The Death of a Great Author, and Greater Woman
Jane Austen passed away on 18 July 1817, at the age of only 41. She didn’t just deprive the future of English literature by her death; she left behind a devastated and grieving family. Her mother, and her seven beloved siblings, all survived her. Moreover, her nieces and nephews were bereft at losing the aunt who had so entertained, encouraged, and embraced them.
Before her death, Jane had been ailing for some time. There is intense speculation regarding what diseased ended her life, with the three main contenders being Addison’s disease of the adrenal glands, a type of cancer termed Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or a commonplace illness of the time period, disseminated bovine tuberculosis, contracted from contaminated milk. Because of the continued mental perspicacity marking Jane’s last days, the hypothesis of disseminated bovine tuberculosis appears more likely than either Addison’s disease or Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but without disinterring her and testing her remains, we can never know for certain what killed her. We can only know that it was physically distressing, chronic, and lingering. In March of 1816 she wrote to her niece, Fanny Austen-Knight, about her reoccurring illness:
“I am got tolerably well again, quite equal to walking about and enjoying the air, and by sitting down and resting a good while between my walks, I get exercise enough … Many thanks for your kind care for my health; I certainly have not been well for many weeks, and about a week ago I was very poorly. I have had a good deal of fever at times, and indifferent nights; but I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough — black and white, and every wrong colour. I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous indulgence at my time of life … I was languid and dull and very bad company … I do not venture to church … I took my first ride yesterday, and liked it very much. I went up Mounter’s Lane and round by where the new cottages are to be, and found the exercise and everything very pleasant; and I had the advantage of agreeable companions, as [Aunt] Cass. and Edward walked by my side. [Aunt] Cass. is such an excellent nurse, so assiduous and unwearied!”
Although Jane made light of her sickness in her cheerful letters, stressing her sporadic episodes of good health, by the next spring she was rapidly losing strength and mobility. One of life’s self-proclaimed “desperate walkers”, Jane could no longer enjoy long rambles around the Hampshire countryside by 1817, and was forced to remain bedridden or housebound with increasing frequency and duration. On 18 March her deteriorating health even made the master of “two-inches of ivory” put down her pen and give up work on her last, lamentably uncompleted novel, The Brothers (eventually retitled Sanditon). Jane wrote to her closest non-familial friend, governess and aspiring playwright Anne Sharp, on 22 May to explain that:
“in spite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you I have since been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me within a few days afterwards – the most severe I ever had – & coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low. I have kept my bed since 13. of April, with only removals to a Sopha. Now, I am getting well again, & indeed have been gradually tho’ slowly recovering my strength for the last three weeks. I can sit up in my bed & employ myself, as I am proving to you at this present moment, & really am equal to being out of bed, but that the posture is thought good for me. … My head was always clear, & I had scarcely any pain; my cheif sufferings were from feverish nights, weakness and Languor” [Further Reading: Jane Austen’s Dearest Friendship with Miss Sharp Still Resonates Today]
Although she made the best of things in her letters to friends and family, Jane was aware her illness was dire. She had written a will on 27 April, leaving the bulk of her worldly goods to her sister Cassandra, and had given her sister private information on whom she wished to leave very personal mementoes, such as a bodkin or some of Jane’s hair with which to make jewelry, as a mark of her affection. Her siblings and mother, however, stubbornly held out hope of Jane’s recovery, writing to one another with the good news whenever she felt the tiniest bit better, displaying a perfectly natural form of denial regarding their impending loss.
Throughout her decline, Jane was attended by the local apothecary, Mr William Curtis, who had cared for her with every consideration. Nonetheless, he was aware her amendment was beyond his skills, so Mr Curtis advised Jane’s family sometime in mid-May to take her to Winchester to see a physician attached to the Hampshire County Hospital, Dr Giles King Lyford. It was hoped that the esteemed Dr Lyford could restore Jane’s health with what would have been cutting-edge medical technology at the time. The Austens, of course, were willing to leave no stone unturned in the search for a cure, and immediately made plans to move Jane to Winchester. To this end they turned to close friends who were living there, Mrs Heathcote and Miss Bigg, (they were the older sisters of Jane’s fiancé of less than a day, Harris Bigg-Wither; they clearly held no grudge against her deciding against the union) to help them find lodgings for Jane and Cassandra. Mrs Heathcote and Miss Bigg were equal to their task, and they quickly secured a house at 8 College Street, near to their own home, for the Austens’ use.
