Was Jane Austen Poisoned?

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Portrait of Jane Austen based on one drawn by her sister Cassandra. Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin/Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Austen, the author of classics such as "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility," may have died of arsenic poisoning, according to a crime writer who has reviewed the last letters of the British novelist.

The crucial clue lies in a line written by Austen a few months before her mysterious death in 1817.

Describing weeks of illness she had recently experienced, Austen wrote: "I am considerably better now and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour."

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According to Lindsay Ashford, a British crime writer, the description matches the symptoms of arsenic poisoning, "which causes skin spotting if taken in small doses over a long time."

"Known as the ‘raindrop’ effect, it causes some patches of skin to go dark brown or black; other areas lose all pigment to go white," Ashford wrote in the Daily Mail.

The crime writer strengthened her theory when she learned that a lock of Austen's hair bought at an auction in 1948 by a now deceased American couple, had tested positive for arsenic.

"The arsenic in Jane’s hair meant that she had ingested the poison in the months before her death," Ashford said.

Austen's untimely end at the age of 41 has long been a cause for speculation among historians.

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Her mysterious and fatal illness was first identified as Addison’s disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands; other diagnoses included the cancer Hodgkin's disease, the auto-immune disease lupus, Brill- Zinsser disease (a recurrent form of the typhus the novelist had as a child) and disseminated tuberculosis of bovine origin.

"All these conditions display some of the signs Jane reported, but none matches her description of her face in the letter," Ashford said.

She added that it is very likely Austen was given medicines containing arsenic.

Indeed, the poison was widely prescribed at that time for anything from rheumatism –- something the novelist admnitted to have suffered from — to syphilis.

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"There is, of course, another scenario: that she was deliberately poisoned. Improbable perhaps; but not impossible," Ashford said.

The crime writer explores the murder theory in her new novel, "The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen," focusing on Austen's family, which she believes is a source of shadows and doubts despite being thoroughly investigated.

"Much is missing. Cassandra (Austen' sister) burnt dozens of Jane’s letters when she died –- no one knows why," Ashford said.

As "letters and diaries cannot and will not tell us what really killed Jane Austen," the mystery over the last chaper in the life of Jane Austen is likely to remain unsolved.

It is quite unlikely that Austen's bones are exhumed for modern forensic analysis, Ashford admitted.

"It would provoke outrage among Austen fans, not to mention the scores of people who claim her as their distant relative. But stranger things have happened. Maybe one day the mystery of her death will be solved once and for all," she said.