Nearly two centuries after her death, it’s still unclear what killed Jane Austen. Biographers have attributed Austen’s demise to everything from Addison’s disease to bovine tuberculosis to Hodgkin’s disease, any of which could have caused the year-and-a-half-long illness she endured before dying at 41 in 1817. But now, a crime novelist is floating a much more intriguing theory — that Austen died of arsenic poisoning. The Guardian reports that Lindsay Ashford stumbled upon a collection the author’s letters while at work on a book and noticed that the symptoms Austen described in her final months matched with her understanding of arsenic’s effects. It turns out that a strand of the author’s tested positive for the substance.
Now, even if Austen’s death was arsenic-related, that doesn’t mean she was murdered; a doctor might well have prescribed a medicine containing the element, which was widely used at the time. But Ashford — who has written a new novel, The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen, based on her findings — doesn’t think homicide is out of the question. “Having delved into her family background, there was a lot going on that has never been revealed and there could have been a motive for murder,” she told the paper. “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.” Read more about Ashford’s investigation and Austen’s mysterious death at The Guardian.