November 2011 | Nate Pedersen

Jane Austen was Poisoned!

Well ... maybe. The Guardian reported yesterday about a recent investigation into the untimely death of Jane Austen.

The facts first: Jane Austen died in 1817, at only 41 years old. A variety of causes of death have been suggested over the years: cancer, Addison's disease, tuberculosis, typhus. In summary we don't know why she died. We do know, however, thanks to her letters, that her health took a steep decline in 1816, continuing downhill until her death the following year.

Fast-forward almost 200 years. Enter Lindsay Ashford, a British crime novelist, who moved to Chawton village, the former haunt of the Austen clan, in 2008. She began her new novel in the library of Chawton House, where Jane's brother Edward lived. While taking breaks from writing in the Chawton House library, Ashford read through many of Jane's letters. She came across this intriguing entry from a letter just months before her death: "I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour."
Ashford's diagnosis: arsenic poisoning. And she has a point--arsenic poisoning can cause "raindrop" pigmentation, wherein the skin gets splotchy with black and white coloring. To add to the case, an American couple had a lock of Jane Austen's hair in their collection tested for aresenic and it came up positive.

So was Jane Austen murdered? Probably not. The general consensus is that Miss Austen was likely given arsenic in treatment for some other disease. Fowler's Solution, which was essentially arsenic, was dolled out for a variety of diseases in the early 19th century, including rhemuatism which Jane suffered from. But the early 19th century was also the prime time to murder someone with arsenic ... and get away with it. It wasn't until 1836 that the Marsh test was developed, which could test for arsenic in forensic remains. Until then, arsenic poisoning was basically undetectable.

Perhaps the barb of Jane Austen's wit pricked the wrong person and murder was the result.

What do you think?