Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Murder Mystery No One Expects

At one point, there was just Jane Austen.  A British lady, (by which I mean gentlewoman, not a member of the aristocracy) gifted with humor, keen powers of observation, and the tenacity to create fiction in a time where few men and no women were encouraged to write. Her novels were known to humorists and English Majors but considered too esoteric for the hoi polloi.  In those days, she was just Jane Austen.

Now, Miss Austen is an industrial source.  Her six major novels have been analyzed, adapted, pillaged, and parodied beyond belief (I have friends who debate the merits of filmed version of P&P), there are shelves heavy with revisionist tales drawn from her original stories and Jane-mania  has spawned at least two books of its own: Austenland and the Jane Austen Book Society. None of this surprises me.  In our culture, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. What I did not expect was murder, that darkest, most obsessive of crimes, would be linked to Jane Austen. And yet, the tie may be true. Of course, it would take a crime writer to see it.

Enter Lindsay Ashford, a crime journalist, late of the BBC.  With a reference from one of Ms. Austen's last letters and the analysis of a lock of Jane's hair, Ms. Ashford realizes Chic Lit's premier author may have expired, not from Addison's disease, or tuberculosis, but arsenic poisoning. Add in some research, a few other strange deaths of near relations and the result is The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen, a story that irritates as much as it charms.

Sunny, sensible, practical Jane Austen: is there any less likely candidate for murder?  Yet, Ms. Ashford concocts a theory, narrated by Anne Sharp one of the few non-relatives the real Jane Austen corresponded with.  As a governess once employed by Jane's brother, Edward, Miss Sharp has the education and sense to recognize literary genius when she sees it. She also has the perspective to see the tangled relationships and characters in the Austen clan.

Character is something Lindsay Ashford occasionally does well as she brings a younger brother, Henry, to life.  This Henry, who reinvents himself and survives on his charm, has some characteristics of Jane's ne'er-do-wells like Wickham and Henry Crawford but he is also his sister's champion. Unfortunately, Jane Austen had six brothers and, in the interest of setting out her murder plot, Ms. Ashford forgets to give each of them the necessary distinguishing detail needed to understand her theory.  In the end, you can see Jane's murder was one in a series of attacks on the Austen family and you can see who had means and opportunity.  A reasonable motive for this act is what's lacking.

Still, The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is fascinating in the research behind it and the questions it poses.  Why did Austen die at the young age of 41? Who were the real-life models behind her classic characters?  What was contained in so many of Jane's letters that after death, her sister, Cassandra, was compelled to destroy them? In the absence of real answers, we at least have the joy of imagining what they may be.