What Killed Jane Austen?

Like everything else about Jane Austen, her death continues to fascinate us. Literary scholars and Janeites still wonder about the illness that plagued the author for more than a year before she died at the age of 41 in July, 1817. It was during this time that she finished Persuasion, the saddest and most pensive of her novels.

In 1964, Dr. Zachary Cope proposed that Addison’s disease, a rare disorder in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones, killed the famous author. Her symptoms included extreme fatigue and weakness, faintness, back pain, nausea, and pain in the joints.  To Cope, though, a vital clue was skin discoloration. “Recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough, black and white and every wrong colour,” Austen wrote in March 1817. Addison’s disease can make the skin look bronze or mottled. (Reporters often wondered why U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who had Addison’s Disease, had a perpetual “tan.”)

In 1997, Austen biographer Claire Tomalin begged to differ, and thought Austen’s symptoms suggested lymphoma.

Katherine White, the coordinator for the Addison’s Disease Self-Help Group’s clinical advisory group in the United Kingdom, thinks something much more common killed Jane: bovine tuberculosis, probably from drinking unpasteurized milk. In a paper she wrote for the Medical Humanities journal, White (who is a social scientist, not a medical professional), argues that while Austen could have had Addison’s Disease, tuberculosis seems a more likely cause of her final illness and death.

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The Austen vs. Bronte Smackdown

The Bronte sisters

The Bronte sisters

Two names pretty much sum up 19th century “chick lit”: Austen and Brontë. Austen is Jane Austen, of course, who is often credited with inventing the genre. Brontë is the surname of sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who wrote gothic tales of romance.

People sometimes get them  mixed up. “Jane Austen…didn’t she write Jane Eyre?” someone asked me recently. It’s amusing, really, since Austen and the Brontës wrote in radically different styles. Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, wrote disdainfully of Austen:

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood…”

Austen couldn’t return the compliment because she was dead by the time the Brontës were setting pen to paper, but Northanger Abbey nicely parodies the sort of hyper-imaginative tales the trio of sisters excelled at.

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‘Lost in Austen’ DVD Finally Arrives

Lost in Austen's Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Eliot Cowan

Lost in Austen’s Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Elliot Cowan

A couple of weeks ago, “Lost in Austen” finally came out on DVD in the United States. Those of us who delight in this marvelously twisted take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice couldn’t be happier.

This sharply written four-part series, which originally aired on British TV, then on the Oxygen channel (and PBS) here, revolves around what happens when a modern woman, Amanda Price (excellently portrayed by Jemima Rooper), finds herself transported into fictional Georgian England, right into the heart of Jane Austen’s most famous novel. As Amanda tries to negotiate the intricacies of early 19th century dancing, dining and etiquette, Lizzy Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, is living it up in 21st century London and shows no signs of wanting to come back.

Like many women, Amanda loves Pride and Prejudice for its timeless love story between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Then she meets the famous Fitzwilliam Darcy, who bitterly disappoints her by being a “relentlessly unpleasant,” overly arrogant aristocrat. Ah, but we knew that, didn’t we? Elliot Cowan excels as Darcy. He’s proud and overbearing, then contrite, and finally passionate. And he looks really, really good in a wet shirt. (Yes, “Lost in Austen” pays tribute to that famous jump-in-the-lake scene in the 1995 version of P&P, which cemented Colin Firth’s reputation as the Mr. Darcy for all time.)

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