Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Jane's Death: A Medical Mystery

  Above: Jane Austen, 1810, as sketched by her sister Cassandra.

A summary of her symptoms points to poison and murder
One of Britain’s best-loved novelists, Jane Austen died at 8 College Street, Winchester, UK, at 4:22 am on Friday 18 July 1817, silenced  by an insidious disease whose symptoms were so very vague that the exact cause of death has puzzled medical doctors for almost 200 years.

Since 1960, physicians have put forward several possibilities, including Addison’s disease, bovine tuberculosis, Hodgkin’s disease, or Zill-Brinser disease (a recurrence of typhus).

The most recent wave of research now points to poison.

Crime writer Lindsay Ashford set off a firestorm of speculation in November 2011 when she announced that Jane Austen’s hair has tested positive for arsenic.  

It seems that Miss Austen’s death may, in fact, be a murder mystery.

A Very Vague Death Notice

In December 1817, only four months after Jane’s death, her brother Henry published the first editions of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, attaching to them a short biographical notice which told the reading public for the first time the name of the woman who had given them Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815).  

Up until Jane Austen’s death in July 1817, the author of these novels had been known to the general public only as “A Lady.” Jane’s name had been withheld because respectable women of the Regency period did not flaunt their charms in the public press, much less speak of their private medical complaints.

With her first public identification also came the first news of Jane Austen’s death.  In his Biographical Notice of Jane Austen, Henry takes special care to emphasize how dearly loved his sister was, and he describes the symptoms of her final illness in polite but vague terms that suggest a cancer or consumption:

“The symptoms of a decay, deep and incurable, began to show themselves in the commencement of 1816. Her decline was at first deceitfully slow; and until the spring of the present year [1817], those that knew their happiness to be involved in her existence could not endure to despair.”

“My Sad Complaint”

Jane Austen herself was equally vague. In her last letters, she refers to her illness as “my sad complaint” but gives no name to the disease.  She politely avoids detail and only occasionally mentions weakness, fatigue, bilious fever, discharges, and a mottled complexion.  

These symptoms, individually, may be caused by a wide variety of diseases or poisons. To narrow down the list and find the true cause, medical experts have puzzled over what one disease or one poison is capable of causing all of the symptoms.

Jane’s Last Letters

In an effort to define Austen’s symptoms more clearly, scholars have examined her last letters very carefully.  The University of Virginia Library’s online collection of Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, hyperlinked and free for review, provides an invaluable resource.  Researchers may also download the complete collection of Jane Austen’s letters in ebook form, under such titles as

The Letters of Jane Austen  (1884) at
The Letters of Jane Austen (1905) Ed. Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (Google Books), or
Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh.

Raindrop Pigmentation

Several people have remarked upon the black-and-white “raindrop pigmentation” mentioned by Jane in her 23 March 1817 letter to a niece, Fanny Knight (Letter No. 142 on the University of Virginia webpage).  Providing a snapshot of her health only four months before her death, Jane writes:

I certainly have not been well for many weeks, and about a week ago I was very poorly.  I have had a good deal of fever  at times and indifferent nights, but am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour.

Whether this mottled skin is a positive symptom of Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or arsenic poisoning is the question, and the subject of some heated debate.

Addison’s Disease?

Until recently, the most thorough and persuasive investigation was one conducted by a British physician, Dr. Zachary Cope,  who carefully examined the symptoms described in Austen’s letters and published his findings in the 18 July 1964 issue of the  British Journal of Medicine under the title “Jane Austen’s Last Illness.” 

Cope finds the first clear sign of onset around July 1816, based on the letter dated 8 September 1816 in which Jane mentions a back ache and fatigue. Based on the back ache, mottled skin and other symptoms, Cope concludes:  Jane Austen died of Addison’s Disease (a hormonal deficiency associated with tuberculosis of the adrenal system).  

“There is no disease other than Addison’s disease that could present a face that was ‘black and white’ and at the same time give rise to the other symptoms described in her letters,” said Cope.  “Addison’s disease is usually – Wilks said always – due to tuberculosis of the suprarenal capsules, and it is likely that it was so in Jane Austen’s case.”

Bovine tuberculosis?

In 2009, Katherine White, herself a victim of Addison’s disease, disputed Dr. Cope’s diagnosis.  She told Richard Greene of CNN: “When I read the summary that Zachary Cope had done of her symptoms, I thought, well, that’s not right.”

