Thank you, Laura, for inviting me to be a guest author on your blog and giving me the opportunity to explain how a lock of hair belonging to Jane Austen set me on the trail of a two-hundred-year-old mystery.
I’ve been writing books for a while now, but until 2007 I was known for what they call in the publishing industry ‘gritty crime novels’ – stories set in modern cities with a forensic psychologist as the main character. When my fiancé was offered a new job in the village where Austen lived it seemed the perfect place in which to write. We got to live in an old cottage in the grounds of the Elizabethan manor house that was once home to Jane’s brother, Edward. I was able to use the historic library as a place to write and I planned to get started on another contemporary crime novel. But within a few weeks I’d abandoned the new book. Instead my head was stuck in old volumes of the family letters. One morning a sentence Jane penned just a few months before she died jumped out at me. Describing the weeks of illness she had recently endured, she wrote: ‘I am considerably better now and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour…’
The phrase triggered something in my memory. As a writer of crime fiction I’ve researched forensic techniques, including the detection of poisons. What Jane had described in her letter sounded very much like the symptoms of arsenic poisoning, which causes a characteristic dark and light spotting of the skin when taken in small doses over a long period of time.
No one has ever been able to offer a satisfactory explanation of why Austen died at the tragically early age of 41. Addison’s disease, tuberculosis and lymphoma have all been suggested but none gives the black and white skin discolouration she described.
I dismissed the poisoning theory as too wild to contemplate and thought no more about it until a few months later, when the library had a visitor from New York. She was an ardent Austen fan and we got chatting. She asked if I had seen the lock of Jane’s hair – cut off after her death as a keepsake - on display at the cottage down the road. Then she related the story of 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 can’t remember what I said in reply. My mind was racing. Arsenic in Jane’s hair meant she had ingested the 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?
Jane died in 1817 and a few years later 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 by accident if it got mistaken for baking powder and there were also those who were poisoned slowly and deliberately by relatives or servants who knew the symptoms could easily be mistaken for those of bowel cancer or gastroenteritis.
I thought of Jane’s best friend, Anne Sharp, to whom the author wrote one of her last letters. Anne lived until 1853 would have read about the wave of poisoning cases 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? 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…
When I first met Jane her life, like mine, was an indecipherable work in progress. I had no notion, then, of what she was to become. But in the space of a few weeks she rubbed away the words other hands had scrawled beneath my name and inked me in; made me bitter, passionate, elated, frightened…all the things that make a person jump off the page.
Godmersham was where I lived in those days, although I never would have called it home, for I belonged neither above stairs nor below. I was one of that strange tribe of half-breeds, a governess. To the servants my speech and manners made me a spy who was not to be trusted. To Edward and Elizabeth Austen I was just another household expense. My only true companions were my books.
Until Jane came.
I would see her each morning, creeping away from the house as if for an assignation. I would catch sight of her heading for the little Greek temple that sat on a hill high above the river that snaked through the parkland. She would be there for an hour or two, rising long before her mother and sister were up and about. I never saw anyone else take that path at that time, but there were ways through the woods for those familiar with the estate. As one who missed the solace of family, it never occurred to me that she might be going there to escape that grand house and all those within it.’
Sourcebooks has graciously offered a giveaway of one copy of The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen by Lindsay Ashford
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