After 15 entries, Barron’s Being a Jane Austen Mystery series comes to a touching close with Jane and the Final Mystery (Soho Crime, Oct.).
How did you determine the best way to finish the series?
I began with Jane at age 26, knowing that she had 15 years to live. That was a burden for me as a writer: most people who invent their characters don’t need to face the necessity of letting them go. She had a certain grace and equanimity with how she met death—I wanted to imbue this final novel with that sense of grace, and I hope I struck the right note. As Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and I’ve always felt that’s why Jane Austen has endured over the centuries. Her books have instructed generations about how to live, about what is a meaningful life, about relationships and self-respect, particularly for women. But death, importantly, is a character in each of her novels. We think of them as lighthearted romances and comedies of manners, but there’s always an element of the missing person in her stories.
Despite the implication that Jane’s mysterious illness becomes fatal, you end the story on a note of optimism.
In her letters from Winchester, while she was dying, Austen wrote, “I’m very hopeful of a cure.” I think part of her optimism came from the fact that there was no clear diagnosis for her. We don’t really know if she died of Addison’s disease, or pancreatic cancer, or liver cancer, or what. The ambiguity allowed her hope. The awful flip side of that is that she tended to blame herself for not getting well. She thought there was a psychological component to her illness, and that’s such a tragedy, because it had absolutely nothing to do with her will or her strength.
Given her frail health, why does your Jane decide to involve herself in one final investigation?
She’s constantly analyzing her illness, trying to understand her symptoms, whence they might stem, and treat herself, almost the way we would go onto WebMD. She did that because of the paucity of information. So having a distraction was probably critical, because otherwise she would have brooded. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot says, “Women live quiet and confined, and our emotions prey upon us.” That’s a cry from Jane Austen’s heart, because she was writing that book while she was ill. I’m sure she spent far too much time with her emotions preying upon her, and her method of combating that was to turn her mind to something other than attempting to save herself.