I’ve been writing mystery novels for more than a decade – for most of that time I was juggling a career as an author with a variety of part-time jobs and trying to bring up four children at the same time. It was quite a struggle and there were times when I felt like giving up. But if I’ve learned anything from my life as a writer it’s that you have to believe in yourself and keep going even when life kicks you. Writing has, at times, been a bit like therapy. No matter how bad things have been, I’ve been able to step into the fictional worlds I’ve created and lose myself for a few hours.
Until recently I was known for what they call in the publishing industry ‘gritty crime’ – stories about serial killers and the seamy side of life in British cities. But my latest novel is something quite different – a historical mystery about the untimely death of Jane Austen. The idea for the book came to me when I got a chance many writers would jump at: I was invited to go and live in the English village of Chawton, in a house once owned by the Jane Austen’s brother.
The house-move came about because my partner was offered a job in the Elizabethan mansion, Chawton House, now a library and study centre. It was just a stone’s throw from the cottage where Jane lived. I planned to start work on another contemporary crime novel but within a few weeks of settling in the village I’d abandoned the new book. Instead my head was stuck in old volumes of the Austen family letters. One morning a sentence Jane penned just a few months before she died jumped out at me. Describing the weeks of illness she had suffered, she wrote: ‘I am considerably better now and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour…’
As a writer of crime fiction I’ve learned quite a bit about forensic techniques, including the detection of poisons. What Jane had described sounded very similar to the effect of arsenic poisoning, which creates dark and light patches on the skin when taken in small doses over a long period of time. No one has ever been able to fully explain the symptoms she experienced in the period leading up to her death at the age of 41. Could she have been poisoned, I wondered?
I put the idea to the back of my mind until a few months later, when the library had a visitor from New York. She asked if I had seen the lock of Jane’s hair – cut off after her death as a keepsake - on display at the cottage down the road. Then she related the story of the couple who donated it – American collectors of Austen memorabilia, both now deceased, who had bought it at auction at Sotheby’s in 1948. ‘And did you know,’ she said, ‘that before they handed it over to the museum, they had it tested for arsenic?’
Alarm bells rang inside my head. The hair had tested positive for arsenic. So Jane Austen died with poison in her body. Why? How? The beginnings of a novel began to form. I already had plenty of research material for the book, provided by the Austen family archives housed in the library. Working in that room, knowing that Jane Austen herself had spent many hours reading and possibly writing in that same space, was an amazing experience. It brought the Austen family – the people I was writing about – to life in a way that felt very different to anything I’d worked on before. Sometimes it was as if I could hear voices whispering in my ear. That might sound outlandish but it’s the only way I can describe how the novel took me over.
I also did a lot of research about the use of arsenic in the early nineteenth century. I came across an excellent book called ‘The Arsenic Century’ by Professor James C. Whorton, which gives a fascinating insight into the use and misuse of arsenic at the time Jane Austen was alive. In 1817 – the year she died – arsenic was being used in everything from wallpaper to candy. The tasteless, odourless white powder was also used for rat poison and could be bought from any grocer’s shop in England with no questions asked. People were poisoned by accident if it got mistaken for baking powder. Could Jane have been poisoned in that way, or by some substance containing arsenic in the cottage where she lived? I ruled that out because she shared the house with her mother, her sister, and a family friend - all of whom outlived her by several decades. A second possibility was that she was given medicine containing arsenic for an illness that may not have killed her (arsenic was considered a ‘wonder drug’ at that time but was later proved to be therapeutically useless, as well as potentially lethal). The third possibility was that she was deliberately poisoned. Who would do such a thing? And why?
As I contemplated these questions I thought about Jane’s best friend, Anne Sharp, to whom the author wrote one of her last letters. Anne lived until 1853 – long enough to hear about the discovery of the Marsh Test. Developed in 1836, it enabled the analysis of human remains for the presence of arsenic. What would you do, I wondered, if you suspected your best friend had been poisoned and you were in possession of a lock of her hair?
This is how the novel begins:
‘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 and 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.
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…’
People sometimes ask me if I really believe Jane Austen could have been intentionally poisoned. My answer is that although it’s improbable, it’s not impossible. We can never know everything about her – especially as her sister, Cassandra, burnt a large number of the author’s letters after her death. But the material that does remain suggests dark undercurrents within the Austen family which are a fertile source of speculation.
I spent eighteen months writing the novel. As I said earlier, writing can be a tough process and it’s not always easy to sit down each morning and get on with it. If I’m feeling stuck or uninspired I have a few tricks to get my brain into gear. One of my favourites involves using what I call my ‘faces’. I have a box of photos cut from newspapers and magazines – not famous faces, just ordinary people – and when I plan a novel I try to find faces to match each character. I find that staring at the faces triggers my creative juices, sending my mind off in new directions. I have no idea why, but it works!
I also have pictures on my desk of the two authors who inspired me to become a novelist – Patricia Cornwell and P.D. James. I was lucky enough to meet P.D. James a few months ago at a talk she gave in Winchester. I told her it was hearing her speak at a writers’ workshop back in the late ‘80s that made me want to be an author. She was absolutely charming and allowed me have a photo taken with her. Just before the camera clicked she reached out and put her arm round my shoulders. I will always treasure that photo!
My advice to new and aspiring authors is – as I said before - believe in yourself. BUT: listen to constructive criticism from people who know what they are talking about. Don’t be too precious about your work – writing is like learning a craft, so be prepared to rewrite your manuscript if an editor or publisher shows an interest. It took me four drafts to get ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen’ to the stage where both I and my editor were happy with it!
I have 1 copy of The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen to giveaway
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