The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 27

Jane shared my new home in Liverpool in a way that would never have been possible in life. I spoke to her every day, out loud when I was in private or in my head when there were other people about. Sometimes I would consult her about the running of the school or my concern for one of the pupils; another day I might tell her how the Mersey looked as it flowed past my window to the sea. She became a constant presence in my life and although my evenings were often spent alone I never felt lonely, for I had her books and her letters all about me.

It wasn’t long before I had her face to look upon as well. True to her word, Cass copied the pastel drawing and sent it to me, along with first editions of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. In the days that followed it was as if Jane was sitting beside me, reading the words herself. I have to confess that of all her books, Persuasion is my favourite, because its voice is the voice of the Jane I got to know at Godmersham; the Jane who knew what it felt like to suffer for love but could summon delight from the most hopeless of circumstances. Persuasion felt like her gift to me – a promise of fulfilment at last, made all the more precious by a heroine named Anne.

I was invited to stay at Chawton many times over the next few years. Being with Cassandra and Mrs Austen fed the flame in my heart. And I would catch glimpses of Jane in the faces of Anna’s children. Julia had her eyes; Jemima had her sharp tongue and little George once told me very solemnly that he could not decide what he loved best: reading or dancing.

In all those years it never occurred to me that Jane’s death had been anything other than the tragic result of some unidentifiable illness. It was not until 1827 – a few months before the tenth anniversary of her passing – that I came across something that led me to question that assumption.

In the last week of January I received the sad news that Mrs Austen had breathed her last on the eighteenth day of that month, at the ripe old age of eighty-seven. Like many of those who claim a weak constitution, Jane’s mother had outlived most of her contemporaries and several of her younger relatives. One of the last things she ever said to me, as I bid her farewell the previous summer, was: ‘I think God has forgotten me.’

It was Anna who wrote to tell me of her passing. ‘The vigour of her constitution even at her great age made the battle between life and death severe,’ she wrote, ‘but the last hours were tranquil and free from pain, and when it was over the very wrinkles seemed smoothed out of her face and the beauty of youth restored to it – her nurses were Aunt Cassandra, Martha Lloyd, and the two maids, who took their full share and proved themselves most faithful and kind.’

Two days after Anna’s letter arrived there was a notice in the Times. It was short and to the point, noting that she was the mother of the late novelist, Miss Jane Austen, and had been buried in the graveyard of St Nicholas in the village where she had spent the latter years of her life. As I turned the page I was talking to Jane, asking her how she felt about her mother’s grave being so far away from her own. I was staring at the newspaper without seeing the print but as my eyes came back into focus they alighted on an extraordinary headline: ‘Woman poisons husband and two children.’

It was a report of the trial of a person from the north of England who had been accused of murdering her spouse and stepchildren for the insurance money their deaths would bring her. Her crimes had apparently gone undiscovered until she attempted the same method of disposing of her second husband, whose doctor spotted the tell-tale symptoms of poisoning. I stopped short when I read what the doctor had said in court: ‘The patient’s skin displayed a distinctive discoloration. It was blotched black and white, which is a clear indication of the ingestion of arsenic.’

Jane’s last letter leapt into my mind. ‘My face is black and white and every wrong colour…’ Those were her exact words. My heart lurched. Was Jane poisoned? I searched my memory for everything I knew about arsenic. Like most people, I have some in my own kitchen cupboard, used whenever rats are spotted rooting around in the alley at the side of the school. Had there been some accident? Had someone mistaken it for an ingredient that was mixed into something Jane ate?

I remembered the episode with the eye wash, described to me by Jane herself, when her mother had mistaken ground hen’s dung for pepper and put it in an oyster pie. But that had been a joke, hadn’t it? And besides, if arsenic had got into the food at Chawton Cottage, other members of the family would have fallen ill too.

I cast about for another explanation. Arsenic was often prescribed by doctors. It was used to treat all manner of ailments. Had she been given too large a dose? The other possibility was too wild an idea to contemplate: that someone had deliberately poisoned her. I dismissed it immediately. ‘Who in the world,’ I murmured, ‘would want to murder such a creature as you?’

I went back to the newspaper article, searching for any small detail that would dispel the thoughts taking shape in my mind. But what I saw only increased my disquiet. There was a paragraph about a former neighbour of the accused woman who had been called to give evidence. She reported that the stepchildren and first husband had all ‘gone a funny colour in the face’ in the weeks leading up to their demise. My heart thumped so hard I thought it would burst out of my ribs. Was it wrong to make a connection between this case and Jane’s death? Was I being as fanciful as Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey? I blinked at the words on the page before me. No, you are not. There it is in black and white. Black and white! Jane’s voice was as clear and strong as it had been in life.

