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 The arsenic exposure was severe enough to kill (and wasn’t superseded by some other cause of death).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