On July 18, 1817, a Friday, Jane Austen passed away, her head cradled on a pillow on her sister Cassandra’s lap. It was four o’clock in the morning.
Jane Austen was 41 years old when she died, the age I am now. In fact, Jane and my own birthdays are separated by a month – Dec. 16 for Jane; Jan. 17 for me. Our lives are entirely different, not withstanding time period: I am a woman married to a woman, a mother of two daughters, and my family must earn a wage for a living. By contrast, Jane was unmarried, though she clearly had close familial relationships, more of which will be illustrated below. Jane had no children but she doted on her nieces and nephews (particularly the nieces, in whom she clearly hoped another novelist might be marinating). And while Jane made money from her writing and was very delighted in her success, she was of the “gentry” class, which we don’t really have a counterpart for here in the United States. Even the most wealthy amongst us have “jobs” or “professions.” Arguably, so did Jane in the running and managing of affairs at Chawton, and yet, there is still this unbridgeable divide between the society Jane knew and the one we live in now.
Frankly, I think she’d love it nowadays.
In memorial of this day, I re-read the final chapter of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen, an interesting title since we understand memoirs to be autobiographical these days, though it is really a biography. And I also re-read the final chapter of William Austen-Leigh’s Jane Austen, Her life and Letters, a Family Record. Both of these are available in the public domain. They are quick reads and worth the time.
It is in William’s biography where we receive the more vivid description of her final days, culled from letters and passed down through family lore. In it, we get a picture of Austen’s her brief days of re-energy and then the return of the pernicious disease which had been plaguing her off and on for a number of years, growing in urgency in the spring of 1817. She spent her final days here, a 8 College Street:
During her time in Winchester, Jane continued on a roller-coaster ride of ill and well days. Early in her stay, she reports “I am gaining strength very fast. I am now out of bed from 9 in the morning to 10 at night; upon the sopha, ’tis true, but I eat my meals with aunt Cass in a rational way, and can employ myself, and walk from one room to another” (Wm. Austen-Leigh 210). I particularly love how she describes eating in a “rational way.” We hear the voice of the Jane her family once knew and continued to hope would return. She was not solely confined to her rooms, though. When well enough, she went outside in a sedan chair and plans were in motion to “be promoted to a wheelchair as the weather serves” (Wm. Austen-Leigh 210). I am not able to corroborate this, but I believe the pale paving stones you can see in the corner of the image above were present in Jane’s period, and that seems like not such a terrible ride around the block! Even if they were cobbles, perhaps there would be a salutary and massaging effect of bumping across them.
As I continued through these chapters, though, the inevitable became known to the Austens. James Austen, Jane’s eldest brother, wrote to his son at Oxford “My dear Edward, – I grieve to write what you will grieve to read…” though this letter was not the notice of her death, only that her death was understood to be imminent. “Mr. Lyford [Jane’s doctor],” he continues, “has candidly told us that her case is desperate” and that Jane was “well aware of her situation” (Wm. Austen-Leigh 210). As he ends the letter, he confirms a plan to travel to Winchester the following day and warns his son to “prepare yourself for what the next letter may announce” (Wm. Austen-Leigh 210). In these letters, we feel the deep pain of these family members as they await her death. I cried, Dear Reader, just as I have every time I have read these chapters. There is so much love within this family, and it is at least comforting to know that Jane died amidst all this love.
But I can’t help placing myself in Jane’s position. Setting aside my wife and children, as a writer, I can only imagine the very real grief Jane must have felt at leaving a world that was finally giving her the recognition her works deserved, and not only was financial independence within her grasp, but we know she had a number of novels still left to write. While James describes her as “composed and cheerful,” I can only wonder at the hurricane of emotions she must have been feeling, that sense of leaving so many things left undone, which we imagine is natural to those who see their life ebbing away at a young age (Wm. Austen-Leigh 211). If this were me, I would be bereft at all the words I hadn’t written, the characters I never imagined, the terrible events I never got to put them through. But then again, perhaps I’m missing the point here and Jane was not mourning the loss of words, but ready and equipped for what was on the horizon. Perhaps, if anything, it was the loss of not seeing her nieces and nephews grow and do well for themselves. Still, I feel we miss something if we don’t acknowledge that alongside her “composure,” there surely must have been her own sense of grief and loss.
