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Archive for the ‘Jane Austen’s death’ Category

By Brenda S. Cox

“God grant me patience, Pray for me Oh Pray for me.” –Jane Austen’s last recorded words, from Cassandra’s letter to Fanny Knight, July 20, 1817

You probably know that Jane Austen died young, at age 41, on July 18, 1817.

What did she die of? We don’t know, but many scholars have speculated. Most of these conditions had not even been identified in Austen’s time.

Her Symptoms

From letters we learn that Austen had:

  • Fluctuating symptoms, better, worse, better, worse
  • Pain in her face (Sept. 15 and 24, 1813, exacerbated by cold air), back (Sept. 8, 1816), and knee (Feb. 21, 1817), though not much pain near the end
  • Discoloration of skin, especially face, “black and white and every wrong color” (March 25, 1817)
  • Pale skin (from her niece Caroline’s observations)
  • Recurrent fevers (March 25, April 6, 1817)
  • Sleepless nights
  • A clear mind (she wrote a poem on Winchester Races shortly before her death)
  • Fatigue, weakness, langour, often needing to lie down (May 22, 1817, as well as months before that)
  • A “Discharge” for a week, which the “applications” of a Winchester doctor alleviated (May 22, 1817)
  • A seizure near the very end; when repeated, Cassandra describes it as faintness (July 20, 1817)

Her Self-Diagnosis

What did Austen think she had? On Jan. 24, 1817, she wrote, “I am more & more convinced that Bile is at the bottom of all I have suffered, which makes it easy to know how to treat myself.” And again on April 6, “I have been suffering from a Bilious attack, attended with a good deal of fever.”

Bile is often mentioned in Austen’s letters as a source of disease for her family and friends. The liver produces bile as part of the digestive process. She implies that she has a digestive disorder.

On Feb. 21, 1817, Austen wrote, “I am almost entirely cured of my rheumatism, just a little pain in my knee now & then, to make me remember what it was, & keep on flannel.” March 26, 1817, she wrote, “I have still a tendency to Rheumatism.” So at this point she attributed her pain and weakness to rheumatism in her joints.

Contemporary Treatments

In Austen’s time, doctors considered that the “humours” in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile, had to be in balance. In Dr. Buchan’s popular Domestic Medicine (11th ed., 1790), he writes, “Jaundice, indigestion, loss of appetite, and a wasting of the whole body” are “the consequences of a vitiated state of the liver, or obstructions of the bile” (56). 

For an intermittent fever, Dr. Buchan recommends ipecac, which will cause the patient to vomit up bile and clean out the system (150). For stomach issues caused by bile, he recommends bleeding, liquids and light foods (such as Mr. Woodhouse’s gruel), and warm baths (290-291).

For jaundice (probably what we would call hepatitis, which turns the patient’s skin and eyes yellow, from excess bile), Buchan says “numberless British herbs” supposedly cure it, but he observes that generally the disease goes away by itself, so the herbs don’t necessarily cause the cure. He goes on to recommend hempseed and several other herbs that he thinks work. He also describes other diseases as connected with bile.

John Wesley, the Methodist preacher, wrote a very popular book called Primitive Physic: Or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. It went through many editions and is still available today (I bought mine at the Wesley Museum in London). His goal was to list “cheap, safe, and easy medicines” available to “plain, unlettered” people. He marked those he had tried himself. Wesley started with lifestyle recommendations, such as, eat and drink moderately, and exercise regularly. Then he gave remedies for many diseases.

For “bilious cholic” (upset stomach ejecting bile), he recommends drinking warm lemonade or taking “sweet oil.” He gives nine remedies for rheumatism, including cold baths, warm steams, and eating barley-gruel with currants, roasted apples, fresh whey, and light pudding.

We don’t know what remedies Austen might have tried for her “bile” or rheumatism.

Mr. Curtis, her apothecary in Alton, and Mr. Lyford, her doctor in Winchester, tried to cure her, but we don’t know what diagnoses they made. For some possibilities, as well as more modern ideas, see “Did Jane Austen die from Nervous Consumption on July 18, 1817?” 

