Victorian author Jane Austen was only 41 when she died, and the cause of death has never been verified. Now a crime novelist investigating the matter claims that Austen may have been the victim of arsenic poisoning. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Lindsay Ashford’s evidence for Austen’s poisoning rests on two things. First of all, when Ashford was going through Austen’s letters, she noticed that Austen wrote shortly before her death that she was “recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour”. One of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning is a change to the skin’s pigmentation, whereby patches of skin develop different colours.
Ashford’s second “proof” rests on the fact that the former president of the Jane Austen Society of North America informed her that a lock of Austen’s hair had tested positive for arsenic. Details of this second piece of evidence are particularly sketchy, however – the hair belonged to an American couple who are now dead, with no mention as to the current whereabouts of the follicles in question.
Ashford told the Guardian that Austen’s symptoms match those of arsenic poisoning more closely than any of the other proposed causes of Austen’s death (Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s disease and lupus). However, even if true, this need not amount to a case of murder most foul – especially as there seems no motive. Arsenic was prescribed by doctors at the time for a vast range of illnesses, and Austen may simply have received too large a dosage.
Ashford is reluctant to let go of the murder idea, however, probably because she has a book to flog on the theory. "Having delved into her family background, there was a lot going on that has never been revealed and there could have been a motive for murder,” she says. We’re not convinced. DM
Jane Austen 'died from arsenic poisoning', in the Guardian.