The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen



6 July 1843

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 or 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.

To the ancients it was a potent, magical thing. The Bible calls it the source of a man’s strength and a woman’s allure. How strange that it should have this new power; this ability to bear witness after death. Science tells us it is dead matter, stripped of life long before the body it adorns.

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.

Now that the deed is done I fear what I have unleashed. This is what he wrote to me yesterday:

Thank you for entrusting the letter from the late Miss J.A. to my keeping, along with the lock of her hair bequeathed to you. You are quite correct in your belief that medical science now enables the examination of such as has not perished of a corpse with regard to the possibility of foul play.

Having applied the test recently devised by Mister James Marsh, I have been able to subject the aforementioned sample to analysis at this hospital. The result obtained is both unequivocal and disturbing: the lady, at the time of her demise, had quantities of arsenic in her person more than fifteen times that observed in the body’s natural state.

You have told me that the persons with whom she dwelt, namely her sister, her mother, a family friend and two servants, all survived her by a decade or more. I must conclude, therefore, that the source of the poison was not any thing common to the household, such as corruption of the water supply. Nor could any remedy the lady received – if indeed arsenic was administered – account for the great quantity present in her hair. It may be conjectured, then, that Miss J. A. was intentionally poisoned.

This being the case, I need hardly tell you that bringing the perpetrator of such calumny to justice, after a lapse of some six-and-twenty years, would be next to impossible. If, however, you are willing to explain the exact nature of your suspicions to me, I will gladly offer what assistance I can.

I remain your humble servant, Doctor Zechariah Sillar

It is a source of some relief to me to know that the disquiet I have felt these many years is not without foundation, though I burn with rage to see it written there as scientific fact. To him her death is nothing more than a curiosity; his interest is piqued and he offers his assistance. I have not even hinted that the guilt lies with someone still living.

Where would I begin to explain it all? Elizabeth, surely, is the first link in the chain. But how would he see the connection unless he acquainted himself with the family and the secrets at its heart? How could he understand my misgivings without knowing her as I knew her? To weigh it up he would have to see it all.

But it was not meant for other eyes. I am well aware of the danger of opening this Pandora’s Box. People have called me fanciful. Indeed, I have questioned my own judgment. But the possibility that I might be right makes me more inclined to take this man into my confidence. He has the twin virtues of learning and discretion, and knows nothing of the family. If it is to be seen, there is no one I know who is more suitable than him. The question remains, is it the right thing to do?

3 January 1827

Jane’s nephew wrote to me yesterday. He asks me to contribute to a memoir he wishes to compile. I will have to tell him that I cannot – and furnish him with some plausible excuse.

His letter has unsettled me. Quite apart from the scandal a truthful account would create, the way the request was framed infuriates me. I have thrown the thing away now but the words he used still parrot away inside my head: ‘Although my aunt’s life was completely uneventful, I feel that those who admire her books will be interested in any little details of her tastes, her hobbies, etcetera, that you might care to pass on.’

Completely uneventful. How can anybody’s life be described as completely uneventful? He wishes, I think, to enfeeble her; to present her to the world as a docile creature whose teeth and claws have been pulled. The respectable Miss Austen; the quiet, pious Miss Austen; the spinster aunt whose only pleasures apart from her writing were needlework and the pianoforte. Meek, ladylike and bloodless. How she would have hated such an epitaph.

I suppose he believes that I would relish the task of serving her up to the public like a plate of sweetmeats. I hope he lives long enough to understand that one does not have to be young or married to be racked by love and guilt and envy. How affronted he would be if I revealed exactly how I felt about his aunt.

His letter has had quite a different result from that which he intended. I have decided to make my own record of all that passed between us; a memoir that will never be seen by him or any other member of the family. I will write it for myself, to keep her close, and as a way of releasing what eats away at me. When I am dead Rebecca will find it amongst my papers and she can decide whether to read it or toss it on the fire. My feelings, then, will no longer matter.