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As much as I wish someone had poisoned Jane Austen, she probably just had cataracts

As much as I wish someone had poisoned Jane Austen, she probably just had cataracts


Lots of people wear thick glasses, you know

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Jane Austen

The literary internet is abuzz with news that Jane Austen — who died at age 41 — may have been poisoned. The evidence? Three pairs of her glasses have very strong lenses. This means she might have had cataracts. Sometimes, arsenic poisoning causes cataracts. Therefore, Jane Austen could have died from arsenic poisoning.

I’m not buying it, and not because I love Austen and don’t believe that anyone would have wanted her dead. (I happen to agree with my editor, Liz Lopatto, whose comment on this story was, “I’m mad I didn’t poison her.”) First, we’re not even sure they’re her glasses. They were simply kept in a desk that we know was hers.

Second, we don’t even know that she had cataracts. Sandra Tuppen, a curator at the British Library (which examined the glasses), writes that the tests “revealed that the three pairs of spectacles are all convex or ‘plus’ lenses, so would have been used by someone longsighted. In other words their owner needed glasses for close-up tasks, such as reading.” You know who needs strong lenses? Old people. People with bad eyesight. Myself. I do not have cataracts.

Plus, even if she did have cataracts, plenty of people have them without being poisoned. According to the National Eye Institute, cataracts are fairly common and one common cause is age; some people start developing them in their 40s. (Keep in mind that life expectancy was lower back then.)

As Austen scholar Janine Barchas, a professor at University of Texas at Austin, tells The New York Times, the arsenic theory is a “quantum leap.” I’m with her.

To be fair, even Tuppen is careful to say that this doesn’t mean that someone set out to murder Jane Austen — which is a shame because a murder plot would make Austen a bit more interesting.