A new theory has emerged that iconic author Jane Austen was almost totally blind by the end of her life, possibly as a result of being poisoned by arsenic.

The legendary author, who wrote the literary classics Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, died in 1817 at just 41 years of age.

Now tests on three pairs of Austen's glasses that have been handed down through generations reveal that her eyesight worsened significantly as she grew older.

Austen even referenced her frustration at her poor eyesight in several letters.

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Sandra Tuppen, lead curator of Modern Archives & Manuscripts 1601-1850 at the British Library, suggested as much in a blog post late last week.

"The variations in the strength of the British Library's three pairs of spectacles may indeed give further credence to the theory that Austen suffered from arsenic poisoning, albeit accidental."

Writer Lindsay Ashford, whose book The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen, examined reasons behind the author's demise said based on a description of unusual pigmentation on her face, she may well have suffered from arsenic poisoning.

The wire-framed glasses (left) and two tortoiseshell pairs that were tested by the British Library.
The wire-framed glasses (left) and two tortoiseshell pairs that were tested by the British Library.

The conclusion is made more likely by the fact the substance was commonly found in water supplies and medicines, at that period.

It is suggested that it she may well have ingested the heavy metal through medication for rheumatism, which she is also known to have suffered with.

Austen may have also have suffered from cataracts, which can be developed from arsenic poisoning.

The glasses were entrusted to the care of the British Library by Austen's great-great-great-niece in 1999, along with Austen's treasured portable writing desk (in which they had been stored) and several other Austen artefacts, including an ink well and an embroidered glasses case.

Although tests conducted by the library revealed that all three would be helpful for someone doing close work, such as writing, each pair is of different strength, one considerably more powerful than the others, Ms Tuppen explained.

But experts are lining up to debunk the theory.

The home of novelist Jane Austen (1775 - 1817) in Chawton, near Alton, Hampshire, which is now a museum. Photo / Getty
The home of novelist Jane Austen (1775 - 1817) in Chawton, near Alton, Hampshire, which is now a museum. Photo / Getty

Dr Cheryl Kinney, a national board member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, said, "There are many other more likely causes of cataracts than arsenic poisoning.

"Although some recent studies from Asia have shown a loose association of chronic arsenic poisoning in water with cataract formation, the studies only show association, not causation."

After consulting an ophthalmologist at her hospital, Dr Kinney said it's more likely that "if the glasses belong to Austen," she might simply have been losing her eyesight, just as "most people begin to lose vision acuity in their late 30s/early 40s."

English actors Raymond Coulthard, Kate Beckinsale, and Mark Strong during production of the TV film adaptation of Jane Austen's 'Emma.' Photo / Getty
English actors Raymond Coulthard, Kate Beckinsale, and Mark Strong during production of the TV film adaptation of Jane Austen's 'Emma.' Photo / Getty

The glasses were entrusted to the care of the British Library by Austen's great-great-great-niece in 1999, along with Austen's treasured portable writing desk (in which they had been stored) and several other Austen artefacts, including an ink well and an embroidered glasses case.