The cause of Jane Austen's death at age 41 in 1817 has been an enduring mystery of the literary world. The legendary author's own letters complain of ill health, and experts have used them to suggest a number of possible culprits, from stomach cancer to Hodgkin's lymphoma, the Washington Post reports. Now, a trio of eyeglasses found in Austen's desk could hold a more intriguing answer. The spectacles of increasing strength indicate Austen suffered from progressive eye problems; indeed, the Pride and Prejudice author notes her "weak" eyes in her missives. Austen may have suffered from an underlying health problem that attacked her vision, writes British Library curator Sandra Tuppen, who theorizes slow-growing cataracts might have been caused by accidental arsenic poisoning. The toxic metal was common in 19th-century England, tainting medicine, water, and even wallpaper.
Other causes such as diabetes would have killed Austen more quickly, says Tuppen. The debate over Austen's death dates back to 1964, when an English doctor argued the culprit was the adrenal disorder Addison's disease. Then crime writer Lindsay Ashford floated the arsenic theory in a 2011 novel, citing the skin discoloration that Austin notes late in her life. "I think it’s highly likely she was given a medicine containing arsenic," says Ashford. "When you look at her list of symptoms and compare them to the list of arsenic symptoms, there is an amazing correlation." But Austen scholar Janine Barchas, who has her own forthcoming report on the glasses, calls the arsenic theory "reckless," per the New York Times. "We look forward to further discussions and debate on this topic," writes Tuppen. (An unfinished Austen manuscript sold for $1.6 million.)