“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
That line from Pride & Prejudice has become the most recognized line Jane Austen ever wrote. Yet, it seems that a single sentence from a letter Austen wrote only a few months before her death is quickly usurping her famous line.
“I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little better, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.”
Those 25 words have created quite a stir thanks to crime novelist, Lindsay Ashford.
According to an interview with UK’s Guardian, it all started three years ago when Ashford moved to the village of Chawton and began writing her new crime novel in the library of Austen’s brother Edward’s former home, Chawton House. It was there Ashford began reading through Jane Austen’s personal correspondences. Having researched poisons for her crime novels, Ashford immediately recognized the symptoms Austen described in that sentence were alarmingly similar to that of arsenic poisoning.
Ashford then met with the former president of the Jane Austen Society of North America who informed her that a lock of Austen’s hair had been tested for arsenic by the now deceased American couple who purchased the hair through an auction at Sotheby’s in 1948, tested positive.
It seemed that everything started to click into place for Ashford and her diagnosis was simple and for some thoroughly startling-Jane Austen died of arsenic poisoning.
Now, the question remains-was it accidental/medicinal exposure to the poison or was it something more sinister, say murder?
Lindsay Ashford, like any good crime novelist, saw an opportunity to explore the path not taken by turning these facts into a murder mystery in her newest novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. Although being intentionally poisoned was not the only way to die of arsenic poisoning.
In Regency England, exposure to arsenic was a rather common occurrence-an occurrence that was often unintentional. In addition, this accidental exposure came in the innocent looking form of green paint, or rather what was known as Emerald or Paris Green.
In 1814, two men, Russ & Sattler, tired to improve Scheele’s Green paint, a paint that was made with copper arsenite. Their “improvement” resulted in a toxic pigment called ‘Emerald Green”. This bright green colour made with arsenic and verdigris became a big hit with dyers, painters, wallpaper designers, and cloth makers. Not only were the drawing rooms throughout England being plastered with this toxic colour, the ton were dressing themselves up in it as well as consuming it in the form of green-colored confectionaries.
Although Emerald/Paris Green was not the only source of accidental arsenic exposure to be found in Regency England. The poison was often found in the most simplest and accessible of products such as candles, glass products, leather, wallpaper, fabric, sheep dip, soaps, and in pharmaceuticals as a supposed treatment for rheumatism, which Austen suffered from.
While accidental exposure would be minimal, for someone with an underlying illness, minimal exposure could exacerbate the illness and even cause death. If it were arsenic poisoning through unintentional means or through medicinal use, an underlying illness would explain the reason why neither her mother nor sister succumbed to the effects.
Yet, we can neither prove nor disprove the theory of arsenic poisoning based on a hair sample and a line from a letter. Although the possibility does make for a good crime novel and Lindsay Ashford is seeking to use it just for that.
On the author’s website, she describes her novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen, as “the product of all that I have learned and imagined in the three years since I came to live in Chawton. It’s a work of fiction inspired by facts and I hope that those who read it will be both intrigued and fascinated by a possibility which had been overlooked until now…”
I for one can certainly see the basis of the novel as a potential truth, and I’m sure if you put yourself in the shoes of Jane Austen’s friend and protagonist of the novel, Anne Sharp, you too could believe the situation plausible.
In the time in which Anne Sharp lived, she would have heard and read about the arsenic related deaths that were occurring throughout England at the time. And since the Marsh Test was developed in 1836, she would have had access to that as well as seeing the symptoms Jane Austen suffered from. Curiosity is a part of human nature and I am sure that an inquiring mind would have put two and two together.
Let me reiterate the fact that Lindsay Ashford is not claiming that Jane Austen was murdered. She has expressed through numerous outlets that based on her research the arsenic found in Jane Austen’s hair was there by accidental exposure or more likely medicinal usage. In her novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen, Lindsay Ashford is exploring the what ifs. And I for one am glad that she has decided to explore this avenue.
I would love to hear your thoughts and comments regarding this matter.
Until We Meet Again,
Best Wishes & Happy Reading,