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Researchers Float (Unlikely) Theory That Jane Austen Died of Arsenic Poisoning

A contested hypothesis says the author’s glasses may offer new insight into her death

A re-engraving of the best-known picture of Jane Austen, the "memoir portrait," based on a drawing by her sister Cassandra. (Perry–Castañeda Library of the University of Texas at Austin)
smithsonian.com

When Jane Austen died in 1817, at the age of 41, she had been suffering from a prolonged and mysterious illness. In her letters, she complained of bilious attacks, fevers and rheumatic pains. Her skin, she wrote in a letter shortly before her death, had turned “black & white & every wrong colour.”

For years, scholars have debated the cause of the author’s death: some say it was tuberculosis, others contend that cancer was the culprit, still others say Austen died of a rare hormonal disorder. Now, as Ben Guarino reports for The Washington Post, a new hypothesis has thrown some drama into the mix, suggesting that Jane Austen died by arsenic poisoning.

No, a dastardly plot was not at play, according to the theorists. The poisoning was likely accidental—if, in fact, it ever occurred.

At the center of this contested hypothesis are three pairs of glasses. Researchers at the British Library found the spectacles inside a desk that once belonged to Austen, and recently decided to test them. The lenses in all three glasses were convex, indicating that the person who wore them was farsighted, and the prescriptions varied in strength from R and L +1.75 Ds, to R and L +3.25, to R +5.00/-0.25 x 84 and L +4.75/-0.25 x 49. It is possible, researchers say, that these glasses provide physical evidence of Austen’s dramatically declining vision—an affliction that the author complained about in her letters, Sandra Tuppen, lead curator at the British Library, writes in a blog post.

After analyzing the glasses, researchers consulted with optometrist Simon Barnard, to find out if an underlying disease could lead to such a severe decline in vision. Diabetes may have been the culprit, Barnard told them, because it can cause cataracts. But diabetes was a fatal illness during Austen’s lifetime, and likely would have killed her before she could progress through three different eyeglass prescriptions. So Barnard suggested another possibility: accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic.

The theory isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound. Arsenic poisoning can cause cataracts, along with the sort of skin discoloration that Austen complained of in her letters. And, as Michael Meyer explains in the Chemical Heritage Foundation's magazine, arsenic was once a common ingredient in England. The chemical was valued for its green pigment and so was deliberately incorporated into dresses, paints and candies.

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a prolific amount of smelting and burning of coal, which released arsenical compounds that then made their way into a variety of products. In The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play, author James C. Whorton writes that the British people “took [arsenic] in with fruits and vegetables, swallowed it with wine, inhaled it from cigarettes, absorbed it from cosmetics, and imbibed it even from the pint glass.”

Arsenic was also incorporated into a variety of medications, including treatments for rheumatism. Austen was known to have suffered from rheumatic joints, Tuppen points out in an interview with the BBC, making it at least plausible that she took arsenic-laced medications to ease her discomfort.

But scholars have nevertheless been quick to discredit the British Library’s conclusions. Speaking to the New York Times, Janine Barchas, an Austen expert at the University of Texas at Austin, called the arsenic hypothesis a “quantum leap.”

For one thing, there is no concrete proof that the three glasses ever belonged to Austen. Even if they were her glasses, there is also no definitive proof that the author actually had cataracts—her eyesight may have just been very bad. And supposing she did suffer from cataracts, Laura Geggel points out in Live Science, there are a number of ailments that might cause a relatively young person to develop such an ailment: trauma to the eye, genetic predispositions, conditions associated with enzyme deficiencies. Chronic arsenic poisoning is far from the most obvious explanation for Austen’s untimely demise. 

All this to say, the death of the beloved author remains a mystery that will, in all likelihood, continue to be debated with varying degrees of sense and sensibility.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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