Could a sentence written by Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen have uncovered the real cause of her premature death? Crime novelist Lindsay Ashford certainly thinks so, and she’s posited a new theory that Austen, who died at 41 for reasons that have never been truly determined, may have been poisoned with arsenic. She came to this conclusion after reading Austen’s own writings, including one that was likely written months before her own death, and applying what she already knew about arsenic poisoning … From her novels! From her novels.
Austen’s death has been attributed to a number of actual, medical diseases, including Addison’s disease, lupus, and even Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And since it occurred at such a young age, it was always deemed to be tragic and mysterious. At the time of Austen’s death in 1817, arsenic was also a very widely-distributed medicine (which was sold under the name “Fowler’s Solution”) for a number of ailments. But maybe Austen was given too much?
Ashford, who has utilized arsenic poisoning as a plot device in her fiction, started looking into Austen’s death and read the late author’s letters. One of them contained the following sentence:
“I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.”
If you thought that black and white skin discoloration was a symptom of arsenic poisoning, you are correct! And that particular letter was dated a few months before Austen’s death. Ashford is actually kind of shocked that no one thought of arsenic poisoning as the true culprit:
“… I don’t think people realise quite how often arsenic was used as a medicine. [But] as a crime writer I’ve done a lot of research into arsenic, and I think it was just a bit of serendipity, that someone like me came to look at her letters with a very different eye to the eye most people cast on Jane Austen. It’s just luck I have this knowledge, which most Austen academics wouldn’t.”
But was it murder? Ashford certainly explores this as an option in her new book, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. Apparently, in the years leading up to her death, there were some things going on in Austen’s family that were less than savory. Even suspicious. And, since arsenic wasn’t exactly illegal and the test to identify it as a cause of death didn’t exist until 1836, several people got away with killing people by adding a little extra Fowler’s Solution to someone’s chicken soup.
Austen scholars think this theory of murder is ridiculous, but don’t dispute the possibility that Austen took arsenic as a remedy for something like rheumatism. They are also less than thrilled at the prospect of exhuming Austen’s body for formal forensic testing, something Ashford would really like to see.
But you know what CBS executives would want to see? CSI: Winchester.
(via The Guardian)