Austen states in her letter of 22 May 1817 to her friend, governess Anne Sharp, “My head was always clear, and I had scarcely any pain.” According to White, that is not something that someone suffering from Addison’s disease would normally say. “People tend to get a thumping headache and feel like they have the hangover from hell,” she said.

White has agreed with Cope’s alternative hypothesis – tuberculosis – and suggests Jane may have contracted TB through tainted or unpasteurized cow’s milk. 

Austen might also have been cross-infected with tuberculosis while nursing her brother Henry at his house in London, between October and December 1815.  Henry was seriously ill with a “bilious fever” just before Jane’s own illness began “in the commencement” of 1816.

Hodgkin’s Disease?

Claire Tomalin and Annette Upfal  believe that Hodgkin’s Disease (a form of cancer) is a much better match for Jane’s symptoms than Addison’s disease or tuberculosis.

Tomalin’s views are spelled out in her 1997 biography Jane Austen: A Life.

Upfal’s extremely detailed analysis of Austen’s symptoms may be found online in an article titled “Jane Austen’s Lifelong Health Problems and Final Illness:  New Evidence Points to a Fatal Hodgkin’s Disease and Excludes the Widely Accepted Addison’s,” printed in the 1 March 2005 edition of Medical Humanities.

Recurrence of Typhus?

Linda Robinson Walker has supplied an especially useful summary of Jane’s symptoms and the medical debate surrounding them in her article “Jane Austen’s Death: The Long Reach of Typhus?” (Jane Austen Society of North America, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter 2010). 

Walker carefully extracts quotes from Jane’s last letters and places them under the headings Bile, Weakness, Muscle-Joint Pain, Fever, Discolored Skin, Weakened Nervous System, Discharge and/or Hemorraghic Bleeding, and “I Know How to Treat Myself” (Letter of January 24, 1817).

Walker concludes that all of these symptoms, when combined with the emotional stressors of Henry Austen’s bankruptcy in March 1816, Edward Austen’s lawsuits (1814 – 1817), and the loss of a hoped for bequest from their uncle, James Leigh-Perrot, brought on a recurrence of Jane’s childhood typhus.

Arsenic Poisoning?

The popular press went berserk when Lindsay Ashford published The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen and announced in the 14 November 2011 book section of the Guardian (UK) newspaper that Jane Austen “died from arsenic poisoning.”

“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,” Ashford told the Guardian.

Time magazine, ABC News, the Week, the Huffington Post, the Scientific American and several newspapers picked up the story. The 5 December 2011 Scientific American concurred that “raindrop pigmentation” is indeed a symptom of chronic arsenic poisoning. 

Fowler’s Solution

Ashford speculates that Austen was using a popular stomach remedy called Fowler’s solution.  When Dr. Thomas Fowler invented Fowler’s solution in 1785, he gave the medicine some extra “kick” by adding one percent potassium arsenite (arsenic).  

The brand name may also have caught the eye of Jane’s sister, Cassandra, who had a boyfriend named Thomas Fowle. That Jane’s interference destroyed a romance between Cassandra Austen and  Thomas Fowle is mentioned in their letters of 1796-1797.

In 1817, Cassandra was Jane’s nurse and primary care giver. She destroyed almost all of their correspondence after Jane’s death. According to  Wikipedia’s biography of Jane Austen , only 160 out of an estimated 3,000 letters survived, and Cassandra heavily edited the 160 letters that were released.

Diagnosis: Murder?

Time magazine raised the grim question on everyone’s mind: “Was Jane Austen Murdered?

Ferris Jabr’s article for the Scientific American begins by pointing out that Jane Austen re-wrote her Will on 27 April 1817, leaving all the money made from her books to her sister, Cassandra, her brother Henry, and their cook, Madame Bigeon.  Cassandra was the main beneficiary.

The will was very short, written on a scrap of paper found in Jane’s writing desk, and never witnessed by a notary.  Cassandra removed Jane from their home in Chawton to Winchester a few days later.

 Murder for money cannot be ruled out, says Jabr, and “unlike all the other theories about Jane Austen’s death, the arsenic hypothesis can be easily confirmed or refuted by science.  All that’s needed is a little piece of Jane Austen herself – say, a sample of her hair.”

Scientists now have some tried and true techniques for detecting arsenic:  Chemical analysis (the “Marsh test” developed in 1836), Synchroton radiation based X-ray fluorescence (SXRF) spectroscopy, and neutron activation analysis.

Ringlets Rare

The Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, does indeed possess a lock of Jane Austen’s hair, but according to museum curator Louise West, they have not decided whether to move forward with such tests. They are reportedly concerned that testing might damage the hair.

