Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Jane Austen, Part II: A Sad Mystery

I teach library research classes to college students. A few days ago I was running some sample searches in literature databases, preparing to teach an English class. Since I was reading Just Jane by Nancy Moser at the time, I used "Jane Austen" as a sample search. In the first item I pulled up, I noticed her date of death: 1817. I felt a little stab of sorrow, as though I'd stumbled across an obituary for an old friend. I had just reached the year of 1811 in Moser's novel. Jane was thriving and in the process of publishing her first book, Sense and Sensibility. She was only in her thirties, finally realizing the dreams of a lifetime. So what in the world happened to her in the next few years?

I read a couple of biographical articles and they frustrated the literary detective in me. They merely said she died of an illness at age 41. So I turned to other databases looking for an answer, including indexes of medical articles.

Apparently I'm not the only one fascinated by this mystery. Doctors and medical experts have been speculating for years. The common story is that Jane Austen became ill in 1816 and struggled with her condition for about a year before passing away. Symptoms, according to a few sketchy letters, included "biliousness," back pain, dark discolorations of the skin, weakness and fatigue. In a British Medical Journal article in 1964, Zachary Cope reached a conclusion that stood for many years. Jane Austen died of Addison's disease, which destroys the adrenal glands. Other doctors today think Jane's condition may have been Hodgkin's disease, a kind of cancer. Annette Upfal, author of an article called "Jane Austen's Lifelong Health Problems and Final Illness," says that "both diseases were unidentified and untreatable in Austen’s lifetime, and the outcome was always fatal." (Medical Humanities, 2005)

Upfal uses scraps of information from Austen's own letters and those of friends and relatives to try to solve the mystery. Upfal also addresses the question of why so many people feel a need to answer this question. "The futility of this death from an illness that now offers recovery, with the image of a dying writer struggling to use a pencil...and above all, regret for the novels that were yet to be written, have added a sense of pathos to Austen’s iconic status."

I myself just felt sadness that Austen died when she finally seemed to be accomplishing all her dreams. I so identified with the struggle, the waiting, the years passing by that she experienced in her journey to become an author. In the final part of Just Jane, Nancy Moser has Austen praying the Bible verse asking for God to "restore the years that the locusts have eaten." Once again, I felt astounded, because I have often prayed that verse--and in connection to my writing!

Perhaps I'm looking at this the wrong way. After all, God did bring her dreams to fruition. Her dreams are still living today, in all of us who read her books and live in the wonderful worlds she creates.

What writer could ask for more?