Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2017 01:00PM

When the whole world is gobbling down a giant ice cream sundae, it can be hard to come along and insist we all switch to spinach. But such is my task today, as I confront the latest Amazing! Austen! Revelation!

I speak of course of the news – I use that word advisedly – that Jane Austen’s eyeglasses show she died of arsenic poisoning.

This alleged new biographical fact came our way courtesy of last week’s blog post by British Library curator Sandra Tuppen, who was reporting on a new research project undertaken by library staff: the analysis of the prescription strength of three pairs of spectacles that the library owns and that may have belonged to Austen.

Optometrical analysis concluded that Austen was far-sighted (“long-sighted,” in British terminology) and that one of her glasses had a very strong prescription, much stronger than the other two. Cataracts can cause deteriorating eyesight; arsenic exposure can cause cataracts; Regency folk were routinely exposed to arsenic in medication, among other places; and at least one writer has speculated that the symptoms of Austen’s final illness suggest arsenic poisoning. Q.E.D.

Well, not quite Q.E.D: to be fair to Tuppen, she concludes only that the analysis of the eyeglasses “may indeed give further credence” to the arsenic-killed-Austen theory. Blame headline writers for cutting the qualifiers to get to the arsenic-sprinkled ice cream sundae of a good story.

By now – after all the real-Mr.-Darcy stories and the this-stately-home-was-the-model-for-Pemberley stories and the newly-discovered-love-of-Jane-Austen’s-life stories – it’s probably pointless to note the six degrees of plausible-to-wild speculation required to get from A to B on this one. But I’ll give it a try nonetheless. I’m a dedicated player of Janeite Whac-a-Mole.

This story requires us to assume that:

1. These eyeglasses belonged to Jane Austen (and not someone else in her family);

2. They were prescribed by a physician who accurately measured Austen’s eye strength (and weren’t off-the-shelf purchases that might have been too strong);

3. They represent deteriorating eyesight (and not a choice to use stronger lenses for close-up work);

4. The deteriorating eyesight was caused by cataracts (and not just normal aging);

5. The cataracts were caused by arsenic exposure (and not something else);

6. The arsenic exposure was severe enough to kill (and wasn’t superseded by some other cause of death).

It all might be true. But we have virtually no evidence for any point except the first. Personally, I like my biographical facts to be, you know, factual. Spinachy, if you will. But hey – have another scoop of ice cream, if you prefer.

As a side note: You also can’t blame Tuppen for a further embellishment of this story -- the claim, apparently first made by Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye in the New York Times account of the brouhaha, that the British Library’s post says Austen “must have been almost blind by the end of her life,” a point Le Faye disputes by noting that Austen was handwriting letters until six weeks before her death.

In fact, Tuppen’s post makes no such claim – the word “blind” doesn’t even appear in it. Tuppen says only that Austen complained of “weak” eyes. Still, the blindness claim immediately struck me, because, as it happens, the very strong +5.0 prescription in the right-hand lens in one of the pairs of Austen eyeglasses is the same strength as the prescription in one of my eyes (the better one, believe it or not!) -- although, because I am nearsighted, my prescription is -5.0.

My vision is very bad: without my contact lenses, objects begin to look fuzzy to me at seven or eight inches away, and I can’t recognize even close friends at a distance of a couple of yards. Reading is impossible unless the book is practically glued to my nose, and God forbid that I should ever try to drive in that condition.

But I wouldn’t say I’m “almost blind” (or, as the Daily Mail describes Austen’s state, “almost totally blind.”) I can distinguish my surroundings. I don’t walk into walls. I don’t get lost on my way to the bathroom at night. And more to the point, I always wear my lenses, which correct my vision into reasonable adequacy. If Jane Austen’s eyes were anything like mine, I’d bet she, too, could manage just fine.* (And for the record: I don't have cataracts and no one is poisoning me with arsenic. At least as far as I know.)

So Jane Austen wasn't blind, or even close. But did she die of arsenic poisoning? We don’t know. We are no closer to knowing than we were before the glasses were tested. We have no direct evidence either way. Eat your spinach.

* Online vision simulators offer a rough sense of what the world looks like with various eye prescriptions. The near-sighted simulator is here and the far-sighted version is here.

By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 6 2017 02:00PM

Say what you will of Isabelle de Montolieu: The woman had chutzpah.

In 1816, de Montolieu, a successful Swiss novelist, published her translation of Sense and Sensibility, the first full-length French translation of an Austen novel. In a diverting recent blog post, the British Library – which owns a first edition of Montolieu’s work – describes the results. As the blog’s headline puts it, de Montolieu, along with the early French translators of three other Austen novels, turned our favorite writer into “an irony-free zone.”

In a preface, de Montolieu, who the blog tells us was at the time more famous than Austen, promised the reader that her translation was "reasonably faithful until the end, where I have allowed myself, as is my custom, a few slight changes which I have deemed necessary." Yes, you're quite right to be alarmed: de Montolieu deemed it necessary that Willoughby’s wife should die and that he should repent of his evil deeds and marry the seduced-and-abandoned Eliza, saving her from the fires of hell.

Now don’t you wish Jane Austen had thought of that? Thank goodness de Montolieu came along to turn her into an altogether more conventional and less interesting writer!

As the British Library succinctly puts it, “This early French Jane Austen is a somewhat formulaic novelist of sensibility devoid of her trademark sense of irony and social satire.” Talk about lost in translation.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 2 2017 02:00PM

Happy new year, Janeites! For us fans of Jane Austen, 2017 is a big year, the biggest since – well, since 2013, when we celebrated the bicentenary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, still Austen’s most popular work.

This year, we have an altogether more melancholy occasion to mark – the two hundredth anniversary of Austen’s death, on July 18, 1817, at the all-too-young age of forty-one. (Depending how you count, it may also be the bicentenary of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together in a three-volume set that appeared in December 1817 with a title-page publication date of 1818.)

Across the planet, and especially in Austen’s home country of England, Austen fans will celebrate her life and mourn her death at balls, exhibits, lectures, conferences and festivals. Our shelves will creak under the weight of Austen-related books published to coincide with the anniversary. And in Britain, wallets will fill up with Austen-embellished currency. We may even get to see a new Austen movie.

An unscientific, and undoubtedly incomplete, sampling of what’s ahead:

By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 7 2014 01:00PM

An informative and interesting recent post on the British Library’s European Studies blog about August von Kotzebue, a late eighteenth-century/early nineteenth-century German dramatist with a cameo role in the world of Jane Austen.

As readers of Mansfield Park – or, really, readers of scholarly footnotes to Mansfield Park – will recall, it is Elizabeth Inchbald’s translation of Kotzebue’s play, under the title “Lovers’ Vows,” that the daring young people of Mansfield decide to perform in Sir Thomas Bertram’s absence.

Although I’m not one of those Janeites who loves probing every detail of daily life in Austen’s day, I enjoyed this foray into Regency culture. And how can anyone resist a writer who titled one of his essays, “Why Do I Have So Many Enemies?”

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