Lindsay Ashford - The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen
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Jane Austen fans will want to take a look at this latest mystery.
The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is a historical mystery based on a new theory: that the author died of arsenic poisoning. The key to the theory lies in a lock of the author’s hair, kept in a museum at the house where she once lived. While living in the same village – Chawton, in Hampshire, England – I discovered that the American collector who had bought the lock of hair at auction back in the 1940s had it tested for arsenic before donating it to the museum.
Researching the book led to a voyage of discovery about the use of the poison in the early nineteenth century. Arsenic became the murder weapon of choice because at that time it was easily obtainable (sold as rat poison in any grocer’s shop), undetectable in food and its symptoms mimicked those of diseases such as gastro-enteritis and bowel cancer. The medical research I carried out also unearthed some fascinating facts about the surgical instruments used by the medical profession in the Regency period. One collection of instruments - still in existence – belonged to a doctor called William Beatty, who was Ship’s Surgeon on Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. Among the items he carried in his bag were:
1. A screw tourniquet
2. An amputation knife with detachable handles
3. A fine-toothed bone saw
If these instruments could talk they would have some pretty gruesome tales to tell. On the day of the Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October 1805, 57 crewmen were killed and 109 wounded. Beatty was personally called upon to undertake ten amputations, mostly legs. He did not attempt to treat the wounded Nelson because he believed him to be beyond help. Beatty was responsible for putting Nelson’s body in barrel of brandy to preserve it long enough for the state funeral awaiting him in London.
The Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, Scotland, houses another interesting collection of Regency medical instruments. An inventory dated May 1st 1812 lists scores of items used for operations on every part of the body. Two of the more horrifying ones are:
A. A rectal bougie: this was a thin, expandable metal cylinder which a physician would insert into the rectum. It could be used as a means of widening the passageway for inspection, or to allow the removal of a blockage.
B. Scarifiers: these were instruments with sharp pointed ends used to scrape away skin in various parts of the body, including the cornea during eye surgery.
If those make you wince, at least they wouldn’t kill you if used skilfully by a surgeon. But, as I discovered while researching the novel, there were other items in the doctor’s bag that probably would finish you off. In the early nineteenth century – at the time of Jane Austen’s death – there was a new wonder-drug on the market. It was called Fowler’s Solution and it was used to treat everything from rheumatism to syphilis. It was made from arsenic and potassium salt and although it was later proved to be therapeutically useless, the dramatic effect it had on a patient – inducing severe vomiting and diarrhoea – made it seem effective. It is highly likely that Jane Austen was prescribed Fowler’s solution, raising the possibility that, taken over a long period of time, her medicine killed her. There’s another possibility, of course: that she was deliberately poisoned. But who would do such a thing? And why?
As I contemplated these questions I thought about Jane’s best friend, Anne Sharp, to whom the author wrote one of her last letters. Anne was one of several people who received a lock of Jane’s hair after she died. Anne lived until 1853 – long enough to hear about the discovery of the Marsh Test. Developed in 1836, it enabled the analysis of human remains for the presence of arsenic. What would you do, I wondered, if you suspected your best friend had been poisoned and you were in possession of a lock of her hair?
This is how the novel begins:
‘I have sent him her hair. When I took it from its hiding place and held it to my face I caught the faintest trace of her; a ghost scent of lavender and sun-warmed skin. It carried me back to the horse-drawn hut with its wheels in the sea where I saw her without cap and bonnet for the first time. She shook out her curls and twisted round. My buttons, she said, will you help me? The hut shuddered with the waves as I fumbled. She would have fallen if I hadn’t held her. I breathed her in, my face buried in it; her hair.
I suppose he has had to destroy it to reveal its secret; he can have no idea what it cost me to part with it. All that remains are the few strands the jeweller took for the ring upon my finger: a tiny braid, wound into the shape of a tree. When I touch the glass that holds it I remember how it used to spill over the pillow in that great sailboat of a bed. If hair can hold secrets this ring must surely hold mine…’
Anne Sharp turns detective in a bid to uncover the true nature of her friend’s untimely death. The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen a work of fiction based on a lot of factual material about the Austen family and the dark undercurrents within it. If you decide to read it I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing and researching it.
The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen - Purchase
Jane Austen died of unknown causes at 41, her face "black and white and every wrong colour" (Austen's own words). This book sparked international headlines with the provocative question: Was Jane Austen poisoned? A compelling fictional account of the circumstances surrounding Jane Austen's mysterious death from award-winning mystery writer Lindsay Ashford, inspired by letters and diaries from the Austen archive. Both a puzzle and an unusual love story, it delves deep into the world Jane inhabited and will fascinate Austen fans and mystery readers alike.