Review: The Mysterious Death Of Jane Austen (E1/5), Radio 4, Monday 24th February

28_jane_austen_0Tucked away in the final quarter of Women’s Hour this morning (Monday 24th February) was the first 15-minute episode of a five-part drama that supposed something that, if ever proven correct, would send shockwaves through the literary and cultural worlds – that one of Britain’s favourite and most enduring novelists, Jane Austen, died at the hands of a murderer. That’s the conceit that best-selling crime writer Lindsay Ashford based her 2012 novel, The Mysterious Death Of Jane Austen, on. Now it’s been made into a radio drama, airing out every morning this week on Radio 4.

Jane Austen and crime have proved an irresistible combination ever since the estimable PD James cast one of Austen’s characters – Elizabeth Bennet – at the centre of a fictional murder mystery in Death Comes To Pemberley. Meanwhile, the equally estimable Val McDermid is currently adding ‘a frisson of fear’ to a reworking of Austen’s Northanger Abbey. But we’re talking about Austen’s characters here – Ashford is actually talking about the revered author herself being the victim of murder most horrid.

The fact is we still don’t know huge amounts about Jane Austen, and a lot less about her early death in 1817 at the age of 41. She kept her private life private, with only a handful of correspondences giving us a clue about her life and personality. The popular theory is that she died from the hormone-destroying Addison’s disease, while more recent guesses include TB.

What wasn’t guessed was murder, but Ashford – in her role as a story teller – came up with the idea that Austen was poisoned by arsenic. The first scene of this radio play introduces Anne Sharp (voiced by Ruth Gemmell), a former governess to the Austen family and friend of Jane, 26 years after Austen’s death. She takes a lock of Austen’s hair, collected from a frolic in the countryside, to a 19th century scientist, who tests the hair and concludes that it contains arsenic.

As the story unfolds we hear that the friendship between Anne and Jane (Elaine Cassidy) is touching and intimate, revealing them to be forward thinking women in a time where ‘that sort of behaviour’ is not to be encourage. The Austen house full is of starchy types who whisper in corners and, by the sound of things, have some secrets to hide. Perhaps even the biggest secret of all.

I’m not a fan of the Austen oeuvre – all massive, opulent houses; dowagers looking to palm off their daughters to the highest bidder; and shrill, giggling naivety at every social occasion – but Ashford’s story intrigued me. Yes, it’s purely a work of fiction, but suddenly Jane Austen’s world has become linked to crime in ways we’re guessing she could have never imagined. A nice little mid-morning morsel.

The Mysterious Death Of Jane Austen: Weekdays, 10.45am, Radio 4

 

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