Paul Doiron here—
I read it first on Twitter: a writer in England claims to have found evidence in the letters of Jane Austen that the author of Sense and Sensibility and Emma died of arsenic poisoning. Within hours, I saw the post retweeted several times until suddenly the story was everywhere.
Lindsay Ashford (the name sounds like an Austen character) has zero evidence to prove the famed novelist was deliberately killed:
“In the early 19th century a lot of people were getting away with murder with arsenic as a weapon, because it wasn’t until the Marsh test was developed in 1836 that human remains could be analysed for the presence of arsenic,” Ashford said, also noting that Austen’s family history was somewhat tumultuous, and there may have been “motive for murder.”
This, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is what is known as a total load. It is also one of the better publicity stunts in ages.
Some people seem surprised when I cite Jane Austen as one of my favorite novelists. But it’s a truth universally acknowledged that even the manliest of writers have a soft spot for Miss Austen. I resisted the books for years until my wife finally managed to cajole me into picking up Pride and Prejudice. I read the first fifty pages before I offered a grudging admission, “All right, she’s a genius.” I have since read all of Austen’s books multiple times.
I have no idea how reading Persuasion influenced my series of crime novels about heroic game wardens and violent poachers, but I’m sure there’s been an affect of some sort. My wife suggests Austen’s example has improved my dialogue, which is nice of her to say since she is a more ardent fan of Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse than I am—although her enthusiasm seems greatest for Mr. Darcy as embodied by Colin Firth.
Austen fans are certainly hardcore. The world can’t seem to get enough of mash-ups that invoke her characters, from Hollywood comedies to contemporary chick lit to Bollywood musicals to zombie-slaying horror. Another author I admire, P.D. James, has a new novel out in which Mr. and Mrs. Darcy solve a murder together. As much as I enjoy the work Baroness James of Holland Park, I doubt I’ll read it. I would rather my reading of the original not acquire overtones that follow me around forever like tinnitus.
As tempting as it is to react to the latest tabloid stories with cynicism, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing when Jane Austen makes the front pages in place of Kim Kardashian. Maybe Ashford’s outlandish claims will even prompt some lunk-headed husband out there to pick up Mansfield Park for the first time. One can only hope.