On July 18, 1817, novelist Jane Austen died at the age of 41. Much of Austen’s medical biography is murky, and how she died remains an enduring mystery. Historians, in the two centuries since, have dissected what little evidence exists. In her later letters she complained of bilious attacks, facial aches and fever. Austen experts fingered several possible killers, including stomach cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma or an adrenal disorder known as Addison’s disease.
An article published Thursday on the website of the nationally run British Library offered a theory of a more dramatic sort: What if poison, not cancer or faulty glands, did in the author of “Sense and Sensibility?”
If so, blame neither foul plot nor gentleman assassin. The arsenic likely came from a tainted water supply or a medicinal mix-up, the library suggested; that is, of course, supposing the element caused Austen’s death. The claim has been subject to a fair bit of skepticism since Thursday, when the library published an article on its website linking her possible cataracts to arsenic.
The library’s reasoning hinged on spectacles. In 1999, the writer’s great-great-great-niece Joan Austen-Leigh donated a desk that belonged to Austen. The library discovered that the desk held three pairs of glasses, two tortoiseshell and one wire-framed. The British Library recently had the glasses examined, and found that the lenses were convex, suggesting a farsighted wearer.
Austen eventually suffered from very poor eyesight, if the eyeglasses indeed belonged to her. The glasses varied in strengths. One of two tortoiseshell glasses, according to the British Library’s analysis, was quite strong. Perhaps the glasses’ increasing diopters told a narrative.
“Could it be that she gradually needed stronger and stronger glasses for reading because of a more serious underlying health problem?” wrote Sandra Tuppen, a curator at the library, in the article. “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.”
This was not the only evidence to suggest arsenic poisoning, the article noted. Austen complained of skin discoloration (“black & white & every wrong colour,” she once wrote), which may also be a symptom of accumulating arsenic in the body. And inadvertent arsenic poisoning in the 1800s was not unheard of. Crime writer Lindsay Ashford, one of the first proponents of the arsenic theory, told the Guardian in 2011 that, “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.”
By the heyday of the Victorian era, arsenic was ubiquitous in Britain, present in medicines and occasionally confused for sugar or plaster of Paris. Green wallpapers and green dresses contained arsenic, according to the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Distillations magazine, as did “beer, wine, sweets, wrapping paper, painted toys, sheep dip, insecticides, clothing, dead bodies, stuffed animals, hat ornaments, coal and candles.” In 1858, a British candy seller nicknamed “Humbug Billy” killed 25 and poisoned more than 100 others when, meaning to dilute the expensive sugar in his peppermint sweets, he accidentally added arsenic.
The British Library cited Simon Barnard, an optometrist based in London, who believed that if Austen’s eyesight worsened — indicating cataracts — heavy metal poisoning was a leading candidate. Other cataract causes, such as diabetes, would likely have killed Austen before her eyesight dimmed to the point of needing the strongest tortoiseshell glasses.
Though Austen’s deteriorating eyesight has been a source of intrigue, past experts hesitated to ascribe it mortal significance. The British Library took a “quantum leap” when its conclusion jumped to arsenic, University of Texas at Austin 18th-century literature expert and Austen scholar Janine Barchas said to the New York Times.
New Zealand-based ophthalmologist Graham Wilson published a medical analysis of the author’s eye problems, which Wilson traced to a 23-year-old Austen. Given the evidence available to Wilson, the doctor concluded in the 2012 paper that, “There are many references to eyes in her novels, but Jane’s eyes and those of her characters cannot contribute further to the debate around the cause of her death at age 41.”
The debate around Austen’s death kicked off in 1964, when Zachary Cope, an English surgeon, argued that Addison’s disease killed Austen. He noted her fatigue, hyperpigmentation (discoloration) and weakness during bouts of emotional stress. It made for a convincing argument. Several Austen biographers, including Deirdre Le Faye, author of “Jane Austen: A Family Record,” contend that Addison’s disease was the culprit.
But Annette Upfal , an Austen scholar then at the University of Queensland in Australia, wrote in 2005 at BMJ’s Medical Humanities that it was not a sudden attack of Addison’s disease but a longer history of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Upfal teased out a history of illness in Austen’s letters, including persistent neuralgia and cycles of fever leading up to her death.
“Despite traditional accounts, this was not a case of a healthy person being suddenly struck down with a fatal illness,” Upfal wrote. “New medical evidence suggests that Jane was already suffering from an immune deficiency and fatal lymphoma in January 1813, when her second and most popular novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ was published.”
The British Library’s hypothesis was unlikely to settle any debates. The article noted there were several limitations to the arsenic theory. The premise that Austen required glasses of such unusual strength could be flawed. It was possible that a physician did not prescribe Austen the increasingly strong lenses, and the writer simply purchased them.
“We can’t be completely sure that she wore them at all,” Tuppen pointed out. “However, we are keen to publish these test results in the hope that other eye specialists will share their ideas and opinions with us.”
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