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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Jane Austen: A Suspicious Death?

A British crime novelist, Lindsey Ashford, suspects Jane Austen’s early death at 41 may have been due to arsenic poisoning, according to The Guardian ("Jane Austen Died From Arsenic Poisoning," Nov. 14, 2011). Several years ago Ashford moved to Chawton, where Austen once lived, and became interested in old volumes of her letters. In one, she recognized Austen complaining of skin discoloration that sounded like symptoms of arsenic poisoning. As a crime writer, she had researched poisons. Arsenic was widely available in Austen’s era, used to treat everything from rheumatism, which Austen complained of, to syphilis.

But, Ashford doesn’t rule out a more nefarious conclusion. "I don't think murder is out of the question," she said. "Having delved into her family background, there was a lot going on that has never been revealed and there could have been a motive for murder.”

An editor for the Cambridge edition of Jane Austen disagrees, reports The Guardian. "I doubt very much she would have been poisoned intentionally. I think it's very unlikely. But the possibility she had arsenic for rheumatism, say, is quite likely," she said. "It's certainly odd that she died quite so young. [But] in the absence of digging her up and finding out, which would not be appreciated, nobody knows what she died of."

If you would like to read more about Austen, here are a few good biographies:

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman

Becoming Jane Austen: A Life by Jon Spence

Searching for Jane Austen by Emily Auerbach

Jane Austen: A Penguin Life by Carol Shields

Jane Austen: A Life by David Nokes

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