Perhaps she was reflecting on that unfinished manuscript, the characters growing from their seeds into real, actual people on the page. Started on January 27th “according to the date on her own manuscript,” she worked on it until March 17th (J.E. Austen-Leigh 86). In his biography, James Edward Austen-Leigh notes that “some of the latter passages seem to have been first traced in pencil, probably when she was too weak to sit long at her desk, and written over in ink after-wards” (J.E. Austen-Leigh 86). While we don’t know what Jane would have titled the piece, we have come to know it as Sanditon, and in his biography, he provides a lovely overview of the work with extracts from her own manuscript. That alone is worth clicking into the Guttenberg site above!
And if you haven’t enjoyed this yet, well, there’s no excuse:
Season Two was unforgivable, but that’s what happens when it takes so long to book a second season!
I digress. The end grows near. In the final days, Jane is still just as lively in her mind even as her body fails. She writes this poem:
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.–
But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.
‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said
These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command o’er July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–‘.
– Jane Austen
I will leave you with Cassandra’s words to Fanny on the passing of Jane, provided by William Austen-Leigh and available via the Project Guttenberg link above:
Chawton: Tuesday [July 29, 1817].
My dearest Fanny,—I have just read your letter for the third time, and thank you most sincerely for every kind expression to myself, and still more warmly for your praises of her who I believe was better known to you than to any human being besides myself. Nothing of the sort could have been more gratifying to me than the manner in which you write of her, and if the dear angel is conscious of what passes here, and is not above all earthly feelings, she may perhaps receive pleasure in being so mourned. Had she been the survivor I can fancy her speaking of you in almost the same terms. There are certainly many points of strong resemblance in your characters; in your intimate acquaintance with each other, and your mutual strong affection, you were counterparts.
Thursday was not so dreadful a day to me as you imagined. There was so much necessary to be done that there was no time for additional misery. Everything was conducted with the greatest tranquillity, and but that I was determined I would see the last, and therefore was upon the listen, I should not have known when they left the house. I watched the little mournful procession the length of the street; and when it turned from my sight, and I had lost her for ever, even then I was not overpowered, nor so much agitated as I am now in writing of it. Never was human being more sincerely mourned by those who attended her remains than was this dear creature. May the sorrow with which she is parted with on earth be a prognostic of the joy with which she is hailed in heaven!
I continue very tolerably well—much better than any one could have supposed possible, because I certainly have had considerable fatigue of body as well as anguish of mind for months back; but I really am well, and I hope I am properly grateful to the Almighty for having been so supported. Your grandmamma, too, is much better than when I came home.
I did not think your dear papa appeared unwell, and I understand that he seemed much more comfortable after his return from Winchester than he had done before. I need not tell you that he was a great comfort to me; indeed, I can never say enough of the kindness I have received from him and from every other friend.
I get out of doors a good deal and am able to employ myself. Of course those employments suit me best which leave me most at leisure to think of her I have lost, and I do think of her in every variety of circumstance. In our happy hours of confidential intercourse, in the cheerful family party which she so ornamented, in her sick room, on her death-bed, and as (I hope) an inhabitant of heaven. Oh, if I may one day be re-united to her there! I know the time must come when my mind will be less engrossed by her idea, but I do not like to think of it. If I think of her less as on earth, God grant that I may never cease to reflect on her as inhabiting heaven, and never cease my humble endeavours (when it shall please God) to join her there.
In looking at a few of the precious papers which are now my property I have found some memorandums, amongst which she desires that one of her gold chains may be given to her god-daughter Louisa, and a lock of her hair be set for you. You can need no assurance, my dearest Fanny, that every request of your beloved aunt will be sacred with me. Be so good as to say whether you prefer a brooch or ring. God bless you, my dearest Fanny.
Believe me, most affectionately yours,
Cass. Elizth. Austen.