According to Lindsay Ashford, the people who donated the lock of Jane Austen’s hair to the museum in 1948 had it tested, and the results came back positive.  

Unfortunately, records of these 1948 tests have not been located or provided for public inspection.   In fact, Ashford’s source, a former president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, may have been mistakenly referring to the results of a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) analysis of Jane Austen’s hair done by J.A. Swift for Unilever Research at Isleworth Laboratory in 1972 and published in Nature magazine. 

These results proved only that the Jane Austen Society’s hair sample had been damaged by sunlight, and that Jane did not take very good care of her hair during the last three months of her life.  

She had dandruff.

Without better test results for arsenic, or a baseline against which to compare the results, it is impossible to say whether or not the arsenic levels in Jane Austen’s hair were significantly higher than arsenic levels in the hair of an average English woman living in the year 1817.

The Arsenic Century

Recent testing done on the hair of Napoleon Bonaparte indicates he had extremely high levels of arsenic in his hair, but when scientists at the University of Pavia tried to compare the results to the average levels of other people living in the 1821, they were shocked to discover almost everyone had arsenic levels about 100 times higher than those found in hair today.

It seems that Jane Austen had the misfortune of living during highly toxic times.  James C. Whorton’s book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play confirms that many popular household products used in the 1800s contained arsenic, including well water, raw foods, tanned hides, paints, clothing dyes, facial powders, hair powders, candles, antimony pills, laudanum, patent medicines, and even embalming fluids.

The King of Poisons

While arsenic poisoning could be accidental, it was also an extremely popular means of murdering a person for political or economic reasons, as John Parascandola affirms in his book King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic (Potomac Books, 2012).  A tasteless and odorless substance that was easily obtained, arsenic was called “inheritance powder” because it could be mixed in small and undetectable doses with food or drink and the resulting symptoms were often mistaken for a natural death by cholera or stomach cancer.

In the case of Napoleon, whose British-paid physician diagnosed stomach cancer, historians called for a new round of hair testing when they discovered that Albine de Montholon, Napoleon’s mistress on the Island of St. Helena, possessed a book that gave detailed instructions for putting small doses of arsenic into food.
Books on poisoning became widely available during the French Revolution, and may easily have travelled to London and Jane Austen’s neighborhood.  

As Nancy Mayer, Regency researcher, points out in “The Ladies Medicine Chest,” almost every country household made their own remedies and drugs during this period.  In the course of learning which herbs were dangerous, British women became experts on poisons and poisoning.  A husband who criticized his wife’s cooking did so at his own risk.

Village Villains

With regard to the means, motive, and opportunity to commit murder, Madame Bigeon, the Austen Family cook, deserves special attention, as does the village apothecary in Alton, where the Austens bought their medicine. The cook and druggist certainly had many opportunities to poison Jane.

With regard to clear motives for murder, one must note that Jane Austen began to feel unwell in Spring 1816, at almost exactly the same time that her brother Henry Austen’s bank failed.  

The failure of the  Austen, Grey and Vincent bank, which had a branch in Alton High Street (now a museum), involved sums of money far greater than Jane’s small fortune of £800. During an age without banking insurance, several of the local families in Alton, a small town, lost their life savings.  They may have blamed the Austen family personally for their loss.

Indeed Ellen Moody’s detailed chronology of Henry Austen’s bank failure, based on still existing legal records, indicates that Henry Austen was ruthless in his efforts to collect money from his own debtors. In April 1815, James Hartfield, a farmer of Candover, Hampshire,  failed to repay £3,748 to Henry’s bank and Henry issued an “extent” or legal order that sent Hartfield, his wife and seven children to Fleet prison (debtor’s prison) for two years.

These records put paid to any notion that the Austen Family were sugar, spice and everything nice. In fact, by 1817 they were bitterly hated by some of the townspeople in Alton and in deep trouble with some very important men in London, as well. 

Jane Austen was the pride and joy of the Austen family, and she made an easy target for anyone from London or Alton who wanted revenge. 

Jane was a sitting duck.

Above: Detail from a portrait of Jane Austen found in the "Friendship" book of James Stanier Clarke

The Trouble with Henry

Jane Austen's brother Henry was not only her publisher, but also a captain in the British army and a banker. The trouble with Henry was that he had made most of his fortune during the Napoleonic wars by selling officer's commissions. It was perfectly legal at that time, in England, for a gentleman of noble family to go to the bank, take out a loan, and use the money to buy an officer's rank.

