We’ve seen it happen in entertainment numerous time: an author’s fictional written worlds somehow become a reality, and the author must then use their knowledge on said worlds and characters to figure out just what’s going on.
This time, however, it’s not a story.
Crime author Lindsay Ashford has reason to believe that famed author Jane Austen did not die of an illness as is suspected, but that she may have actually been murdered. Ashford went to Austen’s home village of Chawton in Hampshire, England three years ago to begin writing her new novel in the library of Chawton House, the former home of Austen’s brother, Edward. While there she read many of Austen’s numerous letters, and, one day, spotted something remarkably suspicious.
One of the Austen’s letters had a line that said “I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.” The words acted as a red flag to Ashford, who had studied modern forensics and poisons for her own crime novels, that Austen may have been suffering from arsenic poisoning. Suspicions were heightened when Ashford met with the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, who revealed that a lock of Austen’s hair that was on display at a nearby museum was actually tested for arsenic by an American couple who purchased it at an auction in 1948, and came back positive.
Austen died almost 200 years ago at the young age of 41, so there’s always been a mystery to what she actually died of. Everything from Addison’s disease to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to lupus have been mentioned as possible causes of death, but none of them have ever been confirmed.
The thing about arsenic is that it was widely available back then, and was used in various medications, one of which—Fowler’s Solution—was given for many different ailments including rheumatism, which Austen spoke of suffering from in her letters.
But even though Ashford admits Austen was likely suffering the effects of arsenic poisoning after being prescribed something containing it, she does not believe that the fatal dosage of it was an accident, which is what she studies in her new book, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.
Ashford spoke of the mystery, saying:
After all my research I think it’s highly likely she was given a medicine containing arsenic. When you look at her list of symptoms and compare them to the list of arsenic symptoms, there is an amazing correlation.
I’m quite surprised no one has thought of it before, but I don’t think people realise quite how often arsenic was used as a medicine. [But] as a crime writer I’ve done a lot of research into arsenic, and I think it was just a bit of serendipity, that someone like me came to look at her letters with a very different eye to the eye most people cast on Jane Austen. It’s just luck I have this knowledge, which most Austen academics wouldn’t.
I don’t think murder is out of the question. 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. In the early 19th century a lot of people were getting away with murder with arsenic as a weapon, because it wasn’t until the Marsh test was developed in 1836 that human remains could be analysed for the presence of arsenic.
Others aren’t so sure there’s any mystery here to research further. Editor of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen (which you can pick up here for only $990!), Professor Janet Todd, says:
I doubt very much she would have been poisoned intentionally. I think it’s very unlikely. But the possibility she had arsenic for rheumatism, say, is quite likely.
It’s certainly odd that she died quite so young. [But] in the absence of digging her up and finding out, which would not be appreciated, nobody knows what she died of.
Ashford would be all for exhuming the body and finding out once and for all, but she too knows it’s highly unlikely, saying “I can quite understand that people would be outraged by the idea.”
[Source: The Guardian]