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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Jane Austen’s Real-Life Mr. Darcy?

Jane Austen wrote wonderfully of love and romance, yet never married herself. We know that she had romances, probably at least one of them serious, but since her sister Cassandra burned much of the correspondence between her and Jane, we can really only speculate about much of Jane’s life.

Some think law student Tom Lefroy inspired Jane to create Mr. Darcy, a notion fueled by the popular chick flick “Becoming Jane.” But in the recently published book Jane Austen: An Unrequited Love, literary historian Andrew Norman believes that the real-life “Darcy” was most likely John Blackall, a theology student who first met Jane in the summer of 1798 while staying with the Lefroys, then met her again in Devon in 1802, where they fell in love. For whatever reason, the summer romance didn’t last, and may have caused a rift between the Austen sisters.

“No-one knows precisely what happened that summer or straight afterwards, because the letters [between the sisters] dry up,” said Norman in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

He believes Jane’s dispute with Cassandra helped inspire the tale of sisterly betrayal in Jane’s unfinished 1804 novel The Watsons.

I’ve ordered Norman’s book and look forward to seeing what he puts forward as evidence. Look for a “book report” soon.