Modern Theories

Many modern scholars and doctors have speculated on what might have caused Jane’s death. Here are a few of their ideas:

Addison’s disease (tuberculosis of the adrenal glands)

This theory was put forward by Sir Zachary Cope in 1964. Austen’s langour, fatigue, skin discoloration, and stomach irritability fit with Addison’s. However, her niece described her as pale, while Addison’s generally gives a tanned appearance, according to Claire Tomalin in Jane Austen: A Life. The National Organization for Rare Disorders says, though, that Addison’s can cause white patches and darker patches, including black freckles on the face, so that might fit. However, her clear mind and lack of pain towards the end do not fit with Addison’s, apparently.

Lymphoma, such as Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of cancer

A study in June 2005 gives Hodgkin’s Disease as a more likely diagnosis. This causes an immune deficiency. The article considers Austen’s medical history of recurrent infections, including possible conjunctivitis which gave her eye problems, typhus when she was a child, and the whooping cough she contracted as an adult. She may have had an immune deficiency and lymphoma for years. Jane Austen’s birth, a month late, could have made her more susceptible to an immune deficiency. Trigeminal neuralgia, causing her face pain exacerbated by cold, could also be associated with a lymphoma.

Tuberculosis, or consumption

Another writer, K.G. White,  suggested in 2009 that tuberculosis, or consumption, was much more widespread in Austen’s day than Addison’s, and is another possible cause of her death. It may have been a secondary infection on top of a lymphoma

In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood nearly dies of an illness brought on by indulging her misery and “sitting in her wet shoes and stockings.”

 

Lupus (an autoimmune disease)

An even more recent theory claims that all Austen’s symptoms were consistent with systemic lupus erythematosus. Joint pain, skin discoloration, fever, fatigue, and fluctuating symptoms that come and go are all consistent with lupus. See “Black and White and Every Wrong Colour.” 

 

Accidental Arsenic Poisoning

The British Library suggests that Austen may have died of accidental arsenic poisoning, from arsenic in medications or the water supply. They tested three pairs of spectacles from Austen’s writing desk, which are believed to be hers. Based on the prescription strengths, the researchers speculate that she may have gotten cataracts due to arsenic poisoning. Arsenic could also have caused her facial discoloration. See Dr. Sandra Tuppen’s article  and “Jane Austen Poisoned.”

 

Breast Cancer

Another possibility is breast cancer, which Carol Shields suggests in Jane Austen: A Life (NY: Penguin, 2001), 173-174. Austen’s Aunt Philadelphia (her father’s sister) apparently died from breast cancer, and estrogen fluctuations might have caused Austen’s fevers. 

 

Typhus

Another theory is that she died of a recurrence of the typhus which almost killed her as a child, while she was in Southampton. See Linda Robinson Walker, “Jane Austen’s Death: The Long Reach of Typhus?

 

Overdose?

Helena Kelly, in Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, thinks that whatever Austen was sick with, “a dose of opiates strong enough to knock her out completely for nine hours has to have at least hastened her death” (282). The laudanum Dr. Lyford gave her may have been too high a dose, which caused her to eventually stop breathing.

 

In the end, we don’t really know what took Jane Austen away—to heaven, as her sister Cassandra strongly believed. We know she left this world before she could finish all the works we wish she might have done. But we’re thankful for those works she did complete and the legacy she left to us all.

What’s your favorite theory about what happened to our beloved Jane? Can you add any information about the possible diagnoses above?

Jane’s obituary in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal says, “Her manners were gentle, her affections ardent, her candour was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian.” (Candour at this time meant that she thought the best of people, as Jane Bennet did.) (Quoted in Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen: A Life.)

For spiritual and religious aspects of death in Austen’s novels and in her experience, see my article in Persuasions On-Line, “Preparation for Death and Second Chances in Austen’s Novels.” 