Jane left Chawton Cottage for Winchester on 24 May under the care of her siblings, Cassandra and Henry Austen, and a nephew, William Austen-Knight. She wrote to her eldest brother’s son, James Edward Austen (known as Edward to the family, and the nephew would eventually adopt the surname Austen-Leigh and write the first biography of Jane’s life), to assure him her removal to Winchester went as smoothly as possible:
“Thanks to the kindness of your father and mother [Rev James Austen and Mary Lloyd Austen] in sending me their carriage, my journey hither on Saturday was performed with very little fatigue, and had it been a fine day, I think I should have felt none; but it distressed me to see uncle Henry and Wm. Knight [the fourth son of Jane’s brother, Edward Austen-Knight], who kindly attended us on horseback, riding in the rain almost all the way.”
Initially, the move to Winchester seemed to bring Jane a marked return to health. She promised her nephew Edward that, “neither that nor my face have yet recovered their proper beauty, but in other respects 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.” She also joked with him that, “Mr. Lyford says he will cure me, and if he fails, I shall draw up a memorial and lay it before the Dean and Chapter, and have no doubt of redress from that pious, learned, and disinterested body.”
Jane likewise wrote to Mrs Frances Tilson (the wife of Henry Austen’s London banking partner) on 29 May that Dr Lyford was “encouraging, and talks of making me quite well. I live chiefly on the sopha, but am allowed to walk from one room to the other. I have been out once in a Sedan-chair, and am to repeat it, and be promoted to a wheel-chair as the weather serves. On this subject I will only say further that my dearest sister, my tender, watchful, indefatigable nurse, has not been made ill by her exertions.”
These cheerful letters may have brought those who cared about her some comfort, but it was sadly a false comfort. In private, Dr Lyford had warned family members that even though Jane was feeling a little better, “he must still consider her in a precarious state”. When James Austen went to Winchester to see Jane for himself in early June, he could not echo Jane’s determinedly upbeat reports. Instead, James was forced to tell his teenage son:
“I grieve to write what you will grieve to read; but I must tell you that we can no longer flatter ourselves with the least hope of having your dear valuable Aunt Jane restored to us. The symptoms which returned after the first four or five days at Winchester, have never subsided, and Mr. Lyford has candidly told us that her case is desperate. I need not say what a melancholy gloom this has cast over us all. Your Grandmamma has suffered much, but her affliction can be nothing to Cassandra’s. She will indeed be to be pitied. It is some consolation to know that our poor invalid has hitherto felt no very severe pain–which is rather an extraordinary circumstance in her complaint. I saw her on Tuesday and found her much altered, but composed and cheerful. She is well aware of her situation. Your Mother has been there ever since Friday and returns not till all is over–how soon that may be we cannot say–Lyford said he saw no signs of immediate dissolution, but added that with such a pulse it was impossible for any person to last long, and indeed no one can wish it–an easy departure from this to a better world is all that we can pray for. I am going to Winchester again to-morrow; you may depend upon early information, when any change takes place, and should then prepare yourself for what the next letter may announce.”
Jane was resigned to her death, but she did her utmost to relieve the emotional burdens of those who loved her. She even continued to jest playfully with her caregivers when she could, and made a point of thanking them all repeatedly. She was particularly careful to thank Mary Austen, the sister-in-law who came to stay with the Austen sisters for the final month of Jane’s life in order to share some of the burden of round-the-clock nursing with Cassandra. Jane had never been overly fond of Mary, who was snobbish and whom Jane felt had not made her dearest brother James very happy in marriage, and Jane was eager to make unspoken peace with Mary near the end, as is encouraged by the Anglican religion.
There is also every indication that she was well enough to still enjoy being with friends and family. Not only did her sister Cassandra remain by Jane’s side almost without cessation, 8 College Street boasted numerous visitors to comfort and distract the patient. Mrs Heathcote and Miss Bigg were there nearly every day, and Mrs Heathcote in particular “was the greatest possible comfort to them all”. Regrettably, two of Jane’s best friends, Anne Sharp and Martha Lloyd, had neither the funds nor the ability to visit Winchester, but were faithful correspondents. Jane’s brother Henry made a frequent appearance in the neat little drawing room with its bow-window overlooking the headmaster of Winchester College’s garden, as did her nephew Charles Austen, who was attending the college at the time. Her brother’s James, Frank, and Charles were all able to come to her as well. However, no one seems to have thought that her brother George, whom may have had mental disabilities, would like to say farewell.