Henry's bank, Austen Grey & Vincent, had a branch in London that specialized in such loans and commissions. Henry knew several important admirals and generals who could guarantee the applicant the rank and position they desired -- for a slightly higher fee.

In return for their consideration and favor, the admirals and the generals received "loans" from Henry and a generous line of credit at the bank.

The free flow of this money during the height of the war made Henry and his sister Jane very popular at court. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Jane's novel Pride and Prejudice was widely applauded in London Society in 1813. The Prince Regent himself made a fuss over Jane.

After the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815), however, the British army was demobilized and Henry's business in commissions declined very rapidly. He was no longer able to meet his obligations. His brothers had invested their fortunes in his bank, and if he did not keep the business afloat, they would be sunk with him.  His desperation to collect on bad loans therefore outweighed the pangs of conscience involved when collecting from the poor families and tradesmen of Alton

Facing the nightmarish possibility that he might be responsible for the financial ruin of the Austen family, and realizing that he might spare many small debtors in Alton if he could collect on the larger accounts in London, Henry began to knock upon the doors of the important army and navy officers to whom he had "loaned" great sums of money during the war.

Their cordial smiles quickly turned to sullen frowns. Many simply slammed the door in Henry's face. They had never understood the money to be "loans" and they disliked the tone of Henry's voice when he spoke of producing letters in court.

Part II:  Who Killed Jane Austen?

Powerful Enemies in London

Today, Jane Austen is widely admired and loved, the world over.  It is difficult to imagine anyone wanting to hurt her.  One assumes that she and her family lived peacefully in the country and moved in social circles that were gentle, kind, gracious and well-mannered.

For the most part, that assumption is true.

But one must remember that  Jane’s brother and sister-in-law, Henry and Eliza, acted as Jane’s social hosts, business representatives and literary agents in London from 1804 to 1817.  When one looks at the Austen family’s social networks in London, their Army and Navy connections, and then examines closely their political networks in banking, one soon discovers a powerful group of people in London with strong motives to hate Henry Austen and his sister Jane:  The Ministry of All The Talents.

This was a collection of powerful men in the Whig Party who were on chummy terms with the Prince Regent.

The Austen family were members of the New Tories, a political party at war with the Whigs and George IV, the Prince Regent.  As New Tories, the Austens therefore remained on an extremely awkward footing at court. 

Prince George may have patronized and praised the novels of Jane Austen publically, but privately he viewed the Austens and their political network with deep discomfort and distrust.

The feeling was mutual.

Above:   Warren Hastings  (1732 - 1818), the political patron of Henry Austen and his sister Jane.

Warren Hastings: The Austen Family Godfather

Prince George disliked the Austen family because he intensely disliked their powerful patron and “godfather” in London, Warren Hastings.

Hastings had been the first Governor General of India (1773-1785) and then became a senior manager of the British East India Company -- the "Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies," a joint-stock company formed by merchant bankers and the captains of cargo ships who transported tea, silk, salt, spices, opium, saltpetre, indigo dye, etc., from India to Britain. 

As the head of a company of international merchant bankers that literally had fleets and armies at its command, Hastings was very nearly as powerful as the King himself.  His friends were influential bankers and investors would often meet up with sea captains at the coffee shops lining Fleet Street, near the Bank of England, to discuss their investments in ships sailing to and from the East.  

Naturally, Hastings had close ties to the British navy, and one of the best news and intelligence networks in the world.  He was a man the king could not ignore.

He was also Jane Austen's "uncle."  Whilst living in India, Hastings had formed a very close and lifelong bond of friendship with Jane Austen's aunt,  Philadelphia Austen, and Philadelphia's husband, Tysoe Saul Hancock.

Above:  Eliza Hancock (1761 - 1813), the daughter of Jane Austen's aunt, Philadelphia Austen, and Tysoe Saul Hancock.  Eliza was born in India.

The fact that Hastings treated Philadelphia's daughter, Eliza Hancock (later Eliza the Comtess de Feuillide), as his own daughter suggests that Hastings was the natural (if not legal) father to Eliza.  When Jane's brother Henry finally won a captain's commission in the Army and married Eliza (his first cousin), his fortunes were  made:  Henry became, for all practical purposes,  the son-in-law to Warren Hastings.

After the wedding, Hastings introduced Henry to men in London's banking community, and raised funds for Henry. In fact, Hastings became a primary investor in Austen Grey and Vincent, Henry's new bank.

Thus Henry was seen by people in London as Warren Hastings' protege, partner and agent.  Within the banking community of London, he gained instant respect over night. 

