The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Chapter 2

At the end of the first week of her holiday I was sent to seek Jane out. She had promised to take Fanny on a gypsy picnic but had apparently forgotten all about it. As I searched the downstairs rooms I felt a little knot of anger tighten in my stomach. Fanny was a loving, trusting child and this was her favourite aunt. How could Jane display such casual disregard for her feelings? Did she not understand how disappointed Fanny would be?

I found her all alone in the library with a pen in her hand. Writing letters, I supposed. At the sound of my coming she seemed to jump, her ink-stained fingers flying to the paper. Seeing my face she bit her lip and glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece.

‘Goodness! Is it that time already? I’m so sorry – Fanny must be wondering where on earth I’ve got to.’ If a horse had trampled on her best hat she couldn’t have looked more aggrieved. You were quite wrong about her, weren’t you? I thought. She loves her niece just as much as Henry does. She shot out of her chair, her elbow catching a book that had lain open on the table beside her. It slid across the polished wood and fell to the floor with a thud at my feet. As I bent to pick it up I recognised the title on the spine. It was a volume of one of Frances Burney’s novels.

‘Do…do you like Camilla?’ I think I sounded as flustered as she looked.

‘Have you read it?’ The shoulders lifted, the chin tilted. I saw a spark of interest in those hazel eyes.

I nodded. ‘It was the first book I took from the library.’

‘And have you read Evelina?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I have all three volumes, though they’re falling apart from having been read so many times.’ Evelina was one of the books I had concealed when everything else was seized. It was my comforter in the days after my father’s death and no matter what else I happened to be reading at Godmersham, it was always on my bedside table. Like me, its heroine yearned for the family she had lost. I didn’t tell Jane this, of course, but her face spoke her approval. She asked what other books I liked and we became so lost in our chatter that by the time we reached the schoolroom I had quite forgotten the reason for taking her there. Then Jane asked me if I would accompany her on the picnic. I hesitated a moment before replying, afraid of being relegated to second fiddle.

‘Oh, please come!’ Fanny grabbed my arm and squeezed it. The worm of jealousy went back into its hole.

The weather had turned hot and fine. Fanny’s cousin Anna had come to join the family party at Godmersham and the girls had planned this outing together. We took the path that ran past the ice house and alongside the orchard, where apples hung small and green from the branches that overhung the wall. We crossed the low stone bridge over the river and skirted the Greek temple, where Fanny and Anna darted off to chase each other round the columns and shout inside the cool, dark walls to hear the echo.

‘I come here in the mornings sometimes.’ Jane followed the girls with her eyes. ‘It’s hard to concentrate, sometimes, isn’t it, in a house of that size? Always something going on; people coming in and out.’

I nodded, wondering if Camilla had been her companion on these early morning pilgrimages. I never imagined that someone might come to a place like this to write.

‘It’s strange, hearing their voices,’ she went on. ‘Usually I have only blackbirds and thrushes for company.’

A squeal of laughter from Fanny drowned out Jane’s next few words. The girls were at that strange age when they behaved like children one minute and young women the next. Anna was just a few months younger than her cousin. She was the daughter of the eldest Austen brother, James, but had come without the rest of her family. She was a pretty little thing and had won me over the day she arrived by asking if she could borrow one of my best-loved children’s books, The Governess. After a few minutes of running about the echoes of the girls’ voices faded and died. All was silent within the temple.

‘I suppose they’re hiding.’ Jane rolled her eyes. ‘I’d better go and smoke them out.’ As she disappeared into the gloom I wandered around the side of the temple where a thicket of brambles snagged the carved stones like clawed fingers.

‘Do you really hate her?’ It was Fanny’s voice. They were hiding behind one of the columns.

‘I wish she was dead!’ Anna hissed back.

‘Well, she might die,’ Fanny whispered. ‘It might kill her.’

‘Oh, there you are!’ Jane emerged from the shadows, her hands behind her back. ‘What are you plotting?’

‘Nothing, Aunt Jane!’ Fanny stepped out into the sunlight, Anna behind her.

‘Really?’ She searched their faces. ‘Do you know what the gypsies do to bad children?’ They shook their heads. She whipped out two clenched fists. ‘They put toads down their necks!’ The girls screamed as she chased them, all three landing in a helpless heap at the bottom of the steps. They couldn’t see me watching them, for the brambles were between us. Jane had not caught the sinister nature of the girls’ conversation; of that I was certain. I wondered who it was that Anna hated so much.

When they had picked themselves up we headed for a wilderness on the other side of the hill. Baskets of bread and cheese and elderflower water had been packed up for the girls, who were happy to be left to set up their gypsy camp while Jane and I sat a little way off in the cool green dome of a weeping willow.

‘Anna looks happier than I’ve seen her for a long time,’ Jane said, pulling her gown out from under her knees and spreading it over the blanket. ‘I think Godmersham is doing her good. But tell me, Miss Sharp, do you like it here?’

She must have seen the confusion her question caused me. How could I answer honestly? She was my employer’s sister. I couldn’t tell her how I felt, caught between the servants and the family like a sea creature stranded by the tide. I had food and a bed and the company of children and yes, of course, I was grateful: how could I forget what it felt like to stare destitution in the face? But there was a creeping sense of emptiness every night when I shut my door. I ached for something more; something I couldn’t even name. To allow such a thought felt disloyal and peevish. To speak it aloud was out of the question.

‘I’m sorry; it was impertinent of me to ask.’ She took a bowl of strawberries from her basket and offered it to me. ‘It’s just that Fanny hasn’t been very lucky with her governesses: the last one was dismissed after a month because she had not a word of French, and the one before that ran away with the head horseman.’

