The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 1

1805

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. Educated but impoverished. Well-born but bereft of family. 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 books. Like friends and relatives, they fell into two categories: there were the ones I’d hidden in my bed when the bailiffs came – old familiar volumes that smelled of our house in Maiden Lane – and there were the ones I was permitted to borrow from the Austens’ library. This held many favourites, expensively bound in calf or green morocco, with gilt edging and endpapers of crimson silk. Their pages brought back the voices of all those I had lost.

Jane arrived at Godmersham on a wet and windy day in the middle of June. I remember the first sight of her, still clad in mourning for her father, her eyes bright with tears as she greeted her brother. The hall was bustling with servants, eager to organise the newcomers, and I could tell from the way she held her head that she found it all rather strange and discomfiting. I saw, too, the way Elizabeth looked her up and down like a housewife buying a goose. Feathers rather too sparse and shabby-looking, I caught her thinking; not really fit for our table.

Elizabeth Austen had given me a similar look when I first came to Kent. She was heavily pregnant and surveyed me from her armchair, peering over the rim of a teacup that rested on her belly. Her face reminded me of a doll I had when I was a child, a doll with blue glass eyes and real hair whose cold, stiff hands used to poke my flesh when I hugged her.

‘Well, Sharp,’ she said, ‘I hope that you will live up to your name. Fanny is a good girl but she’s easily distracted. She needs to be watched not indulged. The boys have no need of you: they are being schooled at Winchester. You may be required to teach Lizzy and Marianne when they are older – if you last.’

By the summer of 1805 I had lasted a year and a half, during which time Elizabeth had given birth to a boy, fallen pregnant again and been brought to bed with her ninth child, a girl this time. I wondered if I would still be at Godmersham when this little creature was old enough to take lessons, and how many more babies would arrive in the meantime.

The day Jane came I was standing at the top of the stairs, high above the gilded columns and marble friezes, holding the older children at bay until the formalities were over. But Fanny, who was twelve and the leader of the pack, broke free and hurled herself at her aunt, knocking Jane’s black straw bonnet backwards. I remember fragments of laughter drifting up to me with the smell of wet grass and horses that had followed her in. She wrapped her arms around the child and hugged her like a saviour. I felt a stab of jealousy, for Fanny was more than just a pupil. She was the reason for my existence.

Fanny had become the closest thing to a daughter I could ever have imagined. I used to think about it often in those days, what it would be like to have a child of my own. Just one. Not a great brood, like Elizabeth’s, for I saw how it was for her, a clever woman turned idle by her own body. No wonder she was irritable with those who served her; no wonder she sometimes looked at me with spiteful eyes. Perhaps she wished that she had been born plain, like me. Perhaps she wished she had not married a devil-dodger’s son who loved ladies as long as they knew their place.

‘Who taught you to think, Miss Sharp?’ Those were the first words her husband spoke to me when I entered his house. I had been there a week without our paths crossing, which not unusual in a house of such grand proportions. I was coming into the hall by the door opposite the frieze of Artemis and the huntsmen; he was standing on the second tread of the staircase, which made him almost my height but not quite.

‘My father, sir,’ I replied, smiling at the courtesy he showed in addressing me. I thought he called me ‘Miss’ because he had known of me before I became his employee. But I was wrong about that. The prefix was used only to convey his displeasure.

‘Indeed? I cannot believe that your father was a follower of that Wollstonecraft woman, so I can only assume you are the disciple. I will not have you filling my daughter’s head with such errant nonsense!’ He was not looking at me as he said this. His eyes were on the window, through which Elizabeth could be seen walking with a gentleman whose identity was not yet known to me.

‘I am sorry if anything Fanny has repeated has caused offence to you,’ I began. He made no reply, still looking away from me. His face looked very red against the white wig. A little of the powder had fallen from it, riming one eyebrow like frost on grass. I was very afraid of offending him. His silence made me panic. What I said next was ill-judged; it came from my heart, not my head: ‘Am I wrong in trying to give her thinking powers, sir? I’m sure you would not wish her go out into the world as a tulip in a garden, to make a fine show but be good for nothing.’

‘Better a tulip than a trollop!’ He muttered it under his breath but loud enough for me to hear. I thought I was about to be sent packing.

He was halfway to the door when he turned and said: ‘All that I wish for Fanny is that she should have a sound head and a warm heart. Shakespeare, Fénelon and Fordyce’s Sermons: that is all she needs in the way of improving literature. They were good enough for my wife and they are good enough for my daughter.’

I was very careful after that, but I wanted more for Fanny than her father had in mind. While she was debarred from all the possibilities open to her brothers, I was determined she should be every bit as well-educated. If marriage and motherhood were the only parts she was to be allowed to play she must develop abilities that would exact respect. Ignorant as I was of the married state, I believed that although Edward loved his wife, he did not respect her. How could he, when she was reduced to a role that differed little from that of his cattle and pigs? I vowed that Fanny would grow up to be a very different sort of woman.

The fault in all of this was my own pride. I saw myself as Fanny’s champion and closest ally. I feared any challenger and that made me resentful of Jane when she first arrived at Godmersham. Fanny was impossible to teach in the days that followed her arrival. All her talk was of Aunt Jane. Clearly she worshipped this woman and I wanted to know why. I found myself watching Jane at every available opportunity.

I remember one afternoon, that first week of her stay, when I got a glimpse of what the child found so beguiling. I had taken Fanny and the older boys – who were home for the holidays – to spend their allotted hour in the company of their mother, who was entertaining Jane and the other Austen ladies in the salon. They made a strange group, Elizabeth so elegant and expensively dressed; Jane and Cassandra in the garb of a pair of old maids, even though they were no older than she; and their mother, Mrs Austen, who looked perfectly neat until she opened her mouth, from which several of her front teeth were missing.