 

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

 

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Inquiring readers: Today is the 203rd anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. She lived from December 16th, 1775 to July 18, 1817, and managed to achieve more in 41 years than a majority of us in twice that time. My previous posts marking this occasion were somber. This one provides a more light hearted, science fictiony approach. The North American Friends of Chawton House sent a limited edition of Celebrity Jane, a bobblehead doll, after I made a contribution that qualified me for this gift. NAFCH challenges Celebrity Jane doll possessors to share photos of Bad Ass Jane, as I renamed her, in various locations in our lives. I chose home.

Image of Bad Ass Jane meeting her 18th century silhouette, as drawn by Mr. Rose at the 2019 AGM in Williamsburg

Bad Ass Jane meets her 18th century silhouette, as drawn by Mr. Rose at the 2019 AGM in Williamsburg

It was a dream. It must have been. I had been researching Jane Austen’s life in Steventon until I fell asleep. Then, when I awoke around 2 A.M., as I am wont to do, I saw a bad ass version of Jane Austen on my bookshelf, staring at a silhouette of herself. Only she wasn’t quite the spinsterish virgin that I knew and loved so well, Oh, no! She was Bad Ass! A Rocker Chick. A person who would have appealed to my rebellious younger self and my current, well, rebellious me.

She still wore her virginal cap, but from the neck down she wore a black tee, low rise jeans that bared her midriff, and leather boots! Best of all she carried a guitar. Regency Jane loved playing music every morning on her piano forte. Bad Ass Jane (BAJ) plays electric guitar at every opportunity. (How BAJ finds the time to write—heaven knows.)

I gruffed at this strange Jane, who wanted to discuss the books in my book shelf, most of which pertained to her life and history. I needed my beauty sleep and promised her a tour of my house and gardens the following morn, but she would have none of it. She desired my company NOW! Jane played a few tunes on her guitar, which woke me more efficiently than two cups of Moroccan coffee. She mesmerized me with her persistence, pluck, and talent.

Image of Bad Ass Jane meets Cassandra, her two children, and mother wearing pearls.

Bad Ass Jane visits Cassandra, her two children, and mother wearing pearls.

I pointed to a 5 foot tall doll house, in which my 7-year-old grand nieces played occasionally. “Here’s your family.” I gestured to the top floor of the house where two female adults and two children resided.

BAJ peered inside. “My family? They look strange and somehow not themselves. And the fashion! Oh, so revealing. Who are those children?”

“Dear Jane,” I said familiarly. “Recall that this is a dream and that this story is a mere figment of my imagination and the result of a host of wishes. Tom Fowle never died. He returned with Lord Craven from the West Indies healthy and hale and became the intended heir of a living in Shropshire. He and Cassy married and had two beautiful children. Your mama, Mrs. Austen, acquired a gorgeous necklace of pearls, brought back by Tom.”

Copy of Bad Ass Jane in the ficus tree

Bad Ass Jane in the ficus tree

“How strange,” BAJ muttered. She wandered from the doll house to our ficus tree lit with fairy lights.

 

She then visited the wine corner. Recalling that she had a fondness for a tipple here and there, I offered a glass. Savoring the wine (a nice Australian Shiraz), we discussed her family, my family (our fathers, with their dry wit and extensive libraries had much in common), and our writing. She was better than me. Way. And more successful. Way. I felt humbled in her presence.

When BAJ learned about her enduring fame–the JASNA Societies, the JA groupies, the Austenesque novels and stories–her bobble head bobbled. “Goodness, I’m famous! Did I become rich?”

I shook my head sadly. “Not you, but Cassandra and your ancestors benefited most generously.”

When dawn broke, we walked into my back yard. BAJ played her guitar in the morning, much as she played her pianoforte before breakfast. I was mesmerized. It was time to greet the sun.

Image of Bad Ass Jane at the bird feeders

Bad Ass Jane at the bird feeders

I pointed to my bird feeders, where my hungry hordes of wildlife shrieked for their breakfast: blue jays, red cardinals, musical wrens, and colorful goldfinches. The deer, chipmunks, and squirrels were silent but watchful. Their ferocious appetites challenged my meager resources weekly. All stood a respectful distance away as I filled tubs, tubes, platforms, and the ground.

