Jane Austen died in 1817 at the age of 41. Experts haven’t been able to come up with an exact cause of death, though most attribute her early demise to either cancer or Addison’s disease. But the crime novelist Lindsay Ashford now contends that the beloved author may have died of arsenic poisoning.
Three years ago, Lindsay Ashford moved to Austen’s village of Chawton to write a new crime novel. After she arrived, she started examining old letters of Austen and found a sentence that struck her as particularly suspicious.
Austen wrote: “I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.” On one sentence taken out of context Ashford intends to reconstruct the demise of our beloved author in lurid colors so her theory may ride roughshod over facts (for one who lived a life of anonymity far from media glare, facts are mostly conjectural) and her proposed crime novel may hit the bestseller list. In the Upshot Yahoo News of Nov. 14 I read thus:
‘Ashford contacted the Jane Austen Society of North America with her newfound hunch–and the society’s president told her that a lock of Austen’s hair from a different museum was tested for arsenic and came up positive.’
Theories must be supported by facts and scholarship is sweat and tears piecing together in a cogent manner the progress of a life lived so distant as revealed through letters, diaries and newspaper tidbits of the age she lived. Accounts by contemporaries, family members often play larger part than those whose knowledge might come from hearsay.
If the social mores of Austen’s day permitted use of arsenic in medicine, beauty products and clothes well it is likely ingestion of arsenic is quite possible. It would show in the hair under test. Among the landed gentry and upper classes arsenic was a favorite form of disposing the old it also would explain the high level of arsenic in a body. Arsenic in olden days was called ‘the inheritance powder’ since it mimicked many symptoms stomach cramps,vomiting etc., which could be mistaken for many diseases. Then forensic science was not developed as today. Death of Napoleon was at one time attributed to it. A Swedish dentist had advanced a theory a few decades ago, which I believe has since been discounted for something else.
According to the Guardian, Lindsay Ashford is currently writing a historical thriller that poses the question: What if Austen was murdered?
But in Jane Austen’s case what we need to ask is, what is the motive if we were to go by Ashford’s theory? Who benefited by murdering one who had no wealth other than her intellect to bequest? All that her intellect was capable of had gone into some novels that she could not even own up publicly because she was a woman.