Cassandra suggested they should play riddles. I was at the other end of the salon, trying to amuse the children with a game of spillikins. Forced inside early that day by the weather, they sat fidgeting, smelling of dogs and damp wool. When they got wind of what the grown-ups were doing they all wanted to join in.

Elizabeth raised a languid, jewelled hand to ruffle the head of George, her second boy, who had seized a pencil and paper. ‘This is much too hard for little heads! Go back to your game!’ With grumpy faces they did as they were bid, but listened all the same as the verses were read aloud.

Elizabeth was quite put out when George called the answer to her riddle while everyone else was still writing it down. Mrs Austen’s was more obscure but Jane managed to guess it after a few minutes’ thought. When it came to her turn she spoke the lines in a clear, strong voice:

‘Three letters form me while I’ve breath,

Though, newborn, I had four;

But if you e’er put me to death,

You must give me three more.’

After ten minutes of frowns and scribbling, no one could furnish an answer. Five minutes more and the children were tugging at her sleeves, begging her to reveal it. She beckoned Fanny to her and whispered in her ear. ‘Now,’ she said to the others, ‘go back over there and you will have a charade.’

A few seconds of Fanny crawling about on all fours crying Baa! brought them close to the answer. ‘No, not sheep, you simpletons!’ the child cried, ‘It’s ewe! E-w-e! A ewe is born a lamb and if you kill her she becomes mutton!’ Jumping to her feet, she said: ‘What a brain you have, Aunt Jane! I wish I could be like you!’

From where I sat I had a good view of Elizabeth’s face. Her eyes narrowed and she drew in her lips. Jealousy, I guessed. In that respect Elizabeth and I were very much alike. She did not like being outshone by her husband’s sister, while I wanted Fanny to admire my brain, not her aunt’s.

There was something else about Jane that drew my attention in those first few days. There was something very familiar in her appearance. I felt I had seen her somewhere before, even though I knew this was most unlikely, for I had never visited Bath, where she lived. It came to me all of a sudden in the salon as I watched her reading out her riddle. She was a female version of Henry Austen, the man I had seen walking in the garden with Elizabeth a few days after my arrival in Kent.

Henry always caused a flurry of excitement when he came to stay, since half the servants seemed to be in love with him. I overheard the scullery maid telling one of the scrubs that he was the handsomest of the Austen tribe. This I could not vouch for, as he was the only one of my employer’s brothers I had so far encountered. But I could see that he drew people, as the earth draws the moon.

He was only three years younger than Edward but he had the look of a man still in his twenties. Perhaps it was because he never sat still. He flitted between London and Godmersham like a butterfly, arriving at any hour of the day or night, staying for a week here, a fortnight there. It came as some surprise when Fanny told me that Uncle Henry had a wife.

He dealt with me in a very different manner from Edward and Elizabeth, beaming at me every time he poked his head into the schoolroom. I tried not to return his smiles, for he distracted Fanny from her lessons and she was never the easiest pupil to engage in study. But he was hard to resist.

‘What are we reading today, Miss Sharp?’ he would say, slipping behind me and leaning over my shoulder to peer at the text. I would feel the stout wooden chair back shudder slightly as his hands grasped it; a mingled scent of something – like an orange spiked with cloves – would drift from his clothes to my nose. He would read a passage aloud, his breath ruffling the lace on my cap. And then, swooping across the room to plant a kiss on Fanny’s head, he would disappear.

I liked Henry. Apart from anything else, he was the only adult in that great house who ever asked me how I did. What really won me over, though, was his affection for the children. Sometimes, in school holidays, when I had charge of all the older ones, he would ask if he could take them off to play. ‘It’s no trouble at all, Miss Sharp,’ he would say, holding my gaze with big, round eyes. ‘You would be doing me a great service, believe me. I get so tired of London life and all the false ways one encounters there. I find the company of children so refreshing, for they always say exactly what they mean.’

I had never seen a man so eager for the company of children. So intrigued was I that I asked Fanny if her uncle had any himself. ‘Oh, no,’ she replied. ‘Mama says Aunt Eliza is far too old for that.’

Now the curiosity Henry had aroused in me transferred itself to the willowy creature who might have been his twin. She shared not just his tall, slender figure but dark-lashed, intelligent eyes of the same hazel hue. Both had olive skin and curly chestnut hair that framed their faces. They looked so very different from Edward, who clung to the fading fashion for powdered wigs and had the ruddy complexion of a man who was happiest outdoors with a gun across his arm. I soon noticed, though, that while Jane looked like one brother, she had the air of neither. There was no trace of Henry’s ebullience about her and none of Edward’s easy confidence. From the snippets of family background Fanny came out with, I formed the impression that, like me, Jane found it difficult to be herself in a place where she was neither fish nor fowl.

‘Grandpapa Austen was a parson with grey whiskers that tickled,’ Fanny told me one day in an attempt to forestall a test on Latin verbs. ‘But he’s dead now, so Aunt Jane and Aunt Cass live with Grandmama to keep her company. Mama says they must because they don’t have husbands.’

I wanted to ask why they didn’t have husbands. I guessed that Jane was in her late twenties, like me, and her sister a little older. Their spinsters’ caps suggested that they had given up looking. And yet I would see Jane each morning, creeping away from the house, as if for an assignation. I could never sleep beyond sunrise and as I sat reading at my window 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 each morning, 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.

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