He also gained instant enemies.

When Jane Austen travelled about the streets of London in the company of Henry and Eliza, she too was marked as one of Hastings' young friends, and she too gained enemies.  Warren Hastings' standing in business circles carried so much weight, that he was considered by many to be more important than the King.  It was no small thing to be the niece of his mistress.

Consequently, it is safe to say that the first time Jane Austen walked down Fleet Street in the company of her "uncle" Warren Hastings, she gained an entire network of enemies.

 Above:  Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, leader of the New Tories, faces off with Charles J. Fox, leader of the Whigs, at Westminster Chapel, 1788.

The Regency Crisis

The Whigs saw Warren Hastings as more than just a strong supporter of the Tory party and King George III, more than just an opponent of the Whig Party and the Prince Regent.

Imagine, if you will, how George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams felt about King George III.

That's how the Whigs felt about Warren Hastings.  He was  the Daddy Warbucks of the entire New Tory movement.

In fact Warren Hastings had played a key role in financially backing opposition to the Whigs and the Prince Regent during The Regency Crisis of 1788. With support from Hastings, the New Tories, led by Prime Minister William Pitt, angrily accused the Whigs, led by Charles J. Fox, of deliberately poisoning King George III in order to place the king's son, George IV, upon the throne.

This accusation sounds altogether too monstrous to be true: What kind of son would poison his own father? 

But Hastings and his Tory friends may have been onto something -- they may indeed have been right.

The Poisoning of King George

In 2005, a series of tests on the hair of King George III indicated that he was indeed saturated with arsenic.  A team led by Martin Warren at the University of Kent consulted the notes of the king's royal physicians and tried to determine what might have caused such high levels.

It seems that one of the King’s most eminent and respectible doctors,  Matthew Baillie, had chosen to treat the King’s medical complaint (porphyria) with an arsenic-based "emetic of tartar" that sent the king even further into la-la land.

Was Baillie unaware of the effects of arsenic? Or did he know exactly what he was doing, and administer just the right dose -- enough to disable and control the king?

 Above: A Mezzo-tint of King George III (1738 - 1820) as the Prince of Wales in 1751.

A Game of Thrones

The 1994 film The Madness of King George portrays George III's lapses into madness as a genuine disease, not as an illness man-made by the forced injection of drugs and poison.  The film suggests that, when the quacks were replaced with an enlightened physician, the king gradually recovered his reason and lived happily ever after.

In fact the drama did not end there.  In 1811, King George III lapsed once again into "madness" when he was returned to the care of Dr. Matthew Baillie, and Prince George acceeded to the throne.

As the Prince Regent, George IV became the King of England in all but name.

Only one thing kept young George in check:  A secretive and extremely powerful group of Tory shadow ministers who sat on the King's Privy Council, acting on behalf of King George III during his period of disability.

Warren Hastings, the Prince Regent's archenemy, joined the King's Privy Council in 1814.

Thus, at the height of Jane Austen's brief career, the Austen family were financially and politically backed by a Tory network that had very actively lobbied against the Prince Regent and his friends since the Regency Crisis in 1788 -- and the Prince Regent was very well aware of that fact.

By 1815, Warren Hastings was almost literally breathing down Prince George's neck.  The prince's finances were in great disarray, and by means of these great debts he was kept on a short leash by the Council.

If Prince George smiled at the Austens, then,  it was not necessarily because he wanted to smile.

He had to.

Blackmailing the Duke of York?

Prince Frederick, the Duke of York and Albany (1763 - 1827), was another powerful person at court who had reason to dislike the Austen family in 1815.  As the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, he was especially alarmed to learn that Henry Austen was knocking on doors in the City, calling in loans, accusing senior Army officers of failing to meet their obligations, and threatening to publish embarrassing letters at court.

The second son of King George III and younger brother to George IV (the Prince Regent), Prince Frederick had served as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army between 1795 and 1809.  He had then been forced to step down on 25 March 1809 when his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, testified before the House of Commons that she had used her influence with the prince to "illicitly sell army commissions under Frederick's aegis."

Mary Anne's testimony created a national uproar, and later that year she published her memoirs, which sold quite briskly.  Prince Frederick reportedly had to pay her a very pretty sum to prevent publication of the letters that he had written to her during their relationship.

Parliament eventually acquitted Prince Frederick of receiving bribes by a vote of 278 to 196, and in May 1811 Prince George had reappointed Prince Frederick to the post of Commander-in-Chief.

