March 16, 2017
Jane Austen was definitely poisoned, unless she wasn’t
by Ian Dreiblatt
It was one of the greatest, most avoidable tragedies to befall nineteenth-century literature, unless it wasn’t.
Two hundreds years ago this summer, effervescent novelist, role model, and face-on-money-to-be Jane Austen died at the age of forty-one. Now, in a blog post for the British Library, researcher Sandra Tuppen writes that Austen may have died of arsenic poisoning — an assertion that’s almost certainly either true or false.
In particular, Tuppen’s suspicion is based on three pairs of glasses, found in an old desk. The glasses may have once been Austen’s, and, as Christopher D. Shea and Jennifer Schuessler write in the New York Times, they also may not have been. Their lenses are of varying strengths, which, Ben Guarino writes in the Washington Post, could mean that Austen needed a succession of prescriptions for her rapidly decaying eyesight, or could mean something totally different. If Austen’s eyesight was deteriorating, writes Susan Scutti at CNN, two main possibilities exist: either the deterioration was caused by arsenic, or it was caused by something other than arsenic. (What is pretty clear, though, is that English people two hundred years ago adored arsenic, which they put in their medicine, wine, glue, wallpaper, baby formula (I mean, probably), and, oh yeah, drinking water.)
Tuppen’s is not the first theory to suggest Austen was killed by arsenic poisoning; in 2011, crime writer Lindsay Ashford suggested Austen might have been murdered with the stuff. Tuppen’s hypothesis, which has Austen as the victim not of murder but of unintentional poisoning by atmospheric arsenic, is viewed by most as either agreeing or conflicting with Ashford’s.
At Live Science, Laura Geggel quoted Mark Blecher, co-director of cataract and primary eye care at Philadelphia’s Wills Eye Hospital, as calling the theory “one hundred percent pure speculation,” a characterization further analysis suggests may have exaggeratedly, understatedly, or accurately described the situation.
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.