Friday, August 9, 2013

Lindsay Ashford Guest Blog - The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen (and GIVEAWAY)

I am very excited today to have author Lindsay Ashford on my blog to discuss her new novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen.  I just finished this wonderful novel last weekend - I will have my review posted next week.  Thank-you to Ms. Ashford for stopping by and for writing such a wonderful post about her inspiration for the novel.

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.’    

The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is a mystery but at the heart of the novel is the relationship between Anne Sharp and Jane Austen. It’s about the unbreakable bond that exists between best friends even when one of them no longer walks this earth. I hope that if you read it you will be both intrigued and fascinated by a possibility which has been overlooked until now.  

Sourcebooks has graciously offered a giveaway of one copy of The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen by Lindsay Ashford

If you would like to win this book please leave a comment about what most intrigues you about this book or this guestblog.

As part of your comment, you must include an email address. If I can't find a way to contact you I will draw another winner.

For an additional entry, blog about this giveaway or post it on your sidebar. Provide a link to this post in your comment.

I will be using (or a monte carlo simulation in excel) to pick the winners from the comments.

This contest is only open to US and Canadian residents (Sorry!).

No P.O. Boxes.

The deadline for entry is midnight on Friday August 23rd, 2013.

Please make sure to check the last week of August to see if you are a winner. I send emails to the winner, but lately I've been put in their "junk mail" folder instead of their inbox.

Good luck!             


  1. This captivating novel intrigues me greatly since it is historical, special and very unique. This book sounds captivating and very compelling. I was interested in learning about the author and her writing. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  2. What a fascinating puzzle about Jane Austen and her life. And to have a novel/mystery based on it. Would love to win this book.

  3. This post gave me a fascinating glimpse into the book dealing with a facet of Jane Austen's life. What a great giveaway. Thanks for this feature. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  4. This sounds like a fantastic read. I would love to read it.


  5. Thanks again, Laura, for your lovely comments about my book and thank you to everybody who has posted comments so far, for their very positive feedback.
    Lindsay Ashford

  6. Hi! This book sounds fascinating to me. I would love to read this it would give a different perspective of her and the time period. Thank you for a excellent giveaway! :)

  7. I'm most intrigued by the idea that Jane could actually have been murdered. Hope I'm fortunate enough to win. larksc[at]gmail[dot]com

  8. A mystery involving Jane Austen's death sounds like a book I would enjoy.

  9. WHaT!!?!!
    This is amazing! [intriguing thoughts, Lindsay!] and I commend you on your research and writing of this new thought direction of 'our' Jane!!
    You've entirely captivated my imagination and now longing to know how the story unfolds, process and outcome... Great creativity definitely worth adding to the Must Read List!! TY for the generous giveaway - plz include me.
    faithhopecherrytea [at gmail.] com

  10. Giveaway button and link to you has been posted on R sidebar at FHC...
    I've also emailed you with request regarding reposting this guest post of Ms Ashford's.. TY for checking for its arrival :)

  11. The subject matter sounds intriguing

    bn100candg at hotmail dot com

  12. I have this one on my wish list!

    lag110 at mchsi dot com

  13. Now, I'm fascinated! I wonder who would want to poison Miss Jane Austen? I, for one, will be reading the book to find out (and blogging about it, too)!

    Shawn, aka Goode2shews

  14. What a fascinating story and what if it is true! A definite must read to find out "who did it?". Have added this to pinterest. Thank you for the giveaway.

  15. Our new Goodreads' group, The Parlor (formerly of recently defunct A&E community) has selected Mysterious Death/Jane Austen as the group's launch title. You are cordially invited to join us in a rousing discussion of this tome. Read & discuss starts Mar. 18th so there's time to secure a copy and join us. We hope to see you there. Author: Left you a note on Goodreads. Thanks! Tina