It was at exactly this time (ca. 1811) that Henry Austen began trading in army commissions with Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Lord Moira (1754 - 1826), a close friend of the Prince Regent and the Duke of York who very nearly became Prime Minister in 1812 after the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval (1762 - May 11, 1812).

If one speculates that Henry acted as a front man to secretly pass bribes to Prince George, Prince Frederick or Lord Moira, and played some role in funneling bribes to them through his bank, then the picture becomes very ugly indeed.

Take a step back, and ask whether Henry was acting on behalf of Warren Hastings (a major investor in the Austen family bank), and it begins to look as if Prince George and his brother Prince Frederick had just been very cleverly gulled and cornered by Warren Hastings.

In other words, Hastings may have used Henry Austen and his bank as a honey trap, to lure Prince George and Prince Frederick and their friend Lord Moira into a compromising position. 

By taking bribes, they were made vulnerable to blackmail and threats of public scandal.  What they feared most, in 1815 was any threat of publication.

All eyes now turned with great interest to Jane Austen, and the news that she would soon release a new novel.

Novels with a Secret Key

Although this fact is often lost on modern readers, Jane Austen’s novels were "novels with a key" -- that is, they were stylish romances, written by a woman for women in the popular French genre of the romans a cle cherished by 18th-Century ladies at court.

For well-bred French ladies, the whole purpose of reading a novel was amusement: They wanted more than just handsome sketches of breath-taking views and dramatic scenes: They also wanted to giggle over court gossip and play at guessing games and charades.

Jane Austen's novels were known in their own day to be parodies based on real characters at court in London and Bath, people whose names had been slightly changed or altered but whose characters were quite recognizable to those in London society. 

It is not surprising, then, that Jane Austen herself began expertly aiming darts at the Prince Regent in 1815 -- Austen scholars have recently discovered some of the keys to her novel Emma (first published December 1815), which contains cleverly placed puns clearly aimed at mocking the Prince Regent, his debts, his corruption, and his many mistresses.

Two articles, "Jane Austen's Tribute to the Prince Regent" by Coleen A. Sheehan (2006) and "The Secret Languages of Emma" by Juliet McMaster (1991) note that Jane hid the keys within a game of charades -- the game she was used to playing at court.

According to Sheehan, "previously undetected barbs and innuendoes aimed squarely at the irresistibly large target of the Prince" may be found in two or three scenes.

"An insinuation concerning the Prince’s extramarital affairs occurs, for instance, in Austen’s naming of the teachers at Mrs. Goddard’s boarding school. Among the women rumored to have been mistresses of the Prince were Maria Fitzherbert . . . and John Nash’s wife, Mary Ann Nash (neĆ© Bradley). There were also whispers that both of these women had children sired by him. At Brighton, where Mrs. Fitzherbert and the Prince lived vicariously as husband and wife (and which was dramatically and extravagantly remodeled by John Nash), she was addressed by some as 'Mrs. Prince.' Two of Mrs. Goddard’s teachers are appositely named Miss Nash and Miss Prince."

 Above: A cartoon illustration by James Gillray, titled "A Voluptuary," mocks the Prince Regent.

Jane's Addiction

In September 1815, Austen submitted her proofs of the novel Emma to the publisher, and a copy was handed up to Prince George, who was a keen reader of her novels.

Translation from the Prince's POV:  Miss Austen had just published the names of his mistresses for all the women at court to see and titter over, and she had embarrassed and mocked him while doing so.  Prince George had been made a laughing stock.

Even if we do not place these jests into the context of more serious blackmail threats from Henry Austen, Prince George had no reason to be amused. Rather, he may have reached the (mistaken?) conclusion that Henry and Jane were now working as a team to blacken his name.

It seem's that Jane's addiction to delicious wit got the family into trouble this time.

In October 1815, Jane's brother Henry fell suddenly ill.  Feigning concern for Henry's health, the Prince Regent insisted that the King's own Royal Physician, Dr. Matthew Baillie, should attend Mr. Austen and administer remedies.

Henry wrote to Jane, and informed her that he was standing on death's doorstep -- but he was being cared for by Dr. Baillie.  Greatly alarmed, Jane rushed to London to tend to Henry herself, and she politely but firmly sent Dr. Baillie away, replacing him with her own apothecary.

Henry soon began to feel much better.

Dr. Baillie informed Prince George that Miss Austen was in town.

In November 1815, the Prince Regent's librarian James Stanier Clarke invited Jane to visit the prince's London residence.  He tactfully made it clear that this was not a request so much as an order.

