Moving to Jane Austen’s village turned me into a cold case detective...

18th September 2011

The graveyard of St Nicholas’ church in the Hampshire village of Chawton is the burial place of the two women who were closest to Jane Austen. Each named Cassandra, her mother and sister were interred a stone’s throw from the cottage they shared with the novelist. But Jane herself is not there. Her bones lie sixteen miles away beneath a black marble slab in Winchester cathedral. And the mystery of why she died at the age of just forty-one when the two Cassandras lived well into old age has never been resolved.

There have been many theories about her death in the two centuries since her last novel was published. Addison’s disease, tuberculosis and lymphoma have all been suggested - but none quite fits the symptoms reported in her letters. To anyone who knows about modern forensics, however, a face that looks ‘black and white and every wrong colour’ rings alarm bells.

Chawton is the quintessential English village – even the cricket pavilion has a thatched roof – and when my partner was offered a job there I went with him, intending to start work on another contemporary crime novel. We moved into a sixteenth-century former dovecote still owned by Jane Austen’s five-times great-nephew, Richard Knight, and I spent the days working in the library of what used to be Chawton Great House, once home to the author’s brother, Edward. Within a few weeks I’d abandoned the gritty modern novel. Instead my head was stuck in old volumes of the family letters.

The voices of the Austen family were made all the more real by the knowledge that they had passed through the very rooms I now inhabited. Jane herself had slept at the Great House when it was too cold or dark to walk back to the cottage after a family gathering; her brothers, her sister and her parents had all slept there at one time or another and her best friend, Anne Sharp, to whom she wrote one of her last letters, had stayed there too. The more I read, the more intrigued I became by something the letters and diaries hinted at but didn’t fully explain. I began to wonder if there had been more to hide when Cassandra burnt a large part of her sister’s correspondence than a few sharp remarks. As Jane herself said in Emma, ‘There are secrets in all families, you know’.

Then a fascinating piece of information came my way. It came from a visiting American who had won a short story competition organised by me on behalf of Chawton House Library. She asked if I had seen the lock of Jane Austen’s hair which is on display at the cottage (now a museum) down the road. Then she told me that she knew the couple who donated it – American collectors of Austen memorabilia, both now deceased, who had bought it at auction at Sotheby’s in 1948. ‘And did you know,’ she said, ‘that before they handed it over to the museum, they had it tested for arsenic?"

I did not know. But the alarm bells that had sounded when I first read Jane’s description of her face during her illness were now deafening. There was arsenic in her hair, which meant that she had ingested poison in the months before her death. No one else in the cottage had been affected, so it couldn’t have been the water supply, the wallpaper or anything else in the house. Was Jane given arsenic as a medical treatment (common enough at the beginning of the nineteenth century) and if so, could the dose have been large enough to kill her? Or was there a more sinister explanation?

Preposterous, you might think. But a few years after her death a wave of paranoia swept England in the wake of an epidemic of arsenic poisoning. The tasteless, odourless white powder could be bought from any grocer’s shop with no questions asked. People were poisoned suddenly, by accident, when it got mistaken for baking powder or talc, and there were also those who were poisoned slowly and deliberately by relatives or servants who knew the symptoms were likely to be taken for disease or infection of the digestive system.

I thought of Jane’s friend, Anne Sharp, who lived well into the middle of the nineteenth century and would have read about the arsenic deaths in the newspapers. She would also have known about the Marsh Test. Developed in 1836, it enabled the analysis of human remains for the presence of the white powder. 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?

The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen is the product of all that I have learned and imagined in the three years since I came to live in Chawton. It’s a work of fiction inspired by facts and I hope that those who read it will be both intrigued and fascinated by a possibility which has been overlooked until now....

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