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Pride and arsenic poisoning: How did Jane Austen die?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune that we all die.

If you are lucky, you’ll go gently in your sleep. Others meet far worse ends.

Over the years, the cause of Jane Austen death has become somewhat of a mystery. In 1816, at the age of just 40, Austen began to feel unwell. Her condition deteriorated and she passed away a year later.

According an Austen biographer, Austen made light of her condition, describing it as “bile” and “rheumatism”. However, as her illness progressed she became weaker and was eventually confined to her bed. Her affliction was officially unidentified but scholars have speculated that it may have been cancer, tuberculosis or Addison’s disease. No one knows for sure.

However, new research by the British Library is setting the literary world ablaze with a more dramatic explanation: arsenic poisoning.

Working with an optometrist, researchers at the library examined three pairs of glasses that are thought to have belonged to Austen. They found evidence that Austen’s vision severely worsened in her final years, which suggest that she might have had cataracts.

Dr. Sandra Tuppen, who works at the library, wrote in a blog post that one likely cause of Austen’s cataracts would have been “accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic.

The plot thickens.

mr_darcy_pride_prejudice

Cluedo edition: It was Mr. Darcy with the arsenic in the ballroom.

Before we get too excited about the chance that Austen was murdered, we need to keep a few things in mind.

First, there is the question of ownership regarding the glasses. They were found on Austen’s desk but we don’t have definitive proof that they belonged to her. However, we do know that she had had trouble with her eyes and had sought help in this regard.

Second, there is the arsenic. In her post, Dr. Tuppen emphasized that arsenic was frequently found in water, medication and even wallpaper in Austen’s time, so accidental arsenic poising was actually quite common. Austen may have suffered arsenic poisoning in a number of ways; there is nothing to suggest foul play.

Finally, other experts have been quick to denounce the arsenic story. Dr. Cheryl Kinney told CNN that there are many other causes of cataracts more likely than arsenic poisoning and that the glasses discovery only proves “association, not causation.” Similarly, Janine Barchas, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, called the glasses/arsenic theory a “quantum leap” in logic.

Austen was an English novelist, best known for the social commentary found in her six major novels. Her novels critiqued the British landed gentry and explore the role of women in society.

Today, Austen is considered one of the greatest writers in English history. Do we know how she died? That’s still a no. Was she murdered by a jealous rival via arsenic poisoning? Probably not.

It would make a damn good story, though.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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