Episode II of Austen’s Mysterious Death: Sleuth Kirstin Analyzes Every Clue.  Except the Ones that are Confusing.  Or Hard to Find.  Or that Just Don’t Really Interest Her.

Episode II of Austen’s Mysterious Death: Sleuth Kirstin Analyzes Every Clue. Except the Ones that are Confusing. Or Hard to Find. Or that Just Don’t Really Interest Her.

Last month, I wrote about two theories on how Austen died: tuberculosis and Addison’s disease, but neither seemed to fit all of our clues.  Click here if you’d like to revisit that post.

Before we dive back in, let’s revisit Austen’s symptoms, gleaned from the letters that Cassandra didn’t destroy.  Here they are again:

-Pain in her back, knee, and face

-Digestive troubles

-Skin discoloration: Her skin turned “black and white and every wrong color.”

-Fatigue and weakness

-Fevers that caused sleepless nights

-A weakened immune system

-Symptoms that came and went

-A discharge or hemorrhaging that lasted over a week that the attending physician felt was caused by “some large Blood Vessel [that] had given way”

Now let’s explore some new theories, sleuths!

Typhus

At age seven, Austen and Cassandra were sent to live with an aunt near a port city.  Do you know what else likes to live in port cities?  Lice.  Both girls caught typhus, caused by bacteria in the fecal matter of lice.  Yes, you read that right.  As if it isn’t bad enough to have bugs crawling all over you, these bugs also release the Poop of Death.  Jane nearly died and spent 18 months at home recovering.

The bacteria responsible for typhus can lie latent, allowing the illness to reappear years later as Brill-Zinsser Disease, and author Linda Robinson Walker suggests this is the disease that killed Austen.  Doctors of Austen’s time were unaware the illness could recur, and, further, would have thought Austen’s early exposure to typhus rendered her immune, so they would not have explored this as a possibility.

Walker notes that some of Austen’s symptoms are consistent with a recurrence of typhus—skin discoloration, muscle aches, fatigue, bilious fever.  Even Austen’s mysterious discharge/ hemorrhaging matches, as typhus patients bleed from the nose, eyes, ears, mouth and bowels.

This theory looks good, doesn’t it?  But wait…

Lupus

Michael J. Sanders, an emeritus consultant at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, theorizes that Austen had lupus, a chronic disease that affects mostly women—90% of lupus patients are female.  Lupus causes joint pain and weakens the immune system, both of which fit Austen’s symptoms.  Further, the multicolored lesions on Austen’s face were typical of lupus, as are symptoms that come and go.

That one’s plausible too, AND it leads to our next theory…

Lymphoma

Studies show that lupus patients have an increased risk of developing lymphoma, a form of cancer that inhibits the body from fighting disease.  If Austen suffered from lymphoma for many years, it would explain her bout with typhus when she was seven, as well as some of her infections as an adult, such as conjunctivitis (pink eye) and whooping cough.  However, lymphoma causes the lymph nodes to swell, and there wasn’t any mention of this in Austen’s letters.  But I like how the lymphoma theory raises the idea that maybe several of the theories are correct.  Maybe we don’t have to pick just one.

Now let’s move on to some of the more shocking theories.  (Are you sitting down?  Maybe you should.)

Poison!!

Austen’s desk contained THREE different eyeglasses, each of varying strength.  Why the three different prescriptions?  Optometrist and professor Simon Barnard theorizes that Austen had cataracts, caused by (dun dun dun…) arsenic poisoning.

Arsenic was everywhere during Austen’s era: the soil, glue, medicines, homemade wine, water, wallpaper.  It causes digestive issues and lesions on the face, both symptoms Austen mentioned.

I hate to kill the drama here, but most people discard this theory.  It’s not clear that arsenic poisoning causes cataracts or even that Austen had cataracts.  Maybe she had three different pairs of glasses because she was POISONED!!  Or maybe she had three different pairs of glasses because, you know, her eyesight was deteriorating.  Plus, if her sister was eating the same foods and living in the same environment, wouldn’t she have also been affected?  So it probably wasn’t Colonel Mustard in the study with the arsenic.  I suppose that’s just as well, as that’s not normally the plot Austen goes for.

Drug Overdose

Dr. Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, blames the laudanum Dr. Lyford administered to Jane shortly before her death.  The dose, strong enough to knock Austen out for nine hours, left her “in a state of quiet insensibility” that may have caused her to stop breathing.  Kelly spells it out for us: “We may have to consider the –frankly horrifying–possibility that Jane’s illness wouldn’t, on its own, have proved fatal, or not so soon, that it might have been the drugs, and only the drugs, that killed her.”

