Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817 at age forty-one. She left us with six major novels, letters, juvenilia, some miscellanea and a posthumous mystery. What caused her early demise?
One hundred and ninety-two years later experts are still speculating on the fatal illness that robbed her of full life and us the possibility of more remarkable prose. There are a few clues from her letters and family recollections, but no surviving medical records. So, therein lies the mystery – and the sleuthing begins.
In 1964, surgeon Sir Zachary Cope proposed that Addison’s disease which affects the adrenal gland could explain her “two-year deterioration into bed-ridden exhaustion, her unusual colouring, bilious attacks, rheumatic pains and the absence of more specific indicators of disease”, but it appears that this theory is not universally acknowledged. Jane Austen’s biography Claire Tomalin investigated Austen’s symptoms in 1997 while researching her bio Jane Austen: A Life and came up with her own conclusion. Lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system) and not Addison’s disease had taken her life.
Now, an Addison’s disease expert Katherine White writing in the British Medical Journal’s Medical Humanities magazine thinks that the evidence points to tuberculosis contracted from drinking unpasteurized milk. She argues that one of the symptoms of Addison’s is mental confusion, and we know that Jane Austen retained her writing faculties to the end, composing the comic poem When Winchester Races two days before her death.
So the speculation continues. We may never know with complete uncertainty what ailment claimed the novelist life. Honestly, I am fine with that. Let’s just hope that some poor fool does not exhume her body from Winchester Cathedral to do a C.S.I. on her.