Jane’s mother missed the opportunity to see Jane in the final weeks of her existence, due to a combination of semi-hypochondrial bad heath and bone-deep denial that her youngest daughter was truly dying. When Jane passed way, her mother, in spite of having every forewarning that Jane’s death was imminent, was shocked by her youngest daughter’s death. She wrote to her granddaughter, Anne Austen Lefroy, “I am certainly in a good deal of affliction … I was not prepared for the Blow, for though it in a manner hung over us I had reason to think it at a distance, & was not quite without the hope that she might in part recover”.
Nor were there arrangements made for two of Jane’s most attached nieces, Fanny Austen-Knight and Anna Austen Lefroy, to come to Winchester. Neveretheless, they frequently wrote to their aunts, giving Jane a great deal of pleasure. Cassandra assured Fanny Austen-Knight that Jane “did love you most sincerely, and never shall I forget the proofs of love you gave her during her illness in writing those kind, amusing letters at a time when I know your feelings would have dictated so different a style. Take the only reward I can give you in the assurance that your benevolent purpose was answered; you did contribute to her enjoyment. Even your last letter afforded pleasure. I merely cut the seal and gave it to her; she opened it and read it herself, afterwards she gave it to me to read, and then talked to me a little and not uncheerfully of its contents, but there was then a languor about her which prevented her taking the same interest in anything she had been used to do.”
As further evidence that Jane remained (at least outwardly, for her loved ones) brave and merry in the face of death, her brother Henry would later write that his sister, “retained her faculties, her memory, her fancy, her temper, her affections, warm, clear and unimpaired, to the last. Neither her love of God, nor of her fellow creatures flagged for a moment. She made a point of receiving the sacrament before excessive bodily weakness might have rendered her perception unequal to her wished. She wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen became too laborious. The day before her death she composed some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour.”
This poem, entitled Venta, was a humorous verse about the rainy weather that occurred on St Swithun’s Day, July 15. Venta Belgarum had been the Roman name for the city [the Latinized form of the Brittonic words meaning City of the Belgae] and erudite scholars of the local college loved to show off their knowledge by calling Winchester by its old appellation. Jane, with her usual wit and acerbic skewing of sociocultural absurdity, mocked everything about the pretentious nomenclature and the races that were held to celebrate St Swithun.
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 St. Swithin
And that William of Wykham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fix’d and determined
The company met & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d & ermin’d
And nobody saw any future alarming.
But when the old Saint was inform’d 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 thus he address’d them all standing aloof.
Oh subject rebellious, Oh Venta depraved!
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal. — By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinn’d and must suffer. — Then further he said
These races & revels & dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighbourly Plain
Let them stand — you shall meet with a curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command in 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.
Having made this last sally into the written word, Jane Austen slipped off her mortal shell a little more than 48 hours later, dying in the wee hours of Friday, 18 July, with her head pillowed on her sister Cassandra’s lap. Cassandra sent a letter to Fanny Austen-Knight recounting Jane’s final moments:
“She felt herself to be dying about half an hour before she became tranquil and apparently unconscious. During that half-hour was her struggle, poor soul! She said she could not tell us what she suffered, though she complained of little fixed pain. When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death, and some of her words were: ‘God grant me patience, pray for me, oh, pray for me!’ Her voice was affected, but as long as she spoke she was intelligible … he was seized again with the same faintness, which was followed by the sufferings she could not describe; but Mr. Lyford had been sent for, had applied something to give her ease, and she was in a state of quiet insensibility by seven o’clock at the latest. [According to Henry Austen, Jane’s “last voluntary speech conveyed thanks to her medical attendant”.] From that time till half-past four, when she ceased to breathe, she scarcely moved a limb, so that we have every reason to think, with gratitude to the Almighty, that her sufferings were over. A slight motion of the head with every breath remained till almost the last. I sat close to her with a pillow in my lap to assist in supporting her head, which was almost off the bed, for six hours; fatigue made me then resign my place to Mrs. J. A. for two hours and a half, when I took it again, and in about an hour more she breathed her last. I was able to close her eyes myself, and it was a great gratification to me to render her those last services. There was nothing convulsed which gave the idea of pain in her look; on the contrary, but for the continual motion of the head, she gave one the idea of a beautiful statue, and even now, in her coffin, there is such a sweet, serene air over her countenance as is quite pleasant to contemplate.”
