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Crime Writer Lindsay Ashford: Jane Austen Was Poisoned

11/15/2011 03:35 pm ET | Updated Nov 16, 2011

Until yesterday, Jane Austen was thought to have died of bovine tuberculosis or Hodgkin's lymphoma, a strain of cancer. But crime writer, Lindsay Ashford, recently told The Guardian that the untimely death of the beloved author was due to an even less innocuous offender: poison.

By the time she was in her 40s, Austen had completed six novels, including the often celebrated and studied "Pride and Prejudice." But while working on another book, "Sanditon," the writer came down with a painful illness that left her with discolored, brownish skin.

Ashford, author of the recently published "The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen" [Honro], read about these symptoms in Austen's letters: "I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour." Because she had researched poison and contemporary forensic techniques for her crime novels, Ashford was able to identify Austen's symptoms as potential arsenic poisoning. Arsenic would also explain Austen's slow decline and fatigue. Asford's suspicions were heightened "after she learned that a lock of Austen’s hair on display in a museum tested positive for arsenic."

As Flavorwire reports, arsenic does not necessarily equate to murder, as we're so often led to believe, because "a doctor could well have prescribed a medicine containing the element." Still, Ashford wishes not to rule out the option.

"In the early 19th century a lot of people were getting away with murder with arsenic as a weapon, because it wasn't until the Marsh test was developed in 1836 that human remains could be analysed for the presence of arsenic," Ashford said, also noting that Austen's family history was somewhat tumultuous, and there may have been "motive for murder."

Correction: We erroneously stated that Jane Austen was a Victorian author. In fact, she died 20 years before Victoria became queen. The error has been corrected.

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