Monday, 6 August 2012

The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsay Ashford

            Based on letters and Austen archives, this fictionalises governess Anne Sharp's first meeting with Jane Austen in 1805 when Anne is governess to Jane's brother Edward’s children. Over time, Anne’s feelings for Jane deepen to soemthing beyond friendship and readers are privy to Anne’s innermost thoughts as she struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and the pain of knowing that her love is unrequited. When Jane dies of a mystery illness, once Anne has got over the initial trauma, she subsequently starts to believe that Jane’s death was due to poisoning rather than illness.
            Despite it being a work of fiction, it certainly made me imagine Jane Austen in a different light; humourous, bright and lively. Anne and Jane are true soulmates and one of the most poignant images in the novel is when Anne is planning her next visit to Jane, not realising her friend died some months before. Nobody thought to invite her to the funeral as a mere governess who lived some distance away and of course, they could never imagine the strength of Anne's true feelings. The book says much about social structures of the time: class as well as gender constraints. 
I think a reader would have to be familiar with Austen’s novels to fully appreciate it as they are referred to a great deal, but then you probably wouldn’t pick up this book unless you were a fan anyway.
            A couple of small gripes: there is a huge cast of characters, many with similar sounding names so at times I struggled to recall who individuals were and where they fit in. I also preferred the earlier parts of the book which focused on Anne and Jane’s relationship. At times, the quest to solve the mystery at the end felt a little rushed.
            But this doesn't spoil what is a thought provoking, different take on a real life event. Read it if you like a tragic love story with an unusual twist.
I first reviewed this book for Newbooks Magazine.

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