Did dangerous family secrets lead to the murder of Jane Austen?
Reduced circumstances forced Anne Sharp to become a governess to Fanny, the oldest daughter of one of Jane Austen’s brothers, Edward Austen and his wife, Elizabeth, of Godmersham. Here she met the visiting Jane, who became her dearest friend and confidante. Indeed, she was in love with Jane, who remained unaware of her feelings. Twenty-six years after Jane’s death, Anne decides to write a memoir revealing the secrets that she believes led a family member to poison Jane with arsenic. Was it Henry, Jane’s dearest brother? A married but childless man of great charm who often came to Godmersham, Henry delighted in playing with his brother’s children. Shockingly, both Jane and Anne came to suspect that Henry had been having a long-standing affair with Elizabeth, some of whose children may be his. When Anne unwisely spoke to Henry, he promptly discharged her, using her poor eyesight as an excuse, and during the years preceding Jane’s death, Anne saw her only sporadically. She was fortunate to find work as a companion to a wealthy woman who let her visit Jane, her mother and her sister Cassandra, whose straitened circumstances forced them to move often over the years until the sudden death of Elizabeth, when the wealthy Edward finally provided them with a home at Chawton. Over the years, Anne suspected Henry of having an affair with Mary, another of Jane’s sisters-in-law, who boasted little beauty and an uncertain temper. When a strand of Jane’s hair tests positive for arsenic, she is ready to set down her account of what may be a string of unproven murders.
Ashford (Strange Blood, 2007, etc.) cleverly weaves historical facts into a whodunit written in Austen’s style. Janeites may be enthralled or appalled, but they’ll agree that this literate page-turner is thought-provoking.