Ah, the halcyon days of Britain during the early 1800s, when life was more mannered and ever so much simpler — so simple, in fact, that one could be accidentally poisoned by arsenic. While any mystery fan knows arsenic is a staple in the savvy murderer's bag of tricks, the majority of poisonings from this chemical weren't nefarious; they were mistakes.
So goes a new theory about the demise of Jane Austen. As the video below indicates, no one is sure how she died, but some recent evidence points to poison. But from where does this new suspicion originate? Austen's glasses are a major clue.
What was causing her eyes to fail?
Like many readers and writers, Austen wore spectacles, possibly from straining her eyes over the tiny text that she both wrote and read, often by candlelight. Or perhaps she had a genetic propensity for poor vision, or a health problem that affected her eyes. Either way, her bad eyesight was something she complained about often in letters to friends.
Three pairs of Austen's glasses were found in a desk donated to the British Library — and what we know for sure is that they show her eyes got progressively worse over time. The library recently tested the specs to see what kind of prescriptions they held. One of the pairs of glasses had a very strong prescription, one a middling one, and the last one that would be common to anyone over 50 who wears reading glasses.
London-based optometrist Professor Simon Barnard hedges when he says that Austen's possibly natural poor vision simply worsened as she aged. But it's more likely, he told the British Library, that she had cataracts brought on by a health issue. The most common cause of cataracts during the early 1800s (besides diabetes, which, in the days before insulin, would have cut short Austen's life long before 41) is heavy metal poisoning.
It's highly likely that Austen was taking one or more medications that may have contained arsenic. She had been dealing with health problems since 1813, when her second novel, "Pride and Prejudice," was published. She had already been dealing with some kind of health problem, leading some scholars to conclude that she may have suffered for years from lymphoma, or Addison's disease, both of which are popular theories about Austen's untimely death. Or she could have been taking an arsenic-laced medicine for whatever was ailing her, and that medicine hastened her demise or caused it directly — after all, her earlier complaints might have been for ailments that cleared up.
Death by arsenic: Not a nice way to go, but not uncommon
If this sounds far-fetched, it's worth considering that chemical poisoning was incredibly common throughout the early and mid-1800s — and not just because medicines were unregulated and could contain anything, including poisons. Arsenic was found in plenty of places outside the pharmacy, and its dangers were mostly unknown. For example, a popular shade of green came from a dye called arsenical green, which colored women's dresses, accessories, and fabric shoes. (When the chemical leaked into people's sweaty feet, the wearers got sick, and in some cases, died.)
According to the book "Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present," by Alison Matthews David, we didn't know arsenic was poisonous until the 1830s. Toxicologists weren't able to test for it until British chemist James Marsh invented one in 1836. What this and later tests proved was that arsenic was everywhere: in candy and children's toys, insecticides and hats, candles and even wallpaper — the last being notable because arsenic's use in household wall coverings could cause to volatilize into the air. "Unbeknownst to its purchasers, the pigment reacted with wallpaper glue and mold spores in damp climates like England and released lethal toxic hydrogen cyanide gas into the home," writes David.
Barnard isn't the only one to suppose that arsenic was the cause of Austen's death: In 2011, crime writer Lindsay Ashford had a similar suspicion: "She came to this conclusion after reading Austen’s description of the unusual facial pigmentation she suffered at the end of her life — something commonly found with arsenic poisoning. Ashford’s novel, "The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen," strays from theories of accidental poisoning into rather more fantastical murder," writes Dr. Sandra Tuppen of the British Library in her investigation of the subject.
Of course, all of this information is still inconclusive; but put together, it may help us to eventually solve this mystery. Austen scholarship will no doubt continue, and perhaps in the future, scientific techniques will allow us to reach a more final answer. Until then, you can always visit the author's house in Bath (it's easily found during a walk of the city) and you can see Austen's spectacles, which have just gone on display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.