Yikes.  This is a disturbing theory.  Most agree that, before the dose, Austen was close to death.  But the drug overdose probably didn’t help.

Other Theories

I know it will surprise you to hear that this blog is not an exhaustive list.  Another theory, for instance, is breast cancer, which lupus patients also have an increased risk of developing.  And there are still more ideas that people have put forward.  But after covering poison and drug overdose, everything else feels like an anticlimax, doesn’t it?

Our Conclusion

So, there you have it.  I told you we’d arrive at an answer, and we have.

Question: How did Jane Austen die?

Answer: Not really sure.  No one is, since it happened over a century ago.

A small part of me is questioning why it took two blog posts to arrive at this conclusion, but, not to worry—it’s only a very small part.

Congratulations on joining me in solving this mystery so handily!  Next month, we’ll tackle Fermat’s pesky little enigma.

Alright, alright.  I suppose I can do better than that.  When I review our research, my best guess is that Austen had something big, like Typhus or lupus, that weakened her immune system, allowing her to contract another infection that was the direct cause of death.  The overdose of opiates expedited the process.  See?  We did reach an intelligent, if tentative, conclusion.

Austen’s Last Hours

Austen’s last recorded words were: “God grant me patience, Pray for me Oh Pray for me.”  She died on July 18, 1817, at age 41, her head on a pillow on her sister’s lap.  I’m moved by this picture of Austen dying in Cassandra’s arms, her sister staying with her and holding vigil on that last painful night.  As readers, we often lament Austen writing so feelingly about love and marriage but never marrying herself (but then we think, selfishly, “Good thing, that.  Freed her up for writing more novels”).  But perhaps the real love story of Austen’s life was that with her sister, Cassandra.

After Austen’s death, Cassandra wrote, “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”

What a beautiful tribute to Austen not as an author but as a sister and friend.  It reminds me of this quote from Emma: “Where shall we see a better daughter, or a kinder sister, or a truer friend?”

Where, indeed.

Your turn.  Who in your life would you dedicate the quote from Emma to?  (It does not have to be someone identifying as female.  Any gender works.)  I’d dedicate those words to my daughter.

 

I used these sites as research for this post:

https://janeaustensworld.com/tag/what-did-jane-austen-die-of/ (General info)

http://www.janeaustendetectives.com/blog/recent/brill-zinsser-disease- (Typhus)

https://chawtonhouse.org/2021/03/the-death-of-jane-austen/ (Lupus)

https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/11/health/jane-austen-eyeglasses-arsenic/index.html (Arsenic)

http://www.lonamanning.ca/blog/was-jane-austen-euthanized (Opiates)

https://janeaustensworld.com/2012/07/18/cassandra-writes-about-jane-austens-death-july-18-1817/ (Death)

 

Click the banner to visit Kirstin Odegaard’s website.

 

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14 COMMENTS
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DarcyBennett
DarcyBennett
July 18, 2022 7:06 PM

Enjoyed reading the theories. Wish there was a way to know for sure. Maybe one day dna testing will be advanced enough to give a definitive answer.

Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
July 16, 2022 2:14 PM

Thought provoking!

Kristin G McDonald
Kristin G McDonald
July 16, 2022 10:45 AM

Interesting!

Tom Odegaard
Tom Odegaard
July 15, 2022 6:03 PM

I like the typhus story.

“We did reach an intelligent, if tentative, conclusion.” Sort of like economics, isn’t it??

Good job, K.

J. W. Garrett.
J. W. Garrett.
July 15, 2022 4:11 PM

My cousin was my sister/friend, cohort in our adventures, mentor, advisor, confidant, and my list could go on and on. I lost her in 2018 and miss her terribly. I spent the day with her just before she died. She didn’t know me. To me, she was already gone. This post was interesting as to the various theories related to the death of Austen. Thanks for your research and sharing with us.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
July 15, 2022 2:49 PM

I would probably liken that quote to my Sister and my Mom. Interesting theories as to how Austen died. They all make sense in their own way.

Riana Everly
AuAu
July 15, 2022 9:27 AM

A fascinating journey into this mystery! Thank you for some intriguing thoughts. Lupus would make a lot of sense, since it would weaken her immune system, opening the door to a lot of these other diseases.
As always, with looking back at historical medicine, I wonder how we would interpret these symptoms and treatments now. And I have to wonder, in 200 years time, how our decedents will look at our medicine and treatments.

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