‘Well, I don’t think that I shall fail her for either of those reasons,’ I smiled.

‘She likes you very well, so I hope you’ll stay.’ She bit into a strawberry and scrutinised the heart-shaped half left in her grasp as if she was inspecting it for grubs. ‘What are you reading at the moment?’ she asked, without looking up.

‘Charlotte Lennox,’ I replied. ‘The Female Quixote.’

She smiled at the strawberry. ‘That is one of my favourites. What do you think of Arabella?’

I hesitated for a moment. I had already formed an opinion of the heroine but I was afraid it might offend. ‘I find her fascinating; complex, I suppose. Some would regard her as a silly girl who is overly influenced by French romances. But I see her as someone in search of an identity; a young woman with an artistic nature trying to express herself in a world governed by men.’

She swallowed the morsel of fruit, licking her thumb where the juice had run down it. ‘What was the book you read last? Before Lennox, I mean.’

I felt my colour rising and I looked away.

‘Was it Madame de Staël? Or Fielding, perhaps?’

I stared at the ground. If I told her she might think me immodest and unworthy of her company.

‘I do hope that you have read Tom Jones,’ she said, ‘for I think it is absolutely necessary to read books in which the world is promiscuously described in order to appreciate what is truly better. If I were Edward, I would not wish to entrust Fanny to a governess whose knowledge of humanity was restricted to Fordyce’s Sermons.’

I glanced up at arched brows and lips pressed tight with mirth. Oh, I thought, he lectures his sisters as he has lectured me. I shot her a look of happy gratitude. We were co-conspirators.

She leaned forward and pulled something out from beneath the cloth that had covered the strawberries. It was a handwritten copy of Hannah Cowley’s play, Which is the Man? She asked me if I had ever seen it performed. I had, but some years earlier, when my parents were still living. She asked me how I had liked it. ‘Oh,’ I said, shaking my head, ‘I liked it so well that I tried to write something of the same kind. I gave it up pretty soon, of course, as it was too terrible to merit any sort of ending.’

She looked at me then with an expression so strange I pulled back a little. It was an intense face, but smiling, like a child who has just worked out the answer to a most perplexing puzzle. ‘May I read it?’ she asked.

‘Read it?’ I laughed. ‘The only thing it was fit for was lighting the fire.’

‘Well, in that case, Miss Sharp,’ she said, wagging her finger, ‘you must help me to write another.’

In the days that followed I discovered that Jane had a mischievous spirit from which no one – be they pauper, parson or prince – was spared. She had a stock of characters in her head whose words and manners she had memorised so perfectly that she could trot them out at will. When pressed, she would admit to having met these people at a ball or some other social gathering. ‘Oh, the Miss Ds?’ she would nod, tapping the side of her nose, ‘Yes, I was introduced to them at the Assembly Rooms in Bath.’ A pause would be followed by a wink. ‘I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow.’ And then: ‘You wish to know about Mrs. B? Well, she appeared at a dance in November exactly as she had done the previous September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband and fat neck…’

Working with her on the script it was impossible not to envy the way she conjured humour from ordinary, everyday things. It made me cringe anew at the thought of my own abandoned manuscript. I had lied about burning it. It lay in the bottom of my trunk like a broken necklace. I could not bring myself to throw it away but neither could I face trying to repair it. It was different, writing with Jane: somehow lines came to me when she was there. What started out as envy turned into admiration and inspiration. I knew that my pen was guided by her brain but somehow it ceased to matter. I reveled in the pure pleasure of creating something others would admire.

Before we had even finished the writing of Pride Punished or Innocence Rewarded, Jane had Fanny, Anna, her mother and Cassandra learning the lines. Elizabeth declined the invitation to take part. I was not told the reason why. I wondered if she disapproved of my involvement, of this blurring of the boundaries between staff and family.

If that was her opinion, other members of the family did not appear to share it. One day, when Mrs Austen was reading a page of the script that I had given her, she looked me up and down and said: ‘Well, Miss Sharp, I knew from the minute I saw you that you had a good brain, and I declare that I was not mistaken.’ When I begged to know what had led her to this swift assessment of my mental powers, she replied: ‘Why, your nose, of course! It is fine and large, and as I always say, “the bigger the nose the quicker the brain!”’ I was not quite sure how to take this strange compliment, but I took comfort from the observation that she herself had a very prominent, rather aristocratic nose. ‘Now Elizabeth, you see, has no nose at all,’ she went on, ‘but of course, she has many other fine qualities. She is a prodigious breeder, which is vastly pleasing for my son.’ I began to see where Jane’s keen eye for the character and the foibles of others came from.

‘Really, Mama!’ Cassandra, who was standing nearby, had overheard this last remark. ‘You make her sound no better than a prize sow, when you know quite well that she is as quick and clever as anyone!’

‘Who is a prize sow?’ Fanny came running up to her aunt, demanding to know what they were talking about.

‘Nobody, dear,’ Cassandra replied, with a fierce look at her mother. ‘We were just talking about one of the characters in the play, weren’t we, Mama?’ Unlike her mother and younger sister, Cassandra had learnt to suppress her forthright views when in company.

Sometime during those rehearsals Jane and I ceased to be guest and governess and started to become friends. She insisted that I call her by her Christian name. At the time, I had no idea why she had decided to befriend me. She and Cassandra were so close that I wondered why she took the trouble to cultivate anybody else. Looking back, I think she must have felt the need of someone outside the family to confide in, although, at first, she could not admit that need even to herself. She held her quick wit before her like a shield but I thought I sensed a sadness about her that went beyond the sorrow for her father. During the long, hot weeks of that summer she began to give me glimpses of what it was that disturbed her.

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