Austen, the English author of such classic novels as “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” died in 1817 at age 41. Her death has been attributed to everything from cancer to Addison’s disease.
But Ashford, who moved to Austen’s village of Chawton three years ago and started writing her new crime novel in the former home of Austen’s brother, stumbled across another possibility — that Austen died of arsenic poisoning.
While reading Austen’s correspondence, Ashford came across a line the novelist wrote just a few months before she died: “I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.”
Familiar with poisons from researching her crime novels, Ashford recognized that Austen’s symptoms could be attributed to arsenic poisoning, which can turn patches of skin brown or black while other areas go white.
Ashford then met with the former president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, who told her that the lock of Austen’s hair bought at auction in 1948 had tested positive for arsenic.
The crime novelist told The Guardian newspaper that it’s highly likely Austen was given medicines containing arsenic, as was common then.
“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,” Ashford said.
And like a good crime novelist, Ashford thinks it’s quite possible that Austen was murdered, not just medicated, with arsenic, as she speculates in her new novel, “The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.”
“I don’t think murder is out of the question,” she said. “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,” Ashford added.
- Lindsay Ashford
- arsenic poisoning