Regency Bicentennial:   The Passing of Jane Austen

This coming Tuesday, 18 July 2017, will be the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. Certainly not something to be celebrated, but it should be noted by all of those who love the Regency and/or Miss Austen’s delightful novels, for it marks the loss of one of the most important authors of all time. This post is my attempt to mark that loss and remember her last days.

The passing of Miss Jane Austen . .

Jane Austen was born in December of 1775, and published four of her six novels during her lifetime. The first of her novels to be published was Sense and Sensibility, in October of 1811. This was followed by Pride and Prejudice, in January of 1813, Mansfield Park, in May of 1814, and finally, Emma, in December of 1815. Northanger Abbey, which she had completed in 1803, and Persuasion, which she probably completed sometime in 1816, were both published in 1817, after her death. Austen also left behind two unfinished stories, The Watsons, which she is believed to have begun in 1803, and abandoned upon the death of her father in 1805. She had begun to write another story during her last illness, but it was incomplete, most likely because she was not able to write very much during the final stages of her illness. She had titled this new novel The Brothers, but it was given the title of Sanditon, when it was first published as part of a memoir of Austen written by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, in 1871.

Jane Austen’s first four novels were published anonymously, "By a Lady." Her brother, Henry, was very proud of his sister, and eventually spilled the beans to a few friends that his sister was the author of Pride and Prejudice, so there was a small group of people who knew the true author of these novels. She may well have wanted to wring Henry’s neck when her authorship became known to the Prince Regent, who requested that she dedicate her next novel to him, by way of his librarian, James Stanier Clarke. Not only did Austen deeply disapprove of the behavior of the Regent, she also found his librarian, Clarke, to be a pompous and condescending annoyance who wrote her multiple letters filled with his advice on how to write fiction. Apparently a woman of remarkable forbearance, discipline and practicality, Jane did dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent, and she forgave Henry for his prideful faux pas in exposing her as an author. But she did get a little of her own back where Clarke was concerned, since most scholars believe that her parody, Plan of A Novel, was her secret revenge for all his unwanted literary advice. It is probably just as well he never got to read it. Then again, he may have been too dense to grasp the subtle satire in which it was couched.

Even before she began work on Persuasion, Jane Austen had begun to experience some of the symptoms of the illness which would eventually take her life. Some scholars believe that Austen had some expectation of her own mortality and realized that Persuasion would probably be her last novel. Therefore, it is completely understandable why that story is a much more serious, sometimes even melancholy, novel than any which had preceded it. Certainly, the romance between the principal characters does have a satisfyingly happy ending, but much of the lightheartedness and gaiety of Austen’s earlier novels are noticeably lacking in this story of an older couple getting a second chance at love.

Based on her surviving letters, it appears that Jane Austen first began experiencing bouts of illness by the end of 1815 or the beginning of 1816. However, the symptoms were intermittent, interspersed with periods where she felt fairly well and was able to continue her writing. Initially, she assumed it was a minor ailment which would eventually pass off. Though she felt weak from time to time, she was able to visit friends in the spring of 1816. However, they noticed that she did not seem her usual lively self, and that she went around to many of her favorite places, recalling old memories she had had there, almost like she never expected to see those places again. In a letter to a nephew in December of 1816, Austen mentioned that she was too weak to walk the distance to dine with a neighbor. But in January of 1817, she wrote that she did feel strong enough to walk to Alton and back.

Over the course of the next several months, Austen’s periods of weakness became longer and more frequent. By the spring, she was no longer able to enjoy a country walk and was only able to get out to take the air by riding in a donkey-cart. Indoors, she was spending more and more time resting. Her sister, Cassandra, became her nurse, when Jane was too ill or weak to do things for herself. Cassandra was devoted to Jane, and the two sisters shared a bedchamber in their cottage at Chawton, so it was only natural that Cassandra should care for her ailing sister. Despite her weakness, until March of 1817, Jane persevered in writing that new novel, eventually to be re-titled Sanditon, which she had begun in January. However, on Tuesday, 18 March 1817, she made a note in the manuscript, with the date, that she was laying aside her pen and thus forever abandoned her novel writing. In April, she made out her will, leaving everything to Cassandra, after funeral expenses, with the exception of legacies of £50 each for her brother, Henry, and his housekeeper.

