The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen by Lindsay Ashford, adapted by Andrew Davies and Eileen Horne

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15-Minute Drama on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 24-28 February 2013
It's interesting how adaptations can affect individual listeners in very different ways.  On its first publication, Lindsay Ashford's imaginative reinterpretation of Austen's life caused a storm of indignation by suggesting that perhaps the author's early death at the age of forty-one was perhaps not due to natural causes.  Maybe someone was out to silence her for daring to assume the career of a professional writer at a time when most women were expected to confine their activities to the home and immediate environs.  One critic praised Ashford's work for setting aside the genteel world normally associated with Austen and creating instead a world of intrigue and jealousy.
Clive Brill's production certainly managed to recreate that atmosphere through an imaginative use of sound-effects; for example, through the sound of indistinct chatter in the background while the characters spoke, creating a claustrophobic world in which everyone commented on everyone else's behaviour.  There was no such thing as a "private life" - the characters were perpetually on show, which made Jane Austen's (Elaine Cassidy's) position extremely precarious.
In truth, however, the production had strong echoes of James' The Turn of the Screw rather than an Austen adaptation.  The central character Anne Sharp (Ruth Gemmell), former governess to the Austen family and Jane Austen's close friend, strongly suspected that foul play was afoot, but could never really convince anyone that what she thought was true.  On several occasions I felt that she was imagining things, just like the governess in James' story, when she claims to see the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint haunting Bly House.  No one else seemed to believe Anne either; what mattered more was that everyone should sustain a veneer of respectability.
In the end Anne's suspicions were vindicated in a dénouement that was both unexpected and shocking.  Although Brill's production contained its fair share of familiar aural effects associated with Austen's world - the tinkling of teacups, the trilling of a waltz - it revealed a much less genteel atmosphere underneath, in which petty jealousies were transformed into murderous instincts.