Sense and Sensibility or Arsenic and Revenge: Was Jane Austen Poisoned?

Arsenic and Revenge for Jane Austen?Crime author Lindsay Ashford is publishing a book based upon her research and her conviction that Miss Jane Austen was killed at age 41 by arsenic poisoning, possibly appearing as other kinds of illness.

In an article for the Daily Mail, Ashford writes:

Describing weeks of illness she [Austen] had recently endured, she wrote: ‘[I] am considerably better now  and recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.’. . .

What Jane described sounded very much like symptoms of arsenic, which causes skin-spotting if taken in small doses over a long time. Known as the ‘raindrop’ effect, it causes some patches of skin to go dark brown or black; other areas lose all pigment to go white. . .

But how could Austen have been exposed to arsenic? In the 18th Century it was present in all manner of goods, from candles and wallpaper to dress fabric and sweets. There was a jar of it in most households: used as rat poison, you could buy it loose at any grocer’s shop with no questions asked. A tasteless, odourless white powder, it was often mistaken for flour or baking powder, with fatal results. . .

Arsenic caused nationwide paranoia in the first half of the 19th Century. It was the murder weapon of choice because it was easily obtainable, undetectable and its deadly effects were likely to be mistaken for natural causes. Jane was known for her sharp tongue and she undoubtedly drew on the lives of those around her in her novels. Could she have offended someone enough to invite murder?

Ashford includes speculation on popular remedies of the day which included arsenic and the strange burning of letters by Jane’s sister, Cassandra, as well as the reservation of locks of hair which collectors of Austen memorabilia assayed for arsenic later. No concrete answers in this article—not surprising since there’s a book to sell—but do you think Austen fans will find it likely, merely possible, or an unhappy stirring up of questions best left unasked?


  1. Sophia Rose

    This Austen fan thinks a murder is unlikely and hype, but also thinks that the early death that was due to a vague illness and Cass’ letter burning could lead to a good fictionaly mystery premise.

    Look forward to reading it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Fiz

    It’s a horrible book and it really upset me, the idea of somebody doing that to Jane. Arsenic was often attached to bismuth, a stomach calmative in the 19th cent – it is far more likely that the bismuth was impure than the idea that somebody deliberately poisoned her.

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