What Killed Jane Austen?

Watercolour-and-pencil portrait of Jane Austen
Sketch of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra,
circa 1810

Possible causes of Jane Austen's death

This month marks the 202 anniversary of Jane Austen's death on July 18, 1817. She was only 41 years old, and her early death was a tragic loss to literature. During her lifetime, she wrote six full-length novels, all of which are still popular today, and she had other works in progress, too. Just think what she could have written if she'd lived longer!

Her final illness must have been baffling to her and her family 200 years ago, and for decades historians have been trying to figure out what actually killed her. Was she killed by some form of cancer, such as stomach cancer or Hodgkin's lymphoma? 

That's one theory. 

Judging by the symptoms she recorded in her letters (fevers, facial aches, and bilious attacks, to name a few), some scholars believe she might have suffered from the adrenal gland autoimmune disorder known as Addison's disease, which John F. Kennedy also had.

Jane Austen's Grave, Winchester Cathedral-5714881687.jpg
Jane Austen's grave in Winchester Cathedral, photo
by Jim Linwood, CC-by-2.0, Wikimedia Commons

And a couple of years ago researchers at the British Library put forth the shocking idea that Jane Austen could have been accidentally poisoned by the arsenic in her medications. 

We may never know the exact cause of the literary great's untimely death. But if her demise was indeed caused by cancer, I have to confess that I feel a new bond with her, beyond the admiration I've always had for her books. To get personal for a moment, this summer I was diagnosed and underwent surgery for skin cancer. 

I know that particular cancer wasn't Jane's problem, but I was interested to learn that my affliction was just beginning to be studied during her life. 

Skin cancer now and during the Regency

Skin cancers range from relatively harmless to deadly. I like to think of the types of skin cancer individually as members of the "oma" family, which include (among others) basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, and their cute little sister, the utterly benign cherry angioma. 

Unfortunately, I had the worst of the bunch, melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. 

Unlike "squamous cell " and "basal cell," "melanoma" is a pretty name for a pretty ugly disease. Although melanoma only accounts for about four percent of all skin cancers, it's responsible for 79 percent of skin cancer deaths. 

(Curious about your own risk of skin cancer? Take this quiz to see where you land on the Fitzpatrick Skin Type scale.)

As I hinted above, there's a Regency link to my condition. That doesn't really surprise me; I believe there's a Regency link to almost everything. 

In 1820 William Norris, a country doctor practicing in Stourbridge, England, published the first description of melanoma ever seen in English medical literature. His other contribution to the understanding of the disease was the observation that it could be hereditary. Sadly, the patient who inspired this breakthrough died of melanoma. 

Rene-Theophile-Hyacinthe Laennec.jpg
René Laennec

To be fair, another Englishman, John Hunter, reported the first case of melanoma in 1787, though he didn't describe it as such. And in 1804 René Laennec, a French physicist who invented the stethoscope, was the first to pinpoint melanoma as a distinct condition, which he called melanose. (It wasn't until 1838 that melanoma got its current name, thanks to Sir Robert Carswell.)

I'd lay odds that compared to today, in Jane Austen's time skin cancers were far less common, though given the lack of records it's impossible to be sure. 

Here's one reason I'd place that bet: This is an example of a typical "walking dress" a fashionable woman in 1817 (the year Jane died) might've worn for a daytime stroll:

April 1817 fashion plate
 from La Belle Assemblee

From her hat and her high neckline to her long sleeves and skirt, she's certainly not showing much skin!

Meanwhile, here are two women enjoying a sunny day in the early 2000s:

Photo by Glen Bowman, CC-by-2.0
Wikimedia Commons

Now, I've learned that skin cancer is caused primarily by exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted by the sun and also emitted by the lamps used in tanning beds. Given today's skimpy summer fashions and the popularity of suntanning, is it any wonder skin cancer rates are getting higher? 

And according to current statistics, the increase in skin cancer rates just in the last decade is dramatic. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that cases of melanoma diagnosed annually rose by 54 percent between 2009 and 2019. Non-melanoma skin cancers in the U.S. rose by 77 percent between 2004 and 2014.

That Regency walking dress doesn't look so silly now, does it? 

After what I've been through, I may adopt something similar to wear from now on if I must go outside during the day, especially if it's sunny. 

But perhaps I won't need such an outfit if I decide to become a Creature of the Night, which is another option I'm considering as I recover from my surgery. You'll never see a vampire with a sunburn, much less skin cancer!

I have a new appreciation for vampires'
aversion to sunshine. (I wish  my skin
 glittered in the sun like theirs does!) 

Jane Austen's legacy

Vampire jokes aside, you can't blame me if I'm no longer fond of the sun. I am still fond, though, and always will be, of Jane Austen. 

Re-reading her books (currently Persuasion) is helping me cope with the aftermath of my skin cancer surgery. I'm grateful she lived as long as did and wrote her novels, which have delighted me and millions of others for over two centuries. 

Ever since I discovered Pride and Prejudice in high school, Jane Austen has been a source of comfort and joy for me (not to get all Christmassy about it). As far as I'm concerned, she was describing her books and herself when she wrote this passage from Persuasion:

"My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a good deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

And my idea of good company is the company of Jane Austen and her books!

~ ~ ~

Sources for this post include:


  1. Maureen,
    I sure don't blame you for not being a fan of the sun after what you've been through. I no longer seek out the sun and sun bathe as I did as a younger person. I still enjoy being outside though, but spend much more time in the shade when I work in the yard. I took the quiz and turned out to be a category 4. That's some comfort, but I will certainly be more careful now!

  2. Ah, I envy you your category 4 skin type! Thank you for your comment.


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