Since at least the 1960s, historians and scholars studying Jane Austen's life and work have been perplexed: What could have prematurely killed the English novelist at age 41? The Pride and Prejudice author's death over 200 years ago has been blamed on everything from cancer to Addison's disease. But now, crime novelist Lindsay Ashford presents new evidence suggesting that the likely culprit was arsenic poisoning. Here, a guide to the mystery:
Why does Ashford think arsenic is to blame?
Ashford was doing research for her new novel while living in Austen's village of Chawton, England, when a line in one of Austen's little-known letters caught her eye: "I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little," wrote Austen, "which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour."
How did she draw a connection from there?
"Ashford knew that one of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning is hyperpigmentation," when the skin "turns into a patchwork of dark and light areas with unusually high or low levels of melanin," says Ferris Jabr at Scientific American. It was all "thanks to a background in forensics and years of research for her own novels."
Then who killed Austen?
Maybe a doctor. Arsenic, an odorless white powder, was a commonly used medication in Austen's pre-Victorian days, treating everything from rheumatism to syphilis. Ashford heard from a friend that a piece of Austen's hair — donated to a museum in her hometown — tested positive for arsenic when it was received (the records have since disappeared). Although murder within her family is not "out of the question," the new clues point to the possibility that Austen died from being treated for something else (she complained of rheumatism in letters). The "alarm bells that had sounded," says Ashford on her blog, "when I first read Jane's description of her face during her illness were now deafening."
Is there any way we can know for sure?
Austen's hair was given to her friends and relatives — as was customary practice — and scientists have "at least three sophisticated techniques" they can use to test her follicles, says Scientific American's Jabr. "Finding extremely high levels of arsenic in Austen's hair," at least one sample of which resides in Austen's hometown, "would strongly indicate poisoning as the primary cause of the novelist's death."