Three pairs of newly examined spectacles believed to have belonged to Jane Austen are now being brandished as evidence she suffered from cataracts, possibly as a result of accidental arsenic poisoning, according to the British Library.
Just as the worldwide cult of the divine Miss A gets ready to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her death in July, now comes another spasm of speculation over her mysterious death at age 41, focused again on one of the few talismans remaining from her tragically short life.
Mention the words “Austen,” “arsenic” and “poisoning” in the same sentence and the world is off and running again about what might have happened to one of the great literary geniuses of the 19th century. For some Austen experts, it’s missing the point.
“If you want to see through Jane Austen’s eyes, it makes more sense to read the novels instead of worrying about the spectacles,” says Rachel Brownstein, author of “Why Jane Austen,” and a professor of English literature at Brooklyn College until her recent retirement.
The latest tumult was set off on March 9, when the British Library blog “Untold Lives” posted a report under the headline: “Did Jane Austen develop cataracts from arsenic poisoning?”
Sandra Tuppen, the lead curator for modern archives and manuscripts at the Library, wrote about the Library’s first-ever examination of three pairs of spectacles, locked away in Austen’s desk since her death and believed by her descendants to have been hers. The desk has been in the Library since 1999.
According to Tuppen, the spectacles were tested, revealing that they are all convex and thus would have been used by someone who was far-sighted. In other words, their owner would have needed the glasses for close-up tasks such as reading and writing. Also, one pair was much stronger than the others.
Austen is known to have complained in letters about her “weak” eyes. When the test results were shown to a London-based optometrist, Simon Barnard, he suggested she gradually needed stronger glasses because of a “serious underlying health problem,” and that might have been cataracts.
Cataracts could have been brought on by diabetes, although few lived even to 41 with that disease at the time. A more likely cause would have been accidental poisoning from a heavy metal such as arsenic, according to Barnard.
“Arsenic poisoning is now known to cause cataracts. Despite its toxicity, arsenic was commonly found in medicines in 19th-century England, as well as in some water supplies,” Tuppen wrote.
This is only the latest in a long list of theories about how Austen died, and it’s not even the first time arsenic has been suggested. Over the years, Tuppen wrote, Austen’s death has been put down to Addison’s disease (an endocrine disorder), cancer and the all-too-common problem of the time, tuberculosis.
In 2011, the crime writer Lindsay Ashford suggested in “The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen” that Austen was murdered by arsenic poisoning, after reading Austen’s description of the unusual facial pigmentation she suffered at the end of her life, which is common with arsenic poisoning.
Even if it was accidental the theory is already getting pushback from experts. “100 percent pure speculation,” declared Mark Blecher, a surgeon and the co-director of cataract and primary eye care at Wills Eye Hospital in Philadelphia, speaking to LiveScience.com.
For Brownstein, this preoccupation with the cause of Austen’s death endures because of the mystery, but “the mystique has nothing to do with the greatness of her novels,” she says.
“They’re not even sure they were Jane Austen’s [spectacles],” she says. “But here’s an object you can look at instead of reading the novels or thinking abut them….It seems awfully silly.”
But not to the British. So honored is Austen her face is on the 10-pound note.
And when American pop star and Austen fan Kelly Clarkson bought Austen’s gold-and-turquoise ring at a 2012 auction for more than $250,000, the British government blocked the sale and export (it can do that) of what it considered a “national treasure.” That allowed the Jane Austen’s House Museum to raise enough money to match the sales price and keep the ring in the United Kingdom.
Clarkson ended up getting a replica.
Maria Puente, USA TODAY