The death of celebrated author Jane Austen has been subject to innumerable speculations, the most prominent of which is arsenic poisoning. No one really knows the true cause of her death, but there have been suppositions that she suffered from cataract, and may have died because of accidental arsenic poisoning.
Sandra Tuppen, lead curator at the British Library, on March 10 stated in a British Library blog post that Austen died due to arsenic poisoning. According to Tuppen, it is possible that Austen had developed severe cataract due to accidental poisoning from heavy metals like arsenic.
What The Spectacles Revealed
Austen, in her 41 years of life, wrote six major novels which included the pathbreaking Emma and Pride and Prejudice. After Austen's death in 1817, her sister Cassandra inherited her writing desk along with three pairs of spectacles used by the late author, which were in the drawers of the desk.
These possessions became family heirlooms and were handed down from one generation to another until in 1999, Austen's great-great-great-niece Joan Austen-Leigh entrusted them over to the British Library.
This is the first time that the British Library tested the spectacles with utmost care, and it was revealed that all the three spectacles are of "Plus" power and of increasing strengths. The three pairs of spectacles were named: Wire-framed pair, Tortoiseshell pair A, and Tortoiseshell pair B.
According to optometrist Professor Simon Barnard, the variation in strength can be because of several reasons. He states that Austen may have always been farsighted and initially, used the wide-framed pair with the lowest strength for reading and viewing at a distance.
"She later required a slightly stronger pair (tortoiseshell pair A) for reading, and used the strongest pair (tortoiseshell pair B) for extremely close work, such as fine embroidery, which would have been held closer to the face than a book," states Tuppen in her blog post.
Austen's Poor Eyesight: A Sign Of Accidental Arsenic Poisoning?
Tuppen thinks that Austen's eye condition deteriorated as a result of accidental arsenic poisoning. It is a well-known fact that Austen suffered from poor eyesight as she has written about the same in many of her letters.
Tuppen theorizes that the gradual decline in eyesight and need for stronger-powered glasses may have been a result of a health problem. Dr. Barnard doesn't rule out the possibility, saying that undetected health problems can bring about changes in vision for both long-sighted and short-sighted individuals.
Tuppen further elaborates her theory by saying that arsenic was commonly found in medicines in 19th century England. Earlier in 2011, crime author Lindsay Ashford also suggested that the celebrated author died of arsenic poisoning.
Ashford had earlier deduced this after going through Austen's account of an unusual face pigmentation she experienced at the end of her life. Tuppen says that the spectacles' power variations support the same theory and states that "Austen suffered from arsenic poisoning, albeit accidental."