The Upshot

A new theory on the death of Jane Austen

The Upshot

Few authors are as revered as Jane Austen. She wrote just a handful of novels, but all have gone on to be classics, read and re-read by generations. Now, though, a crime author has made a startling claim: Lindsay Ashford believes Austen may have been poisoned.

Indeed, the circumstances surrounding Austen's death have long been a bit mysterious. She 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 Ashford now contends that the beloved author may have died of arsenic poisoning.

What's the reason behind the new theory? A buzzy article from the UK's Guardian explains: Three years ago, 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."

Ashford had done plenty of crime research for her own novels, and says she recognized the symptoms as consistent with arsenic poisoning.

But that's not all. 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.

Still, arsenic poisoning per se doesn't necessarily mean murder. Back in Austen's time, arsenic was used as a kind of medicine (and you thought your HMO was the pits). As Ashford told the Guardian, "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."

While inadvertent arsenic poisoning may comport with the evidence and the cultural clues from Austen's day, Ashford isn't planning to let that stand in the way of a good story. According to the Guardian, she's currently writing a historical thriller that poses the question: What if Austen was murdered? After all, Austen imitators have already successfully linked up her oeuvre with the zombie genre so there's plenty of room for a whodunit in the Regency British vein. And Ashford has already settled on an appropriate title: The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.

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