We’ve been coming to this for some time, although it was actually the first city in my itinerary during my travels, for I began at Jane Austen’s end. I’d been to Winchester before this trip, but it was merely as a stopover on the way to Alton and Chawton. This was the first time I’d stayed overnight there, and I found the place quite charming, despite the high risk of getting “Winchester Cathedral” stuck in my head the entire time I was there. It had numerous historic buildings, from Georgian bow windows to Tudor timber frame:
I stayed near the cathedral, which features some wonderfully old outbuildings:
Also nearby is this yellow house. You’ve probably seen photos of it before:
I hadn’t been intending to seek it out – the house is a private residence and therefore not open to visitors, and I also have little interest in seeing death locations. I’m much more interested in seeing where and how people lived. Yet this seemed to be my luck on this trip, for without intending it, I ended up seeing the sofa upon which Charles Dickens died, the bed in which Queen Victoria died, and the bed in which Queen Charlotte (consort of George III) died.
So I was exploring the area, and suddenly there was the house where on the 18th of July, 1817, Jane Austen died. Whether it was from Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, arsenic poisoning, or something entirely else that modern medical historians have not yet landed upon, she was gone at the entirely too young age of 41. What medical treatment could be had in that day (she had gone to Winchester for this purpose) had not succeeded in curing her, nor had a trip to Cheltenham to take the waters.
She was laid to rest four days later, in nearby Winchester Cathedral.
It’s a grand place, to be her final resting place, particularly for a lady who was known then only as the unmarried daughter of a country clergyman. And as I viewed it, and the exhibits around it, I began to become dubious about the common lore for why she was buried there: that it was because she was the daughter of a clergyman in the Church of England. Yes, this lore does seem to be borne out by her epitaph, written by her brother Henry, which makes no mention of her writing:
Yet if the daughters of every clergyman in the Church of England could be buried within cathedrals, I think the cathedrals would be a lot more full. Yes, in Jane Austen’s case she died very close to the cathedral, but still, it didn’t feel like it added up. Standing there, I felt the sense that they knew, Austen’s family, or at the very least that they had a sense that her burial place might eventually become a place of pilgrimage for future generations to see. That she deserved to be buried as the famous were. Perhaps it was Henry, a fairly well-connected fellow, who had this future vision and arranged to have her buried here. He had acted as a sort of literary agent for her, and maybe he understood that her contribution to literature would come to be valued more and more in the future. She had not yet been publicly “outed” as the author of her work, but would be soon enough with the biography within the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. I’m not the only one to speculate on this, and Collins Hemingway writes on it in greater detail in his post here at Austen Authors.
Jane Austen’s work was, of course, increasingly valued, and the lack of mention of her authorship in that memorial was eventually rectified with not one but two additional memorials:
It is undoubtedly tragic for us as readers that Jane Austen died so young. Beyond those chapters of Sanditon that were left, we cannot know where she would have gone with her works in the future, how her work would have further shaped the development of the novel as a genre. Yet it is less tragic if you look at it from the perspective of her life as a person.
What is the purpose of a life? To have impact on others? To shape the world? To create something lasting that will live on beyond one’s own death? When you look at it from this perspective, Jane Austen lived one of the fullest lives of anyone in history, in those 41 years she lived.
To me the most tragic thing about her life is that she did not get a chance to see the tremendous popularity of her work. How delightful it would have been to see her live on through the Victorian age, seeing her books become railway novels and enjoying both the literary and financial success that would have come from this. How delightful to allow her to defend herself against Charlotte Brontë, perhaps revisiting Northanger Abbey by writing a fierce parody of those romantic heroes and heroines of the moors.
She did not, sadly. But this is one of the reasons why I did not seek out that yellow house: Jane Austen lives on. She will outlive you and me and Colin Firth, and very possibly the entire human race. So long as there is some sentient being out there in the universe who will settle in to the words “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” whether those words are read, heard, or beamed directly into that sentient mind, Jane Austen did not really die in that yellow house. Her body might have died, but every word and every character lives yet, and always will.
I hope you all have enjoyed this series on my travels and seeking the cure as much as I’ve enjoyed sharing it with you:
- Taking the cure
- Taking a bath
- A regime of fun
- The hidden key
- A little sea-bathing will NOT set me up forever
- A walk in Jane Austen’s shoes
Now for the giveaway: to close out the series and celebrate Jane Austen’s life and work, I’m giving away five more copies of the ebook Pride and Prejudice: A Novel. In Three Volumes. (Annotated and Restored to 1813 Egerton First Edition). Post in the comments below to enter by midnight EST on Tuesday, March 20.