Austen’s family and friends were profoundly grieved. Cassandra wrote, “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well … 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!” Fanny Austen-Knight also suffered “severely”, recording in her diary that she “had the misery of losing my dear Aunt Jane after a lingering illness”, and wrote several times to her Aunt Cassandra and her grandmother regarding the extent of their loss. Anne Austen Lefroy also felt the loss of Aunt Jane keenly, constantly eager to tell Jane some news or though, only to recall that she was no longer alive to receive the information. Anna’s young half-sister, 12 year old Caroline Austen, lamented that her sorrow made her feel as though she “had never loved and valued” her Aunt Jane as much as she should. Her brother James was so moved he composed a poem as an elegy for his sister, praising her multitudinous virtues. These effusions of sorrow are all proofs of a family in deepest mourning.
Jane Austen was laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral on 24 July. As was customary, it was a small family affair, attended by her kinsmen because a funeral was considered too much for the deceased female relatives to bear. Jane’s brothers Frank and Henry were there, but Edward Austen came as his father’s surrogate (James’s was in ill health and they feared the grief might harm him constitutionally) and Charles Austen was unable to come away from his naval post in time. Cassandra wrote of the funeral, “Never was human being more sincerely mourned … 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!”
A simple memorial stone covered Jane’s grave, saying:
In Memory of JANE AUSTEN youngest daughter of the late Rev GEORGE AUSTEN formerly Rector of Steventon in this County she departed this Life on the 18th July, 1817 aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temperament the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her and the warmest love of her intimate connections. Their grief is in proportion to their affection they know their loss to be irreparable but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her REDEEMER
There was no mention of her novels, or her success as a writer. For the Austen family, even her overwhelming abilities with the pen were overshadowed by the intense personal nature of her loss. Their dismay was for the absence of a sister and friend, not for the fact her career as an author was so sadly cut short. Not even works of Jane Austen’s magnitude could surpass her worth as a sibling and companion in their eyes.
This is not to say that they were unaware of her extraordinary literary gifts. Her grave may have borne no reference to her writing, but her brother Henry was lavish in his praise of her the obituary he submitted to the newspapers, listing all of her novels with great pride. He furthermore declared that “the whole catalogue of the mighty dead” buried at Winchester Cathedral did “not contain the ashes of a brighter genius”.
Although we probably can all agree with Henry’s assessment of his sister’s talents, we can none of us understand the depths of the Austen family’s pain at losing one of their own. As Austen herself wrote in Mansfield Park, the sibling bond is “a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply”. In a way it is a blessing that Jane was the first to go; she alone was spared the anguish of losing a brother or sister. English literature has suffered for her early demise, but Jane herself did not.
In our regrets for the loss of such a magnificent author, we sometimes neglect the fact she was a wonderful person, as well.
Meet Kyra Kramer: Kyra Cornelius Kramer is a freelance academic with BS degrees in both biology and anthropology from the University of Kentucky, as well as a MA in medical anthropology from Southern Methodist University. She has written essays on the agency of the Female Gothic heroine and women’s bodies as feminist texts in the works of Jennifer Crusie. She has also co-authored two works; one with Dr. Laura Vivanco on the way in which the bodies of romance heroes and heroines act as the sites of reinforcement of, and resistance to, enculturated sexualities and gender ideologies, and another with Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley on Henry VIII.
Ms. Kramer lives in Bloomington, IN with her husband, three young daughters, assorted pets, and occasionally her mother, who journeys northward from Kentucky in order to care for her grandchildren while her daughter feverishly types away on the computer. [Amazon Author Page]
When her widowed uncle made her home untenable, Mary made the best of things by going to live with her elder sister, Mrs Grant, in a parson’s house the country. Mansfield Parsonage was more than Mary had expected and better than she could have hoped. Gregarious and personable, Mary also embraced the inhabitants of the nearby Mansfield Park, watching the ladies set their caps for her dashing brother, Henry Crawford, and developing an attachment to Edmund Bertram and a profound affection for his cousin, Fanny Price.
Mansfield Parsonage retells the story of Mansfield Park from the perspective of Mary Crawford’s hopes and aspirations and shows how Fanny Price’s happily-ever-after came at Mary’s expense.