evidence that any particular character or storyline is based on her own family, but the fact that Austen is regarded as one of the keenest observers of social interaction makes it highly likely that she drew on her relatives and others living in close proximity. After reading the Austen archive, I couldn’t help recognizing certain family members when rereading the novels.