He also suggested, with good intentions if somewhat awkwardly, that Jane would do well to dedicate her forthcoming novel Emma to the Prince.


The framework of Henry's bank failure adds great significance to the Prince Regent's 13 November 1815 meeting with Jane Austen.

If Henry were, in any way, threatening to publish letters that would blacken the names of Prince George or Prince Frederick or Lord Moira, if Jane indicated in any way that she held these letters or suggested she might use them if any harm came to Henry, if Jane for any reason accused Dr. Baillie of attempting to poison her brother, or openly speculated upon the role that Dr. Baillie had played in King George III's illness,  then both the Prince Regent, Prince Frederick, Lord Moira and Dr. Baillie himself had several strong motives to want Jane Austen silenced forever.

Mask of Irony: The Secret Language of Emma

At the very least we may be sure of one thing: Jane accepted James Stanier Clarke's  suggestion that she dedicate her new novel to the Prince Regent. 

Having nearly lost the life of her beloved brother while he was under the care of the prince's physician, Dr. Baillie, Jane was clearly disinclined to dedicate her novel Emma to the prince. But as a woman sensible to the social expectations at court she understood that this "request" was also, in fact, an order.  She therefore penned the following dedication:

"To His Royal Highness, The Prince Regent, This Work Is, by His Royal Highness's Permission, Most Respectfully Dedicated, by His Royal Highness's Dutiful and Obedient Humble Servant, the Author."

A Shroud of Silence

What strange business was going on between Warren Hastings, Prince George IV, Henry Austen and Jane? Like Harriet puzzling over the clever riddles, charades and clues embedded in Chapter 9 of Emma, we are left stumped.

But perhaps, like Harriet, we do not need to be too terribly clever to see that which is right before our eyes.

Only months later, in Spring 1816, Jane Austen fell ill. By July of 1817, she was dead.

With the help of friends in the church, Henry Austen was able to secure for her the special honor of burial at Winchester Cathedral, where she lies to this day.

Henry Austen profoundly regretted his past and used the small bequest in Jane's will -- what was left of the money from all of her novels -- to buy himself a position as a minister. He took Holy Orders.

Near the end of his life, he claimed in one of his letters that the family bank had been ruined by Lord Moira, who had refused to honor a large loan and repay the sum.

Jane Austen's books were suppressed for more than 30 years, and only achieved popularity again in the 1870s, when they were finally republished during the reign of Queen Victoria.

With regard to Cassandra Austen's strange and disturbing decision to burn more than 3,000 of Jane Austen's letters, the answer is fairly obvious: The letters had to be burnt.

It is a fact universally acknowledged, that if the Prince Regent's friends have financially ruined one's own family and attempted the political murder of one's brother and sister, because they made threats to publish certain letters, it makes no sense whatever to hold onto those letters oneself. 

The letters must be burnt.

Her name may have been Cassandra, but Jane Austen's sister certainly had the good sense to keep her mouth shut.

A Post Script: To Those Who Doubt A Prince's Deadly Nature

Many may object that this article leads the reader to an unexpected conclusion: That the British Royal Family itself may have arranged to have one of England's most popular novelists poisoned.

It may seem mean-spirited to attribute such vicious behavior to a family of such excellent breeding. One might prefer, rather, to place the burden of guilt upon one of the low: say, perhaps, the cook, Madame Bigeon, or even upon Jane Austen's beloved sister, Cassandra, both of whom quite clearly gained a small moiety from Jane Austen's death.

To those who take this view, this author would suggest re-reading of The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.  It is the very nature of Princes to be ruthless in matters of self-preservation.

The author of this article would also point out some attributes of the accused that merit careful consideration:  Neither Madame Bigeon nor Cassandra Austen ever stood accused of committing murder or using poisons in a court of law.  Both enjoyed sterling reputations before and after Jane Austen's death. They carefully maintained their reputations as kind and virtuous gentlewomen for the remainder of their lives.

Prince George, on the other hand, was publically denounced as a poisoner on the floor of Parliament itself.  He was accused of having poisoned his own father in 1788, long before Jane Austen's death.  Recently, he has also been accused of having arranged for British doctors to poison Napoleon Bonaparte.  Laboratory tests seem to support both accusations: the hair of both King George and the Emperor Napoleon have been shown to contain surprisingly high levels of arsenic.

To those who insist that the Prince Regent would never have stooped so low as to poison a woman, this writer points out a series of strange events surrounding the death of the Prince's own beleaguered wife, Caroline of Brunswick.

