Reminiscing Over What Might Have Been with Jane Austen, by Regina Jeffers

Reminiscing Over What Might Have Been with Jane Austen, by Regina Jeffers

This coming weekend, we will remember the death of Jane Austen, who died 18 July 1817, but whose influence we all celebrate. There are many possible “causes” of her death at the age of 41.

One of those is Addison’s disease, identified by Sir Zachary Cope in 1964 as the culprit, is an uncommon illness that occurs when one’s body does not produce enough of certain hormones. The adrenal glands produce too little cortisol and often too little aldosterone.

The Mayo Clinic says, “Addison’s disease symptoms usually develop slowly, often over several months. Often, the disease progresses so slowly that symptoms are ignored until a stress, such as illness or injury, occurs and makes symptoms worse. Signs and symptoms may include:

Extreme fatigue

Weight loss and decreased appetite

Darkening of your skin (hyperpigmentation)

Low blood pressure, even fainting

Salt craving

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)

Nausea, diarrhea or vomiting (gastrointestinal symptoms)

Abdominal pain

Muscle or joint pains


Depression or other behavioral symptoms

Body hair loss or sexual dysfunction in women”


Obviously, no one of Austen’s time called what she had “Addison’s disease,” for the illness did not receive that particular name until about 1860.

Others are more skeptical of Cope’s assumptions. tells us “Her biographers, deceived both by Cassandra Austen’s destruction of letters containing medical detail, and the cheerful high spirits of the existing letters, have seriously underestimated the extent to which illness affected Austen’s life. A medical history reveals that she was particularly susceptible to infection, and suffered unusually severe infective illnesses, as well as a chronic conjunctivitis that impeded her ability to write. There is evidence that Austen was already suffering from an immune deficiency and fatal lymphoma in January 1813, when her second and most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, was published. Four more novels would follow, written or revised in the shadow of her increasing illness and debility. Whilst it is impossible now to conclusively establish the cause of her death, the existing medical evidence tends to exclude Addison’s disease, and suggests there is a high possibility that Jane Austen’s fatal illness was Hodgkin’s disease, a form of lymphoma.”

Caroline Hallemann in an article from Town & Country and Ben Guarino from The Washington Post  suggests that Austen’s three pairs of glasses, found in a desk belonging to Austen, indicate our favorite author had cataracts, and her vision had severely deteriorated before her death. The cause could be accidental poisoning from arsenic or some other heavy metal used in 19th Century medicines as well as being present in the wells of the day. Arsenic poisoning has been shown to be a source for the formation of cataracts.

Whether Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s disease, arsenic poisoning, or some other illness, my point is no matter the actual cause, like many of you reading this, I feel a terrible sense of loss for what might have been. How many more stories were there to write? There are some mention of previous illnesses in Austen’s letters. Naturally, we do not know what the letters her sister Cassandra destroyed might have held. Those letters we do have reveal Austen suffering several severe and debilitating illnesses over the years. We do know, for example, she had several bouts of a case of chronic conjunctivitis that impeded her ability to write. What we do not know is how much she suffered. How much her “gift” provided her comfort or tested her patience. How much her writing brought her joy and how it brought her pain.

We do know illness was to dominate the first few months of her life as well as the last. Her nephew and first biographer, JE Austen Leigh, faced with an almost total lack of family letters or other evidence was forced to admit that he knew “little of Jane Austen’s childhood.” [Austen-Leigh JEA Memoir of Jane Austen. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926:43] “By some quirk of chance, a family letter describing her birth at Steventon Rectory on 16 December 1775 has survived, and forms an important, first suggestion of a serious medical problem. Jane was born 4 weeks overdue, according to her parents’ calculations. Her father even made a joke about it in this letter to his sister-in-law, Susanna Walter.” (BMJ)

“Dear Sister,You have doubtless been for some time in expectation of hearing from Hampshire, and perhaps wondered a little we were in our old age grown such bad reckoners but so it was, for Cassy certainly expected to have been brought to bed a month ago.” [Letter. Austen, George to Susanna Walter, 17 December 1775. In: Austen -Leigh RA, ed. Austen Papers: 1704–1856, London: Pottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co 1942:32]

In another letter to Susanna Walter from December 1775, her father described Jane’s birth as thus, “Last night the time came and without a great deal of warning, everything was soon happily over. We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny and seems to me as if she would be as like Henry, as Cassy is to Neddy.”

There are so many things we do NOT know about Austen’s death, but I prefer to focus on the things we do know. I, especially, enjoy this article from Via Knopf at the Literary Hub. Give it a try when you stop to remember our dearest Jane this weekend and smile for we have been provided a bit of her greatness to hold close to our hearts.

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July 18, 2020 12:50 AM

Thank for the post. I too wondered how many novels she could have written if she got to live longer (maybe to 100). I do am thankful, though limited time she had, she was able to write these lovely stories (esp P &P).

Sharon Lathan
July 16, 2020 9:01 PM


Thanks for sharing your findings. I always wonder what might have been and how she may have concluded her unfinished works.

Sharon Lathan
July 16, 2020 9:02 PM
Reply to  Sharon Lathan


If one watches something like the fictionalized biography “Becoming Jane,” he/she cannot help but wonder how her life could have been different if she married Harris Biggs-Wither or even Tom Lefroy. For Jane, things were complicated by the fact that she had no dowry. Her father had financial difficulties and no money to pass on to his daughters, and Jane knew that she’d have to overcome that financial speed bump by being so charming or witty that a man could not refuse her.

In January 1796, Jane wrote an intriguing letter to Cassandra. “I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening,” she wrote. “I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat.”

It’s unclear if Jane was referring to an offer of marriage or just of a dance—but Jane’s biographers have speculated about it ever since. Either way, the youthful romance (if it was a romance) soon fizzled out. Lefroy moved back to Ireland and eventually became Ireland’s most senior judge.

Jane’s financial situation may have contributed to Lefroy’s lack of interest, but in 1802, a 21-year-old Jane got another chance at love. She was visiting friends when Harris Bigg-Wither, a brother of her friends, proposed to her. By then, Jane was relatively old in a world where women married young. Bigg-Wither was six years her junior (only 15), but she accepted him anyway.

The story might have ended there, with Jane Austen becoming Jane Bigg-Wither and her extraordinary life becoming an ordinary one of marriage and motherhood. But the day after accepting Bigg-Wither’s proposal, Jane did something astonishing: She broke the engagement.

July 16, 2020 8:44 PM

Interesting post, Regina!

Linny B
Linny B
July 15, 2020 12:56 AM

Really interesting post! THANK YOU for researching and sharing. Take care.

Sharon Lathan
July 16, 2020 9:01 PM
Reply to  Linny B


Glad you found it helpful, Linny.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
July 13, 2020 10:16 AM

Thank you for this post. RIP dear Jane. What might have been… indeed.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
July 13, 2020 9:09 AM

Good post! I will think of Jane this weekend fondly.?

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