What’s the Jane Austen News this week?
Jane’s Death Caused By Arsenic?
The cause of Jane Austen’s mysterious death at the age of 41 has been the subject of much debate over the years. Theories put forward have included cancer, Addison’s disease, and complications from drinking unpasteurised milk. However, new research conducted by researchers at the British Library, undertaken in conjunction with London optometrist Simon Barnard, has brought forward new evidence that Jane may have died as a result of arsenic poisoning.
Simon examined three pairs of glasses believed to have belonged to Austen, and said that they show evidence that her vision severely deteriorated in her final years. That kind of deterioration further suggests cataracts, and cataracts may indicate arsenic poisoning, Sandra Tuppen, a curator of archives and manuscripts at the library, wrote in a blog post on the library’s website. Arsenic was frequently found in water, medication and even wallpaper in Austen’s time, Dr. Tuppen emphasised. Unintentional arsenic poisoning was, she said, “quite common” and that “arsenic was often put into medication for other types of illness, potentially for rheumatism, which we know Jane Austen suffered from.”
Not everyone is convinced though. Deirdre Le Faye, an independent Austen scholar believes that Austen died of Addison’s disease. She said that while Austen could have ingested arsenic through medication, other elements of the British Library’s biographical analysis seemed less persuasive. One of the main arguments the library puts forward for arsenic poisoning is the claim that “she must have been almost blind by the end of her life”, but Deirdre Le Faye said, Austen was writing letters “perfectly ably” up to about six weeks before her death. Rapid deterioration of her eyesight would have had to be very sudden to fit the library’s analysis.
The mystery goes on!
The BBC’s next period drama is a real-life love story set in post-Regency England. BBC One and HBO have commissioned Shibden Hall, a brand new eight-part drama series created and written by Bafta-winning Sally Wainwright (To Walk Invisible, Last Tango In Halifax, Happy Valley). However, unlike in most period dramas, Shibden Hall’s heroine has no intention of marrying a man.
Set in West Yorkshire in 1832, Shibden Hall is the epic story of the remarkable landowner, Anne Lister. Returning after years of exotic travel and social climbing, Anne determines to transform the fate of her faded ancestral home.
To do this she must re-open her coal mines and marry well. But Anne Lister – who walked like a man, dressed head-to-foot in black, and charmed her way into high society – has no intention of marrying a man. True to her own nature, she plans to marry a woman. And not just any woman: the woman Anne Lister marries must be seriously wealthy.
Every part of Anne’s story is based in historical fact, recorded in the four million words of her diaries that contain the most intimate details of her life, once hidden in a secret code that is now broken.
It will rework the romantic genre epitomised by the smouldering appeal of Poldark and Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, to tell the remarkable tale of the quest by a lesbian landowner to find a wife.
It’s a beautifully rich, complicated, surprising love story. To bring Anne Lister to life on screen is the fulfillment of an ambition I’ve had for 20 years.