Arsenic and the “Poisoning” of Jane Austen

Though she left this mortal coil in 1817, Jane Austen continues be an influence today. From adaptations of “Emma” (see: “Clueless”) to her most famous work (“Pride and Prejudice), Austen continues to be celebrated not only in her native England, but all over the world. Recently, a provocative question has been posed:

Did Jane Austen die of arsenic poisoning?

I will admit, when I first read the headlines, I was intrigued. In a blog post by Sandra Tuppen, lead curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1601-1850 at the British Library, she suggests that Austen’s “weak eyes” could possibly be attributed to cataracts. Going further, she writes,

“If Austen did develop cataracts, a more likely cause, according to Professor Barnard, is accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic. Arsenic poisoning is now known to cause cataracts. Despite its toxicity, arsenic was commonly found in medicines in 19th-century England, as well as in some water supplies.”

Discovered by Albert Magnus in 1250, arsenic has a long history from weapon of murder to a treatment for syphilis to use in beauty products.

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Advertisement for Fould’s Medicated Arsenic Soap. Courtesy of Getty Images

 

Additionally, arsenic was used in green pigment for flowers and fabrics during the Victorian era – even contributing to accidental deaths by florists and dressmakers who neglected to wash their hands. See? This is why you should wash your hands, y’all. 

But back to Ms. Austen. Could it be possible that Austen was accidentally poisoned to death? The evidence offered in Tuppen’s blog  is interesting, but is it feasible?

Let’s take a fantastical step back. Could it be likely that she was murdered? And if so, by whom? What would their motivation be? Austen never married and never had children. Could it be possible that someone in her close family gradually poisoned her? More importantly, who is going to write this mystery novel? Come on. You know you want to. 

It is unlikely and two hundred years later, we can only speculate. But one thing is for sure – the literary community (and beyond) is taking quite an interest.

What are your theories? Poisoning? No poisoning? Or is this all just bunk?

 

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