An impatient BAJ wanted in on the action and hopped right on to the feeders. In an impeccable British accent, she asked, “Pray, where are they?”

birds-deer

The deer and their fawns and birds appeared as we stood still

“Gurl,” I said. “Your Bad Ass attitude must’ve scared them. Stay still and behold the magic.” Shy creatures appeared flock by flock and one by one from the forest within feet of us. BAJ noted with irony that the brown sparrows were as common in the U.K. as in my back yard.

We visited the flowers. “They’re nothing as fabulous as your English gardens,” I cautioned, and so we viewed several areas designed to be deer proof.

At the last, BAJ noticed a sign. “Pray, what is this?”

Image of BAJ posing with an American security sign

BAJ meets an American security sign

“The sign is for security,” I answered. “This deters burglars. We call in and help arrives within, well, whenever.”

She laughed and said, “Is not a dog more effective?,” and jumped into a West Highland Terrier planter.

Image of BAJ's Westie carriage

BAJ Westie carriage

I guffawed. Jennie, our Westie is all bark and no bite. Poof, my dream ended. Once again I missed the chance to ask BAJ the questions swirling in my head. I’d assumed that I had all the time in the world. Ah, well. The mystery that is Miss Jane Austen continues.

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Sanders-JaneAustenforKidsInquiring readers,

In this blog post (to wind up women’s history month), author Nancy Sanders discusses her new book Jane Austen for Kids: Her Life, Writings and World, with 21 activities, which teaches young readers about our favorite novelist through 21 enriching activities that help them gain a better understanding of what day-to-day life in the Georgian era was like. Activities include learning to play whist, designing their own family coat of arms, planting a Georgian-style kitchen garden, hosting a Regency tea, sewing a reticule, and more.

I am pleased to announce that the publisher has agreed to give away two free copies of the book. Please leave a comment to enter the contest and let us know which activity you would introduce to children to learn more about Georgian life! Winners will be drawn via random number generator 7 AM EST USA April 1st. (US readers only, please). You may leave as many comments as you like. NOTICE: Contest is closed as of 10 AM April 1. The winners are: Rona Shirdan and DanelleinKansas

Ms. Sanders sent us information about her new book and her splendid visit to Winchester. Enjoy!

When I signed the contract to write a biography of Jane Austen for young people, it was a thrilling day indeed! The deadline was set when the final manuscript would be due at the editor’s desk, and I dove into my project.

 

How diverting it was to read and reread Jane’s delightful novels, watch and watch again the amazing variety of movies based on her books, and pour over biographies others had written about our favorite author.

 

Several months into my deep research, however, I discovered a treasure that changed my course. Shortly after my manuscript was due at the publisher, all England would be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Jane’s legacy to the world.

 

On July 18, 2017, Winchester Cathedral planned to host private services at Jane’s grave followed in the evening by a Choral Evensong honoring this amazing woman.

 

Would I be there to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event? Could I be there? I called my editor and got my deadline extended to include this unexpected trip. My husband Jeff and I booked an exclusive tour with JASNA (The Jane Austen Society of North America). Upon my word, we were excited to participate in the gala celebrations and all-things-Jane!

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All photos from Winchester Cathedral by author, courtesy of the Winchester Cathedral.

July 18, 2017 dawned sunny and fair. I entered the hushed halls of Winchester Cathedral with Jeff and my tour group whom we had just met the night before. Our capable and enthusiastic group leader was Liz Philosophos Cooper, a Janeite from a family of Janeites who was destined to become the very next President of JASNA!

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All photos from Winchester Cathedral by author, courtesy of the Winchester Cathedral.

We were led through the magnificent nave of the cathedral and stood next to Jane’s grave. Canon Sue Wallace greeted us and shared inspirational words about Jane and how her faith shaped Jane’s thoughts, actions, and writings. Along with the other members of our tour group, Jeff and I placed a rose on Jane’s grave.

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All photos from Winchester Cathedral by author, courtesy of the Winchester Cathedral.

It was 200 years ago, this very day, that our beloved Jane passed quietly away. After the graveside service finished, we lingered nearby.

