What Killed Jane Austen?

Posted on July 18, 2017 by Martin Oaks under Memorial
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what killed jane austen

Along with William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot, Jane Austen is definitely in the pantheon of great English writers. Today, July 18th, is the 200th anniversary of her passing at the age of 41 (although 41 seems young today, in that era women lived to be about 40 years of age). One of the great mysteries in literature, one which will probably be enduring, is what actually killed her.

For years it has been assumed that cause of death was Addison’s Disease – a disorder of the adrenal glands which results in symptoms such as fatigue, darkening of the skin, and nausea.  Others have suggested she died from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – cancer of the lymphatic system which produces symptoms similar of those of Addison’s Disease.

Austen had not been feeling well for about a year before her actual passing, but she was not given to be overly concerned about health issues – calling her condition bilious or rheumatism, she continued to write until several months before her death.

Like a bolt out of the veritable blue, on March 9th of this year, the British Library raised a dramatic and sensational new cause: arsenic poisoning.

The story goes back to 1999, when Austen’s great-great-great niece donated Jane’s portable writing desk to the British Library. Inside one of the drawers were three pairs of glasses said to belong to Austen — each one of them containing increasingly strong lenses. Following a series of intense testing, which used equipment from Birmingham Optical, it was determined that these glasses were owned by someone for close-up reading.

It is certainly true that Austen did have problems with what she termed her weak eyes. The fact that the prescriptions were getting stronger, could indicate that this condition was being aggravated by another underlying disease. It is also believed that the stronger prescription suggest cataracts, and according to London based optometrist, Simon Barnard (who is quoted by the British Library), cataracts definitely may indicate arsenic poisoning.

It should be remembered that arsenic was very much in evidence in Austen’s time: medicines, water supplies, and wallpaper all contained arsenic.

Again, it must be kept in mind that there is no proof that the glasses actually belonged to Austen. Furthermore, a number of experts are not buying this theory at all. Janine Barcas, from the University of Texas at Austin, has described the research as reckless; Deirdre Le Fay, an independent critic in England who has published a paper supporting the Addison’s Disease theory, is also less than persuaded.

In fairness to the British Library, their paper did point out that much of what they have written is based on speculation, and the goal of their work was heuristic value, i.e., something which will produce more research.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The uproar about Austen’s work really indicates how seriously the public and scholars have taken her to heart. None of her works are out of print, and “Pride and Prejudice,” perhaps her finest, has sold over 20 million copies.

Of interest to us here at Martin Oaks is the way she handles illness and death in her books. Many of her characters suffer chronic illnesses (she especially takes delight in skewering hypochondriacs), but unlike fellow luminaries, Shakespeare and Dickens, she never kills a major character.

Unfortunately for Austen, life did not imitate art in this regard: during her lifetime, she lost cousins, sisters-in-law, aunts, friends, and her father. Even her correspondence is full of mentions of deaths by miscarriage, stillbirths, and other ghastly passing.

Several of her characters experience a near miss with death; often these encounters produce life changing results. Perhaps she is remembered best not only for her insightful narratives, but also for a real sharp irony and poignant social commentary.

Because of the anniversary of her passing there have been many Jane Austen exhibits throughout the world. If you are interested in her work, you might want to check out either Jane Austen Society or the Jane Austen’s House Museum. The latter really gives you a feel for life as she experienced it.

Here’s to remembering one of the finest authors ever, Jane Austen. RIP.





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