Was Jane Austen poisoned?

'The Rice Portait of Jane Austin' by British painter Ozias Humphry (1742-1810) (estimate USD 400,000 to 800,000), on display, 16 April 2007, at Christie's auction house in New York as part of a preview of the Important Old Master Paintings sale to take place 19 April. The only known oil painting of arguably England's most famous female writer, the work is being sold by direct descendants of Jane Austen, and the painting has been in the family since its creation. Fanny Caroline Lefroy, the granddaughter of Jane's brother James, and acknowledged authority on the Austen family, thought the picture dated to 1788 or 1789, making Austen 14, and a newly-discovered letter to Lord Brabourne from Jane's great nephew Cholmeley Austen-Leigh, confirms that the only portrait known of Jane was painted at 'the beginning of her life'. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
National Portrait Gallery
A pencil drawing of British author Jane Austen, c. 1810, by her sister, Cassandra Austen.
A pencil drawing of British author Jane Austen, c. 1810, by her sister, Cassandra Austen.
National Portrait Gallery

(CBS) Talk about a cold case.

It has been almost 200 years since "Sense and Sensibility" author Jane Austen died mysteriously at age 41, and now a British crime novelist is claiming that the author was poisoned with arsenic.

Novelist Lindsay Ashford, who has been living and working for the last few years in Austen's hometown, has told The Guardian newspaper that Austen's symptoms, outlined in a series of letters Austen wrote to friends, are consistent with arsenic poisoning. She also points out that arsenic was readily available at the time and was even found as an ingredient in medications.

Ashford, who has researched poisons for her crime novels, said she formed her theory after reading Austen's letters.

"When you look at her list of symptoms and compare them to the list of arsenic symptoms, there is an amazing correlation," Ashford told the Guardian, saying she was surprised no one had come forward with the theory before.

She said arsenic poisoning more closely resembles Austen's symptoms than any other cause of death that has been put forward. Austen's death has been alternately attributed to Addison's disease, Hodgkin's disease and lupus.

Ashford said it is most likely that Austen ingested the poison accidentally, perhaps while being medicated for another ailment, like the rheumatism is often complained of.

But she hasn't ruled out the idea of murder. In fact, she's exploring that in her next book, "The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen."