A line from a letter English author Jane Austen (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma”) wrote a few months before her death in 1817 may provide a vital clue as to what killed her at the age of 41.
“I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour,” Austen wrote, causing a bell to go off in contemporary crime novelist Lindsay Ashford‘s head. What could cause such colorful symptoms? Why, arsenic, or course.
“As a crime writer I’ve done a lot of research into arsenic, and I think it was just a bit of serendipity, that someone like me came to look at her letters with a very different eye to the eye most people cast on Jane Austen,” Ashford tells The Guardian. “It’s just luck I have this knowledge.”
Arsenic a common component of medications at that time. Ashford also learned via the Jane Austen Society of North America that a lock of Austen’s hair bought at auction over 100 years after her death also tested positive for the substance.
Being a crime novelist, Ashford also thinks that there may have been some foul play involved, which she explores in her new novel “The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen.”
“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,” counters Janet Todd, an editor for the Cambridge edition of Austen’s work. “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.”