We heard from Tim Bullamore, publisher of Jane Austen’s Regency World, who sent along a link to an article in today’s Times, claiming a new theory about the disease that caused Jane Austen’s untimely death. (Fair Warning: the article has a Truth Universally Acknowledged opening)
For more than 40 years Jane Austen’s death in 1817 has been attributed widely to Addison’s disease, a rare condition that only became treatable widely with drugs in the early 1950s.
However, after a trawl through the author’s papers, an expert in the disease has concluded that the author is more likely to have died from bovine tuberculosis, then common and probably contracted from drinking unpasteurised milk.
We are not a physician or a health professional of any kind. However, our understanding of Addison’s disease is that it is an autoimmune disease, and exacerbated by shocks or stress. In 1814 and 1815, two very stressful events occurred in Jane’s family: the failure of Henry Austen’s bank and a lawsuit against Edward Austen Knight. The first was felt by Jane a great deal more than it would be today; she left a small sum in her will to one of Edward’s servants, who lost money in the bank failure. The second affected her very personally, as it was a lawsuit from a connection of the Knights, from whom Edward had inherited his estate–including Chawton Cottage. If the lawsuit went badly, the Austen ladies could have lost their home. (The lawsuit was settled, but Edward had to pay out a great deal of money to do so.)
In March 1816, Jane’s uncle, Mr. Leigh Perrot, died; he had long promised to leave some of his large fortune to his sister, Mrs. Austen, and his nieces, but when the will was read, everything was left to the capricious fancy of Mrs. Leigh Perrot (and indeed she dangled her fortune, carrot-like, in front of Jane’s brothers and nephews in her later years, to get them dancing to her tune). This was another shock to Jane’s system.
And let’s face it, Jane wrote and published four books in four years, and gained herself a measure of fame and even a little pewter. While that is a good kind of stress, it is stress nonetheless.
It seems to us to be quite natural that the symptoms of an autoimmune disease would be exacerbated by these events, and wear down her body so that she was unable to fight off the little bugs that pass through our bodies unnoticed under normal circumstances; and ultimately, it seems to us that the nature of Jane’s final illness is not really important. We’ll never know, and it’s not the most pleasant subject about which to speculate in our opinion.
ETA: The Guardian also has an article, with a few more details. We also forgot to mention that Addison’s is often secondary to tuberculosis, and indeed in our own research have seen Addison’s referred to as “tuberculosis of the adrenal glands.”
ETA 2: Hee–the comments in the post about this on Jezebel are HIGH-larious, particularly the CSI: Miami references (AND A CARTOON OH EM GEE).