Author Lindsay Ashford moved to Austen’s village of Chawton three years ago, and began writing her new crime novel in the library of the novelist’s brother Edward’s former home, Chawton House. She soon became engrossed in old volumes of Austen’s letters, and one morning spotted a sentence Austen wrote just a few months before she died: “I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.”
Having researched modern forensic techniques and poisons for her crime novels, Ashford immediately realised the symptoms could be ascribed to arsenic poisoning, which can cause “raindrop” pigmentation, where patches of skin go brown or black, and other areas go white.
She said “After all my research I think it’s highly likely she was given a medicine containing arsenic. When you look at her list of symptoms and compare them to the list of arsenic symptoms, there is an amazing correlation. I’m quite surprised no one has thought of it before, but I don’t think people realise quite how often arsenic was used as a medicine. [But] as a crime writer I’ve done a lot of research into arsenic, and I think it was just a bit of serendipity, that someone like me came to look at her letters with a very different eye to the eye most people cast on Jane Austen. It’s just luck I have this knowledge, which most Austen academics wouldn’t.”
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