By late May, it was clear that Jane’s condition was not improving. On Saturday, 24 May 1817, Cassandra accompanied Jane to Winchester, where they hoped to seek better medical care. The pair took rooms at 8 College Street, and Jane was pleased to discover their new lodgings had a bow window in their sitting room which overlooked a neighbor’s garden. Their rooms were near the home of two of their dearest friends, Mrs. Heathcote and Miss Bigg, who did their best to make the sisters’ stay in Winchester comfortable. Jane consulted Mr. Lyford, who was a noted physician in the region. Though the doctor spoke encouragingly to Jane and her sister, in truth, it is thought that he had little hope of her recovery. Despite the fact that he was not able to specifically diagnose her illness, her condition suggested to him that any cure was beyond his power. But at least Jane’s family, particularly Cassandra, believed that she had gotten the best possible medical care.

In the weeks that followed, Jane continued to become weaker and weaker and experienced intermittent fever. Cassandra was her devoted nurse, caring for her beloved sister very tenderly. By mid-June, Jane realized she was not likely to recover and attended what would be her final church service, supported by her family, and took Holy Communion. Though Jane was no longer able to write, she did dictate a few amusing verses intended for the entertainment of her family during this time. Though she had not experienced a great deal of pain in the early stages of her illness, the pain began to steadily increase during the last weeks of her life.

On Thursday, 17 July 1817, at about half past five o’clock in the evening, Jane Austen suffered seizure. Some hours later, she regained consciousness and was able to speak. Those at her bedside asked her if there was anything she wanted. Reportedly, she said, "Nothing but death." According to the memoir written years later by James Edward Austen-Leigh, those were her last words. Soon thereafter, she drifted into unconsciousness, while Cassandra remained at her side. At about half past four o’clock on the morning of Friday, 18 July 1817, Jane Austen breathed her last and her suffering was ended.

On 22 July 1817, Jane Austen was publicly identified for the first time as the author of her four published novels, in an obituary written by her brother, Henry, and published in the Hampshire Courier. Her funeral was held on Thursday, 24 July 1817, attended by the male members of her family, as was the custom of the time. She was laid to rest in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral. The inscription on her tomb reads:

In Memory of JANE AUSTEN, youngest daughter of the late Revd GEORGE AUSTEN, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of 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 temper, and 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.

What was the mysterious illness which took the life of Jane Austen? It is unlikely that we will ever know. Various authorities have speculated that she died of Addison’s disease, breast cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or disseminated bovine tuberculosis. Recently, another theory has been bandied about, that she died of arsenic poisoning. However, based on the descriptions which have survived of her illness, none of her symptoms specifically matched any one of the diseases noted above. The evidence for arsenic poisoning is not only thin, but highly suspect. Jane Austen’s writing desk became the property of the British Library in 1999. Three pairs of eyeglasses were found inside. Though there is no proof, many are of the opinion that these spectacles belonged to Jane Austen. The strength of each pair was increasingly stronger, leading some to speculate that Austen’s eyesight was failing, a symptom of long-term arsenic poisoning. In addition, when Jane died, her sister, Cassandra, cut a few locks of her sister’s hair for keepsakes for the family. At least one of those locks was tested, and was found to contain some arsenic. The problem there is that during the nineteenth century, when many people kept locks of hair, a special powder was sold to protect them from insect infestation. That powder is known to have contained arsenic. Therefore, locks of hair are not a reliable indicator of arsenic in anyone’s system.

Regardless of what took her life, Jane Austen was lost much too soon, passing away at the age of only forty-one. Her family were devastated by her loss, and, though we may not feel the loss in such a sharply personal way, so are her many devoted readers, to this day. One can only wonder how many more delightful novels she might have been able to write, had not illness struck her down at such a young age. We can only be grateful for those she did write.

Thank you for your wonderful stories, and all the pleasant hours in Regency England which your books have given me.

Rest In Peace, Jane Austen!

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Passing of Jane Austen

  1. Mr Elton says:

    Beautifully written post. I enjoyed reading it!

  2. Susan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I thought she ought to be remembered on the anniversary of her death, though I disagree with all those organizations who are using the date as a reason to celebrate! I may just be contrary, but I think she died much too young and it is nothing that should ever be celebrated, even today.



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