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Arsenic and Our Jane

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It’s been almost disabling, this nothing interesting happening. The world having become entirely uneventful, no worries, no problems, nothing to engage the mind and heart. It’s a dull time to be alive, but at last there’s a break in the complete dearth of matters to care about. Jane Austen might have died of arsenic poisoning. And since she might have died of arsenic poisoning, she might have been murdered. If only the tedious old Janeites couldn’t be relied on to get their knickers in a twist, we could disinter her bones and put them to the test. Now are you excited?

The crime writer Lindsay Ashford moved to Chawton, where Austen lived, to write a novel about Austen, so it was fortunate that sitting in Chawton House reading her letters she came on one written not long 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.’

Not a bad description of some of the symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning. And murder? ‘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.’ Actually, delving into any family background will bring up more motives for murder than you can swing a rope at. But in fact, any time up to the early 20th century, you might paint your house or wear a dress in fashionable Scheele’s green, light candles, brush against your wallpaper, eat certain sweeties from the market, have a careless chemist mistake one unlabelled barrell of white powder for another, or take the ubiquitous Fowler’s Solution, handed out by doctors and pharmacists for whatever ailed you, and you were on the way to chronic arsenic poisoning.

A very weary sounding Janet Todd, who edited the Cambridge edition of Jane Austen, says mildly that she thinks it’s quite unlikely the novelist was murdered, though possible she died of arsenic poisoning from medication for rheumatism. Austen died young, and that’s a shame because it would be good to read the books she never got round to writing. But although I know that book writing is show-business, probably in Austen’s days as well as in Lindsay Ashford’s time, I really don’t care what Austen died of. Call me heartless. I don’t even care what Sylvia Plath died of, apart from I’m sorry she wasn’t a happy woman. Joe Orton? Christopher Marlowe? Don’t care. The death of the author in a more literary sense is only mildly intriguing. But while libraries are being closed and English Literature degrees being given the boot by universities intent on ‘proper’ work skills, I wish we could concentrate more on the writing than the life or the death of the author.

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