Did Jane Austen die of arsenic poisoning? Maybe. Maybe not.
Jane Austen’s own life may have ended more tragically than the characters in her comedies of manners. Sandra Tuppen, lead curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1601-1850 at the British Library, proposes in a blog post that the Victorian novelist who penned “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice” may have died of arsenic poisoning.
After a test determined that a trio of spectacles found in Austen’s writing desk varied in strength, London-based optometrist professor Simon Barnard suggested that arsenic poisoning, which causes cataracts, may have been to blame.
Then again, maybe not. There is no trace of arsenic itself among Austen’s belongings. The evidence is shaky, and at the very least a bit of a stretch.
Barnard is careful to note other possible reasons for Austen’s various prescriptions, including using each pair for different activities such as writing and embroidery. Furthermore, as Dr. Cheryl Kinney, a national board member of the Jane Austen Society of North America told CNN, arsenic as a cause of cataracts seems far fetched. Most people’s eyesight degrades in their late 30s and early 40s due simply to age.
In her own post, Tuppen allows another possibility. The glasses may have been bought “off the shelf” rather than prescribed, and there is no way to know whether Austen wore them at all.
Still, aggrieved Austen fans taken in by the arsenic theory (doesn’t it make for a better plot?) should note that Tuppen isn’t suggesting anything nefarious. Arsenic was found in some 19th century English medicines and water supplies. If Austen was indeed poisoned, it was likely accidental.
The spectacles are currently on display in the British Library, but just in case, don’t get too close.
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