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All photos from Winchester Cathedral by author, courtesy of the Winchester Cathedral.

There was a beautiful bust of Jane displayed in the nave. I stopped and looked into Jane’s eyes.

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All photos from Winchester Cathedral by author, courtesy of the Winchester Cathedral.

There was a memory book to sign. The BBC radio interviewed several of us on our way out. The only way I could force myself to leave was knowing that in the evening we would return back to the cathedral for yet another special event once again in honor of Jane.

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All photos from Winchester Cathedral by author, courtesy of the Winchester Cathedral.

We traced the route the small funeral procession probably took on the day of Jane’s funeral. The short walk led us to College Street where the house still stands that Jane and her sister Cassandra rented during Jane’s last days.

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All photos from Winchester Cathedral by author, courtesy of the Winchester Cathedral.

I stood at the front door of this historic landmark…remembering the letter her sister wrote to inform the family of Jane’s last moments…remembering the description she gave of the small sad funeral procession that departed from this door…

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All photos from Winchester Cathedral by author, courtesy of the Winchester Cathedral.

A dog looked down at me and at our tour group who was visiting this house. What was the dog thinking? What did Jane think as she looked out onto this street during her final days? What did Cassandra think 200 years ago as she chose to stay behind from the funeral and looked out on this street to whisper her final good-byes to the sister she had so dearly loved? I longed to switch places with the dog for just a moment to catch a glimpse of the same view these two sisters shared during those heartbreaking times.

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All photos from Winchester Cathedral by author, courtesy of the Winchester Cathedral.

A film crew arrived and set up their equipment to begin filming. This was an important day in history. Two hundred years ago this very day, one of English literature’s greatest authors passed quietly away into the halls of eternity. Although practically unknown, Jane Austen was given a stately burial site in the magnificent Winchester Cathedral. Somehow, someone recognized the treasures this self-taught genius and amazing woman had given to England…and the world. They gave her a final resting place where Janeites from around the globe could come show their love and respect…as did I and hundreds of others on this unforgettable day.

Thank you Nancy, for this wonderful description of your visit to Winchester and these excellent photos! Don’t forget to leave your comment, readers, for a chance of winning one of two copies of this book. (U.S. readers are eligible only)

___________

About the author:

Nancy I. SAnders is the author of many books, including Frederick Douglas for Kids, America’s Black Founders, A Kid’s Guide to African American History and Old Testament Days. She lives in Chino, California.

About the book: 

Jane Austen for Kids: Her Life, Writings, and World, with 21 Activities by Nancy I. Sanders. Chicago Review Press, Distributed by IPG Publication Date: February 5, 2019, 144 pages. Two color interior, ages 9 & up. ISBN: 978-1-61373-853-5

Other posts about Winchester on this blog:

 

 

 

 

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Exploring Jane Austen’s Prayers, by Rachel Dodge

As we reflect this month on the beautiful written treasures Jane Austen left behind her in this world, we also celebrate the wonderful life that she lived. Though she has been gone 200 years now, her novels are a continual gift we can enjoy again and again. And though we never knew her personally, we feel as though we have met her through the lives of her characters.

But what was Austen like? As we read her novels and letters, we see her sense of humor and her incredible intellect, but we often long to know more about what she thought and how she felt. We know that she was a beloved daughter, sister, aunt, and friend and that she lived a simple but full life. However, it is her personal life that is perhaps the most intriguing to us today.  

The Prayers of Jane Austen

The Prayers of Jane Austen. Image Rachel Dodge

One way we can better understand Austen’s rich inner life is by looking at one of the other treasures she left behind—her prayers. Though Austen may have written additional prayers in her lifetime, three prayers were kept by Cassandra with these words written on them: “composed by my ever dear Sister Jane” (Stovel). The date of her prayers is unknown, but many Austen scholars note that the writing style and handwriting is similar to her adult writing. Framed copies of her prayers hang in the churches at Steventon and Chawton, as well as in her bedroom at Chawton Cottage (Jane Austen’s House Museum).

Austen Framed Prayer

A Prayer by Jane Austen. Image Rachel Dodge.