Over the next few weeks I buried myself in medical books. First of all I wanted to know if anything else could have caused the facial discoloration. I found diseases that turned the skin yellow, red or blue, but nothing that gave the patchy black and white effect she had described.

Then I read everything I could find about arsenic. The more I learned, the more I was convinced that Jane’s illness was not an illness at all, but the result of her system being poisoned. She had reported stomach problems; sickness; weakness in the limbs: all were typical of chronic exposure to arsenic. I read of people who had been accidentally poisoned by arsenic in the wallpaper of their homes, or by working in factories that manufactured paint and dyes for cloth, both of which processes involved handling the deadly compound. But every innocent, accidental explanation I sought brought me back to the fact that those who lived with her had not been similarly afflicted. Cassandra and Martha were still alive and well; so were the two servants, Jenny Butter and Hannah Pegg. Even Mrs Austen had survived her daughter by nearly a decade and had, in Anna’s words, looked quite beautiful in death.

I read that there were two ways in which people could die from ingesting arsenic. If small amounts were taken over a long period of time, the victim would not die at once but would develop symptoms which mimic those of cancer of the stomach or the bowel. If the amount is then increased by even a little, the body, already so weak, will experience major organ failure, with death occurring quickly after. The second type of death results from ingesting a single large dose of the compound. In this instance, the person suffers a sudden, violent death.

By now my head was tumbling with questions. The chief of these was the matter of Jane’s medical treatment. Had she been given arsenic as a cure? If so, her symptoms could be attributed to accidental overdose or malpractice on the part of the doctor. This was not the sort of question that could be asked in a letter to Cassandra. It would have to be done with great subtlety on my next visit to Chawton. But when would that be? I could hardly invite myself, especially with Cassandra in mourning for her mother.

In a fever of uncertainty, I hit upon a plan. I wrote to Martha Lloyd with a request for advice, pretending that one of the girls in my charge was suffering from a condition that had so far defied diagnosis, but reminded me of the symptoms Jane had described to me in her letters. I told Martha that the doctor was inclined to administer arsenic, but I was not sure that this was the right course of action. Did Martha know if Jane was given such treatment, I asked, and what was her opinion of it?

I awaited her reply with a mixture of trepidation and guilt. I was desperate for the answer but it felt wrong to manipulate a good woman like Martha Lloyd in this way. To my shame the letter arrived with a package. Martha had taken the trouble to prepare a special remedy for the non-existent sick girl, along with detailed instructions as to its use. As for the arsenic, she dismissed it in a single sentence. She herself had advised Jane against its use, for in her opinion it was a harsh remedy with many dangerous side effects.

I had no doubt that Jane would have heeded her advice, for although she often teased Martha about her potions, she had recommended them to me on more than one occasion. All the occupants of Chawton Cottage regarded a visit to the doctor as a last resort and Martha was the one they trusted most when illness struck. So if Jane had not taken arsenic as a medicine, where had it come from? Was there one thing she habitually ate or drank that no one else in the household ever touched? Was it possible that whatever this was could have become contaminated with the poison? It seemed highly unlikely. But that left only one other conclusion: that somebody had deliberately administered the arsenic because they wanted her dead.

I had dismissed this idea at the outset but now I was not so sure. I was not privy to everything that went on in her life: she was apt to offend some people with her sharp remarks. Had she gone too far? Upset one of the servants, perhaps, at the cottage or the Great House? For if it was deliberate, the perpetrator would have to have been close enough to have the opportunity, over a period of many months, to bring about their evil scheme.

As the school year drew to a close I became quite desperate to get to Chawton. Cassandra’s letters became brighter and more optimistic as another Christmas approached, but contained no invitation to visit. In the end it was Martha Lloyd who came to my aid once again. She wrote to tell me the amazing and wonderful news that at the age of sixty-three she was to become a bride. Her fiancé was none other than Jane’s brother Frank, the sea captain, whose wife had recently died leaving him with six children still at home. She had agreed to take charge of his house and family in Portsmouth and would soon be leaving the cottage at Chawton. Would I be able to manage a trip to Hampshire, she asked, to attend the wedding?

Within an hour of receiving her letter my reply was written. ‘You will help me, Jane, won’t you?’ I whispered as I sealed it up.

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