The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 20

With much regret I left Jane the next day, for she was to take charge of Edward and Elizabeth’s older boys, who were away at school in Winchester when their mother died. Her next letter told me of her very inventive ways of attempting to keep their spirits up at such a dreadful time. One afternoon, she reported, she had taken them up the river Itchen in a boat. ‘Both boys rowed a great part of the way,’ she wrote, ‘and their questions and remarks were very amusing: George’s enquiries were endless and his eagerness in everything reminds me often of his Uncle Henry.’ She had underlined the last four words.

What was I to think of this? After two years of total silence on the subject she clearly wished to resurrect it. There was no more about Henry in that letter, though, for she launched straight into a piece of news that was to bestow boundless benefits. It seemed that Edward had suddenly decided to give his mother and sisters a permanent home on his estate in Hampshire. They were to move into the old bailiff’s cottage in the village of Chawton the following summer. This intelligence gave me even greater cause for wonder than her comment about young George. For Jane and her female relatives had been moved from pillar to post for the better part of a decade, forced to accept smaller and poorer lodgings with each advancing year. Why had Edward waited until now to give them a home of their own? I had a feeling that Elizabeth had stopped him; that her dislike of Jane had led her to talk Edward out of doing what he could so easily have done when their father died. It seemed both petty and mean but I could think of no other explanation for this act of generosity coming so swiftly after her death.

To say that Jane was happy is an understatement. The pretty house with its view of all the comings and goings at the coaching inn across the street was the perfect place for her: the place in which she truly blossomed as a writer. Nothing had been said of the novels Henry had hinted at and I had begun to wonder if he had lied to me that day at the White Hart, but within two years of the move a signed copy of her first published book, Sense and Sensibility, arrived at the Bourne, much to the excitement of Mrs Raike and Rebecca.

I remember unwrapping it and running my fingers over the smooth skin of its spine; breathing in the aroma of new leather and printer’s ink. It triggered a strange mix of emotions. There was the elation at Jane’s achievement and a thrilling sense of anticipation of what the pages held. But there was also a pang of envy, for this book was a stark reminder of my own buried dreams.

Determined to banish such an unworthy sentiment, I plunged into the world of the Dashwoods. How I smiled when I encountered the character called Fanny, for she behaved in a way that reminded me very much of Martha Lloyd’s description of her sister: Fanny Dashwood’s meanness over the china at Norland mirrored what had happened when Jane and Cass had to quit the rectory at Steventon. This, I thought, is Jane’s revenge on Mary.

We celebrated in great style when I visited Chawton that year, with several bottles of Martha’s elderberry wine. I did not have the bittersweet pleasure of sharing Jane’s bed, as she and Cassandra occupied the same room. I was put in Martha’s room, as she was away from home, and we spent the better part of each night in there. During the early part of the evening we would read Jane’s book aloud to each other or discuss the next one to be published. She confirmed what Henry had already let out: that she had written three novels before she turned thirty. The third one had been accepted for publication with a small advance paid, but four years on had still not appeared in print. Weary of waiting, she had revised her first novel and sent it to another publisher. This, I assumed, was the client Henry had told me about.

Jane was just beginning to write Mansfield Park when tragedy struck her family again. This time it was her cousin Eliza. The death was painful and lingering. She was thought to be suffering from the same condition that killed her mother, but the doctors could not be certain. Jane was with her when she died. She sent me a long letter from Henry’s London home.

‘Eliza has died after a long and terrible illness,’ she wrote. ‘Henry long knew she must die and it was indeed a release at last.’ She described the great sorrow of Madame Bigeon and her daughter, who had become like family to Eliza. But of Henry she said: ‘His mind is not a mind for affliction. He is too busy, too active, too sanguine. Sincerely as he was attached to poor Eliza he was always so used to being away from her that her loss is not felt as that of many a beloved wife might be.’

What a sad epitaph for the vivacious dark-eyed beauty who had dazzled the salons of Paris and London. What would Henry do now? He was forty-two years old and free to marry again – unless, of course, he chose to pursue another married woman. It occurred to me that for Henry, forbidden fruit was very likely the sweetest. Those long years of intrigue with Elizabeth must have left their mark. Such a man would no doubt be partial to the thrill of subterfuge.

When Jane sent me Mansfield Park I was quite amazed by her boldness. Henry and Mary Crawford were the very essence of Henry Austen and his late wife. The character of Henry Crawford, with his good looks and charming, devious ways, was unmistakable, as was the lively, dark-eyed Mary, who was so like Eliza that she even played the harp. Was this how Jane had perceived the Henry Austens’ marriage, I wondered? Something more akin to a brother and sister, both free to pursue others while residing under the same roof?

I could not help spotting another familiar character on the pages of the new book: Maria Bertram put me very much in mind of Elizabeth Austen. She was the beautiful, self-regarding daughter of a baronet and Jane had even gone as far as to give her a surname that began with the same initial as Elizabeth’s maiden name. I thought I perceived some further, more subtle trickery in the use of two names so very similar – Maria and Mary – which echoed Henry Austen’s involvement with two women who bore the same Christian name.

I have mentioned before that I believe Mansfield Park was a channel for Jane’s suppressed rage at her brother’s behaviour. Watching her cousin die could only have inflamed her anger, and yet she could not hate Henry; on the contrary, she found it impossible not to go on loving him as she had always loved him. And so she meted out imaginary justice on the pages of her novel. Let Henry Crawford be exposed as the wicked seducer of a married woman; let Maria Bertram be cast out from respectable society for betraying her husband. For in fiction the righteous must triumph and sinners always get their just deserts.

Jane’s letters reported that the real Henry continued to live a gilded life, although there were some who proved impervious to his charm. A few weeks into his widowhood he went to see Warren Hastings. It seemed that the extravagant lifestyle led by Henry and his wife had left him in a precarious state. Jane wrote that he had already tried – and failed – to claim back the lands that had once belonged to Eliza’s late husband, the Comte de Feullide. Now his only hope was to discover whether Mr Hastings had made a will in Eliza’s favour and, that being the case, whether the money would revert to him on the old man’s death.

It seemed that Henry had used Jane’s books as a pretext for the visit, for she reported her delight at the comments she received about Pride and Prejudice.

‘Henry has told Mr Hastings who wrote it, even though it was supposed to be a secret,’ she wrote, ‘but I am quite delighted with what such a man writes about it. His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me.’ The next paragraph made it clear that Henry’s thinly disguised strategy had failed: ‘Mr Hastings never hinted at Eliza in the smallest degree.’ The underlining spoke volumes. Apparently, Warren Hastings was not going to acknowledge Eliza as his natural daughter, which meant there was unlikely to be any will in her favour. Henry’s hopes of the golden goose were come to nought.

Remembering the questions the old gentleman had asked as we danced in Bath, I wondered if he had since gleaned some intelligence that had fixed his opinion of Henry. Had Warren Hastings read Mansfield Park? No one acquainted with Henry and Eliza could fail to recognise them in the personages of Henry and Mary Crawford. Had Jane’s book revealed more of Henry Austen than Mr Hastings had been able to stomach? If Eliza really was his daughter, it was not difficult to imagine how such a revelation would make him feel – especially if his money had made Henry the gentleman-about-town he could never otherwise have been.

As Jane’s star climbed ever higher, Henry’s was about to fall from the firmament. The autumn of eighteen-fifteen was Henry’s final season as a man of wealth and distinction. It was also the last time I saw my dearest Jane alive.

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