The Who2 Blog

Pride and Extreme Prejudice: Was Jane Austen Poisoned?

University of Texas / Wikimedia Commons

Why did Jane Austen die so young, with so many great books still to be written?  Could it have been… P O I S O N ?

Crime author Lindsay Ashford is rattling the porcelain teacups of Austen’s fans with that claim. “I’m convinced Jane Austen was poisoned by arsenic,” she writes in the Daily Mail:

“My mind was racing. The arsenic in Jane’s hair meant that she had ingested the poison in the months before her death…. Could Jane have died from arsenic poisoning?”

Now, double disclaimer: this is the Daily Mail, home to such deep-thinking headlines as “Jennifer Love Hewitt Looks Heartbroken as She Picks Up Comfort Food in Sweats and No Make-Up.” And Lindsay Ashford happens to be flogging a new whodunit novel titled The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.  So, gentle reader, arsenic emptor.

Still, the theory is interesting. Ashford says it was triggered by a letter Jane Austen wrote to a friend a few months before her death:

Describing weeks of illness she had recently endured, [Austen] wrote: ‘[I] am considerably better now and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.’
…What Jane described sounded very much like symptoms of arsenic, which causes skin-spotting if taken in small doses over a long time. Known as the ‘raindrop’ effect, it causes some patches of skin to go dark brown or black; other areas lose all pigment to go white.
Those same symptoms could also describe Addison’s Disease, as Austen detectives have noted in the past. Others say Austen caught tuberculosis from cows, which lacks a certain genteel charm.
But assuming Austen was poisoned, could it have been… M U R D E R
Ashford does her best to sell the notion:
Jane was known for her sharp tongue and she undoubtedly drew on the lives of those around her in her novels. Could she have offended someone enough to invite murder?
But her heart’s not really in it. And for good reason: c’mon, Jane Austen didn’t offend local villagers so much that she got murdered. “Curse you, Jane Austen, for making a veiled caricature of me look like a fop in your novels!  Suck on this arsenic-laced doily!”
Much more likely is the answer that Italian scientists discovered a few years ago about Napoleon Bonaparte‘s mysterious death: Yes, his hair showed traces of arsenic, but everyone’s hair was loaded with aresenic in those days.  Jacques Q. Public was exposed to, like, 100 times more arsenic in the early 1800s than today.  Maybe they died of it, maybe they didn’t, but it’s no indication that they were actively poisoned.
Still, the speculation puts Jane Austen in with a proud list of dead celebs, including another great English literary figure, Robin Hood. Learn more in Possibly Poisoned.
(Hat tip: Discovery News)

Related Biographies

Share this: