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.
“When I read the summary that Zachary Cope had done of her symptoms, I thought, well, that’s not right,” White, who has Addison’s Disease, said in a CNN interview.
Shortly before she died, Austen wrote to a friend, “My head was always clear, and I had scarcely any pain.” White said that doesn’t fit with Addison’s, which can cause terrible headaches, blurred speech, impaired short term memory, and confusion.
White believes that contemporary accounts of Austen’s face discoloration may have referred to dark circles under her eyes.
Of course, Austen could have had both. In the 19th century, complications from tuberculosis were the major cause of Addison’s Disease, which was not identified until 1855.
Speaking strictly as a layperson (and a writer), I do wonder why Austen, a precise writer, would describe her face as “black and white and every wrong colour” if she merely had dark circles under her eyes.
Of course, we’ll never really know what killed her, and I’ll let the scholars argue over after-the-fact diagnoses.