Austen’s father, the Reverend George Austen, was an Anglican clergyman, and religion played a large and important role in their family life. By all accounts, the Reverend Austen took his role as the spiritual leader of his parish seriously and was a devout and capable clergyman. Austen’s letters and prayers suggest that she, too, was quite devout in her faith. It does not appear that she went through the rituals of the Church of England out of mere duty.

With the exception of Mansfield Park, Austen doesn’t openly discuss matters of faith in her novels, even though they all include characters who are clergyman (some of whom—think Mr. Collins or Mr. Elton—are not the most exemplary representatives of the church). In Mansfield Park, however, matters relating to religious activity and the clergy are discussed in more detail. In particular, Fanny comments on the habit of daily prayer being given up by families:

“It is a pity,” cried Fanny, “that the custom should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one’s ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine!” (MP 86)

Steventon Plaque (1)

Steventon church plaque. Image Rachel Dodge.

In the evening, the Austen family often enjoyed reading together from novels, poetry, and sermons, as well as from the delightful pieces that Jane wrote. Before going to bed, they also had family prayers. While we don’t know the exact details of what their devotions entailed, Austen wrote the following to Cassandra in a letter: “In the evening we had the Psalms and Lessons, and a sermon at home” (Austen Letters). It is possible that her prayers could have been shared during these gatherings.

Austen’s prayers closely echo the prayers found in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the liturgy of the Anglican Church. She would have grown up hearing the prayers in it at church services and likely during morning and evening prayers at home. The BCP contains prayers for Sunday services, special services, and morning and evening prayers. Each of Austen’s prayers is roughly thirteen sentences long and is written in the beautiful and elaborate style of the BCP prayers.

Interior Steventon Church

Interior Steventon Church. Image Rachel Dodge.

Each of Austen’s “evening prayers” expresses heartfelt reflection on the day that has passed, sincere gratitude for the many blessings given, and specific requests for continued safety, health, travel mercies, and comfort. The first prayer begins with the words, “Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our Hearts, as with our lips.” This highlights the beautiful language of the prayers and the heartfelt reverence they evince. While each prayer is personal in nature, asking for God’s aid to live lives that are loving and gracious, they also express kind concern for those ill or traveling, as well as widows, orphans, and prisoners. Each prayer ends with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Austen’s prayers suggest a sweetness and sincerity that is hard to miss. Like her novels, there is much more to Austen’s prayers than just eloquent words. They are not only beautiful—they are deeply heartfelt and founded on biblical principles. It is important that we do not gloss over them too quickly because of their length or language. Taking a closer look can teach us much about Austen’s inner life and faith. To read the prayers themselves, please follow these links:

Helen LeFroy Winchester Cathedral

Helen LeFroy at a private JASNA ceremony at Jane Austen’s grave, Winchester Cathedral, 2007. Image Rachel Dodge.

When Austen died, Cassandra wrote this to her niece Fanny Knight:

“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.” (July 18, 1817)

As we consider all that has come and gone in the 200 years since Austen’s death, we can all give thanks for the gifts she left behind her and reflect upon the rich life she led—a life full of family, friends, fiction, and faith.

Further suggested reading:

Bruce Stovel also wrote an article in Persuasions that gives a detailed history of Austen’s prayers and how they fit into her life and novels. To read Stovel’s article, “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art,” please follow this link: http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number16/stovel.htm

In recent years, books such as Jane Austen: The Parson’s Daughter by Irene Collins (2007) and The Spirituality of Jane Austen by Paula Hollingsworth (2017) have provided a deeper look into Austen’s spiritual life and faith. Terry Glaspey also released a beautiful gift book called The Prayers of Jane Austen (2015) that provides a short introduction to Ausen’s prayers and the prayers themselves, along with illustrations from the Regency period.

To read the full text of Cassandra’s letter and more articles about Austen’s final illness and passing, please follow this link: https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/cassandra-writes-about-jane-austens-death-july-18-1817/

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters, Edited by Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Austen, Jane, and R. W. Chapman. Mansfield Park, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.