George hated Caroline and cast her off.  He took many mistresses and, in an effort to gain a divorce, he sent agents to Italty to investigate Caroline on suspicion of adultery.  They were not able to prove their case.

In 1820, when King George III finally passed away, George became the King of England and Hanover, and Caroline returned to England to claim her position as Queen.  George rejected her.

Caroline went on to lead a popular reform movement, calling on George to clean up his government and mend his ways.  This did not endear her to him.

At his coronation ceremony, George literally had the doors of Westminster Abbey blocked to prevent Caroline's entry.  He was furious that she had made a big scene on the day of his coronation.

A few hours later, the very night of the coronation, Caroline fell suddenly ill.  Within three weeks she was dead.

The details of her death may be found in Jane Robins' book Rebel Queen (2006).  According to Robins (p. 303), the cause of Princess Caroline's death puzzled her doctors. It was diagnosed by her physicians as some sort of vague intestinal disease, perhaps stomach cancer.

There were rumors that she had been poisoned.


As this weblog attempts to demonstrate, there are many online resources available to historians and medical experts who wish to solve the puzzle of Jane Austen’s last illness on their own. Please see a list of suggested reading materials below.

Ashford, Lindsay. “I’m Convinced thatJane Austen was Poisoned by Arsenic: A Startling Revelation by One of Britain’s Leading Crime Novelists,” The Daily Mail Online, 13 November 2011.

Ashford, Lindsay.  The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen. (Isis Large Print, 2011).

Austen Family Personal Papers, at the National Archives.

Austen, Henry.  BiographicalNotice of Jane Austen, preface to Persuasion and Northanger Abbey (London, 1817).

Austen, Jane . Jane Austen's Letters To Her Sister Cassandra and Others, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Austen, Jane. The Letters of Jane Austen, 2d ed., Ed. J.W. Chapman.

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Will at the National Archives.

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

Austen-Leigh, William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh.  Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters.
Project Gutenburg Online Edition (hyperlinked) with a Chronology of Jane Austen's Life.

Ball, Hendrik. “Arsenic Poisoning and Napoleon’s Death. “ The Victorian Web, National University of Singapore citing “The Strange Story of Napoleon’s Wallpaper,” on the Grand Illusions website.

Cope, [Vincent] Zachary.  “JaneAusten’s Last Illness.”  British Medical Journal 18 July 1964: 182-83.  

Greene, Richard Allen. “What Really Killed Jane Austen?” CNN 2 December 2009

Highfield, Roger. “Napoleon Didn’t Die from Arsenic Poisoning,” The Telegraph, 11 February 2008,

Jabr, Ferris.  “Was Jane Austen Poisoned by Arsenic? Science May Soon Find Out,” Scientific American, 5 December 2011.

Kaplan, Laurie.  “A Dangerous Indulgence.Jane Austen’s Regency World 27 July 2004: 22-25.  

Krajewska, Barbara.  “Arsenic and the Emperor,” Revue de Souvenier Napoleonien, reproduced at article archive, 2008.

Live Science staff. “Napoleon Death: Arsenic Poisoning Ruled Out,” 12 February 2008.

Magnuson, Nancy. “Twenty-five Years of Jane Austen,” Goucher College Digital Library

Mayer, Nancy. “The Ladies Medicine Chest,” Nancy Mayer Regency Researcher Page

Parascandola, John.  King of Poisons: A History of Arsenic (Potomac Books, 2012)

Philip, A[lexander] P[hilips] Wilson.  A Treatise on Febrile Diseases, Including the Various Species of Fever, and All Diseases Attended with Fever.  3rd ed.  Vol. 1.  London: Underwood, 1813.  [Google Books]

Scott, Anna. “Review: The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsay Ashford,” The Guardian (UK), 8 November 2011

Seth, Sumit.  “Mystery Behind Napoleon’s Death,” Review of Forensic Medicine, 13 December 2004

Stewart, George Franklin and C. O. Chicester.  Advances in Food Research. Vol. 22, 9 July 1976, p. 258, comments on Scanning Electron Microscope study of Jane Austen’s hair.

Swift, J.A.  Scanning electron microscope study of Jane Austen's hair.  Nature.  1972 Jul 21; 238 (5360): 161-2. Available through the Readcube website.

Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen, a Life.  New York: Knopf, 1997.

White, Kathryn G.  “Jane Austenand Addison’s Disease: An Unconvincing Diagnosis.”  Journal of Medical Ethics; Medical Humanities 35 (2009): 98-100.