The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen


It is a truth universally acknowledged that Andrew Davies is the man to call when it comes to Jane Austen adaptations. Which is precisely what I did just as soon I’d finished reading Lindsay Ashford’s wonderful book.  ‘Andrew, this is like Pride and Prejudice meets Tipping the Velvet – you have to read it!’ He enjoyed it as much as I did, and we agreed to work together on a 5 x 15’ adaption for radio. We started by sitting on a terrace in Italy, overlooking the Tiber valley  – a most congenial setting for creative insights. ‘What’s the first thing you do when you begin a new adaptation?’  My pen hovered over my notebook, ready for his wisdom. ‘I nick all the best dialogue,’ Andrew smiled. ‘And then I write a scene that’s not in the book  - make it my own, sort of thing.’

Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and adapted by Andrew Davies.

Nicking dialogue was easy in this case, because Lindsay’s ear is so good; her dialogue has a period cadence and a ‘speakable’ naturalism. The plot has similar strengths – it is dynamic and familiar, grounded in a great deal of research. Without ever falling into pastiche, she has in effect recreated an Austen novel: in the course of her story, we are taken to Bath for a ball, to the seaside at Worthing and Southampton, and in and out of various country houses where romance is blossoming and hearts are breaking; the book even culminates in a big wedding. But at the same time, a mystery unfolds which could be right out of Silent Witness: twenty-six years after her death, a learned scientist tests a lock of Jane Austen’s hair and finds it is chock full of arsenic. And the twist? It’s true! Her hair really has been found to contain unusually high levels of the poison fondly known in the nineteenth century as ‘inheritance powder’, due to its popular usage by offspring of the wealthy. 

In Jane’s case, she had no offspring and no great fortune to bestow on any would-be poisoners – so Lindsay, whose background is in writing contemporary crime fiction, invented another motive. She was greatly aided in this by living in Chawton while she was writing the novel; her partner, Steve, had recently been appointed Chief Executive of the Chawton House Library and they had taken up residence in Jane’s brother’s old home, surrounded by the letters, books and other memorabilia of the ‘Queen of English Literature.’ Once she read about the various theories about Jane’s untimely and unexplained death, how could she NOT write this novel?

Mindful of Andrew’s sage advice, after breaking the story into five parts with him, I combed through the book, in the end probably importing half of Lindsay’s dialogue into the script; at one point, I also stumbled across a mighty handy (if a bit weirdly Janeite website/dictionary – who spends their time creating these things?) which alerts you if you’ve chosen a word that ‘She’ would never have used, based on a vast database of all the words she ever used in her novels and letters. ( I must admit I ran some of my own dialogue through this singular search engine, if only to ensure none of my latent Americanisms or modern diction crept in. (‘Anyway: Jane Austen never used this word’; Flirt: this word was used thirteen times by Jane Austen)

In The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen - Elaine Cassidy plays Jane Austen & Ruth Gemmell plays Anne Wright

I then turned to what might be the scene ‘not in the book’; I was sure Andrew didn’t mean just a random moment, but something that encapsulated my own response to the story. The novel takes the form of a memoir; it is the first person narrative of Anne Sharp, a real woman who was once governess to Jane’s niece, Fanny. They were close friends for twenty years, and Lindsay’s invention (or interpretation) is that Anne’s friendship with Jane masked a private passion – she was a lesbian, nurturing a secret, lifelong love for Jane. This is what prompts her to tell her story – she wants to prove and avenge the possible murder of her beloved friend.

It occurred to me that Anne Sharp might be an unreliable narrator; we could take her story at face value if we choose, or we might just begin to think she’s a grief-stricken, love-addled obsessive, as the story progresses. Both Andrew and Lindsay encouraged this approach. We kept it subtle; the possibly unreliable narration creeps up on us, and can be taken as either investigative passion or delusion – it’s up to the listener. The scene ‘not in the book’ is at the end. The doctor who tested Jane’s hair has a response many in the audience may share by this time; that the storyteller just might be mad. Jane Austen, murdered? Really? Listen to the drama - then make up your own mind. 

Listen to Episode 1 & 2 of The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen on BBC iPlayer

The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen continues all week at 10.45am on BBC Radio 4 and on BBC iPlayer for 7 days.

Radio 4's Classic Serial is Pride and Prejudice

More programmes from Radio 4 about Jane Austen


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