Jane Austen, the author of Sense and Sensibility, died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 41 on July 18, 1817, but new evidence now shows that she may actually have been the tragic victim of arsenic poisoning. Over the past 200 years, different historians have been trying to pinpoint what exactly killed Austen.
In Jane Austen’s later years, letters show that she suffered from health problems such as fevers, facial aches, and bilious attacks. Past historians and medical professionals thought that these could have been attributed to Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s lymphoma or tuberculosis.
Now, however, there is a new possibility. There is a very strong chance that Jane Austen could have been suffering from arsenic poisoning, which would have eventually caused her untimely death.
The first person to suggest that Jane Austen may have fallen victim to arsenic poisoning was crime writer Lindsay Ashford. In 2011, Ashford put forward the proposition that arsenic was the culprit behind Austen’s death, as a new article written by Dr. Sandra Tuppen for The British Library asserts.
Lindsay Ashford formed her theory based on Jane Austen’s complaints of abnormal facial pigmentation that affected her towards the end of her life, which is one of the many symptoms that people who are suffering from arsenic poisoning may display. Austen herself wrote that her skin was “black and white and every wrong color.” Ashford believes this helps to prove her theory that Jane Austen was suffering from mercury poisoning.
“I think it’s highly likely she was given a medicine containing arsenic. When you look at her list of symptoms and compare them to the list of arsenic symptoms, there is an amazing correlation.”
Further evidence showing the link between Jane Austen and possible arsenic poisoning can be traced to three of Austen’s spectacles. These were discovered inside of Jane’s desk after it was donated in 1999 to The British Library by her great-great-great-niece Joan Austen-Leigh, as the Washington Post reports.
After The British Library had found these three pairs of glasses inside of Jane Austen’s desk, they did an evaluation on them. The lenses were found to be convex, which means that if these did belong to Austen she would have been farsighted and her eyesight would have deteriorated greatly as the glasses were each different strengths.
— BBC History Magazine (@HistoryExtra) March 10, 2017
The British Library’s Dr. Sandra Tuppen, the Lead Curator of Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850, speculates that Jane Austen may have had a quite serious health problem, which is indicated by the varying strengths of her reading glasses.
“Could it be that she gradually needed stronger and stronger glasses for reading because of a more serious underlying health problem? The variations in the strength of the British Library’s three pairs of spectacles may indeed give further credence to the theory that Austen suffered from arsenic poisoning, albeit accidental.”
Arsenic poisoning during the Victorian era in England was not unknown, especially as arsenic was frequently found in many products, including medicines. In fact, the average grocery story in England during that time sold arsenic alongside sugar, flour, rice, tea, and biscuits, according to a book called The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play. If arsenic wasn’t clearly labeled, oftentimes it could even be mistaken for plaster of Paris, sugar, or flour.
Jane Austen lived in an era when arsenic was so prevalent that it was even in green dresses and wallpaper. The Telegraph reports that Swedish chemist Carl Scheele first created a striking green pigment in 1778 by using copper arsenite. This color because wildly popular and came to be known as Scheele’s Green. It was used in paints — many of which contained arsenic — wallpapers, and dresses, sometimes poisoning and killing whole families.
While the dangers of arsenic in Europe eventually came to be recognized, manufacturers in England were slow to respond. It wasn’t until the 1870s when designers like William Morris finally bowed to pressure and began to manufacture arsenic-free wallpaper. But with arsenic in clothes and so many other products during the Victorian era, Jane Austen would have been exposed to arsenic for the entirety of her life. And despite the dangers acknowledged by many doctors, even William Morris didn’t believe that arsenic was toxic, despite finally selling his arsenic-free wallpaper.
“As to the arsenic scare a greater folly it is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were bitten as people were bitten by the witch fever. My belief about it all is that doctors find their patients ailing, don’t know what’s the matter with them, and in despair put it down to the wall papers when they probably ought to put it down to the water closet, which I believe to be the source of all illness.”
Optometrist Simon Barnard also feels that there is a distinct possibility that Jane Austen died from accidental arsenic poisoning. He says that if Austen’s eyesight did get progressively worse, as indicated by her glasses, this coupled with her cataracts means that poisoning by a heavy metal is a top contender in her death. And while diabetes is something that can also cause cataracts, Barnard suggests that if Austen had suffered from this disease, she would have died long before her eyesight got as bad as it did.
Knowing how common arsenic was during the era Jane Austen lived in, do you think the evidence points to her dying from accidental arsenic poisoning?
[Featured Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]