Lots and lots of Alert Janeites (including some old friends who have been quiet as of late, as has the Editrix) have let us know about the spate of recent articles in which Lindsay Ashford, who not at all coincidentally has a new novel (as in, fiction) called The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen (which by the way sounds really interesting), is making the publicity rounds, resulting in a bunch of “news” articles breathlessly asking WAS JANE AUSTEN POISONED? OH MY GOD, WHAT SOCIOPATH POISONED SWEET SPINSTERLY JANE AUSTEN? We exaggerate, as is our custom, but not all that greatly. The Daily Fail’s sensationalistic headline is typical.
Ashford’s claim revolves around the lock of hair currently at Chawton Cottage was tested some years back and was revealed to have some arsenic in it. Ashford says that along with Austen’s comment in a letter about her skin being discolored, this indicates that Austen died of arsenic poisoning. Apparently one of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning is skin discoloration. That’s interesting to us, as some women in Austen’s time ingested small amounts of arsenic, or used skin lotions containing arsenic, to keep their skin white. Ashford points out that many medicines of the time contained arsenic, and perhaps such medications taken over a long period of time built up and poisoned Austen. Ashford is also not too shy to suggest (as apparently she also does in her novel, as in fiction, as in–dare we say it–Made Up Story) that if Austen did indeed die of arsenic poisoning, it could have been administered with malice aforethought.
Okay, so maybe it happened. Maybe Jane Austen quacked herself with medication containing rat poison that eventually built up and killed her. Maybe someone purposely poisoned her over a long period of time. We’ve read this, and we’ve read the other recent claims about What Killed Jane Austen, and all we can say is “maybe.” We will never know for sure what caused Jane’s death (short of digging her up, and then let us tell you the Editrix will be leading the torches-and-pitchforks crowd blocking the entrance of Winchester Cathedral. Not on our watch, Gentle Readers). While we can sympathize with the idea of solving a 200-year-old mystery, what difference does it make? Will it make Jane any less dead? Will it somehow reach back through time to allow her to live another five, ten, twenty years, finish Sanditon and write a dozen more books? No, it will not. So it seems to us that the motivation behind this is little more than bragging rights, and we find it distasteful, and the whole discussion tiresome.
That being said, we think Addison’s disease is as good an explanation as any, mainly because (according to our admittedly non-exhaustive research) critical periods of the disease can be brought on by stress, and Jane suffered two great shocks that caused her health to deteriorate: the failure of Henry Austen’s bank, and the failure of her uncle Leigh-Perrot to make provisions in his will to relieve the financial distress of his sister, Mrs. Austen, and her family, as he had long promised, instead putting his entire estate in the control of his tight-fisted wife. (Insert your own conspiracy theories about Aunt Norris here.) Also, Addison’s disease can cause skin discoloration, and as an auto-immune disease, also manifests in symptoms typical to what she described, which were less pain than fatigue, and seemed to be cyclical–she would get worse, than a little better, than even worse than before, then a little better, on and on. But it is hard for us to get much excited about the subject.