“Letters of Jane Austen — Brabourne Edition.” Pemberley.com, 2011, http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/brablt17.html.

Stovel, Bruce. “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art,” Persuasions, 16 (1994): 185-196.

Other posts on this blog about Jane Austen’s death: Click here

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Gentle Reader: This Father’s Day weekend, I salute Jane Austen’s father, George Austen. This post, which I wrote three years ago, has been resurrected and updated for this occasion.

Rev. George Austen was by all accounts a handsome man. Anna LeFroy, Jane’s niece wrote,

I have always understood that he was considered extremely handsome, and it was a beauty which stood by him all his life. At the time when I have the most perfect recollection of him he must have been hard upon seventy, but his hair in its milk-whiteness might have belonged to a much older man. It was very beautiful, with short curls about the ears. His eyes were not large, but of a peculiar and bright hazel. My aunt Jane’s were something like them, but none of the children had precisely the same excepting my uncle Henry.”

George Austen was born in 1731. His mother died in childbirth and his father died a year after marrying a new wife, who did not want the responsibility of taking care of the young lad. George then lived with an aunt in Tonbridge and earned a Fellowship to study at St. John’s. Smart, ambitious, and self-made (with the support of his uncle Francis), he received a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Arts, and a Bachelor of Divinity degree at Oxford. Considered good looking all his life, he was called “the handsome proctor” as he worked as an assistant chaplain, dean of arts, and Greek lecturer while going to school.

George first met Cassandra Leigh in Oxford when she was visiting her uncle Theophilus, a renowned scholar. After marrying Cassandra in Bath, George became rector in several country parishes, including Steventon. The family grew by leaps and bounds, and eventually he and Cassandra had six sons and two daughters.

Shortly after Jane was born, her father said: “She is to be Jenny, and seems to me as if she would be as like Henry, as Cassy is to Neddy.” But the little girl was known as Jane all her life.

By all accounts George and Cassandra Austen had a happy marriage. His annual income from the combined tithes of Steventon and the neighboring village of Deane was modest. With so many mouths to feed, the family was not wealthy. To augment the family income,  George Austen opened a boarding school at Steventon Rectory for the sons of local gentlemen, and sold produce from his farm.

George Austen presents his son Edward to the Knights, who adopted him. This was a common practice in that era. Image from Chawton House.

Rev. Austen, a doting father to all his children, encouraged Cassandra and Jane to read from his extensive library, and taught his boys in his boarding school. For entertainment, the family read to each other, played games, and produced poetry, novels, and plays. James, the eldest son, an accomplished writer and poet, was considered to be the “writer” of the family, especially by his mother, Cassandra, who doted on him. George Austen was proud of his youngest daughter’s accomplishments, and tried to get First Impressions, the first draft of  Pride and Prejudice published. The “Memoir of Jane Austen” by Edward Austen-Leigh contains a letter from George Austen to Mr. Cadell, publisher, dated November 1797, in which he describes the work as a “manuscript novel comprising three volumes, about the length of Miss Burney’s ‘Evelina'” and asks Mr. Cadell if he would like to see the work with a view to entering into some arrangement for its publication, “either at the author’s risk or otherwise.” Unfortunately, nothing came of this query, but P&P became hugely popular among the friends and family who read it before it was published. The original 3-part manuscript no longer exists, and a much shorter form of the novel was finally published in 1813, long after George’s death and only four short years before Jane’s fatal illness.
Rev. George Austen died unexpectedly in Bath on  January 1, 1805, where the Austen family had moved after living in Steventon for over 30 years. This move did not sit well with Jane, who, as legend goes, fainted when she learned that the family was moving to Bath. (The silhouettes above are of George and Cassandra, who had not aged well). Rev. Austen did not linger long after falling ill, and on January 21,  Jane Austen would write sorrowfully to her brother, Frank, one of two sailors in the family:

“We have lost an excellent Father. An illness of only eight and forty hours carried him off yesterday morning between ten and eleven. His tenderness as a father, who can do justice to?” – Sir Francis William Austen

Rev. Austen was buried in St. Swithin churchyard in Bath. The inscription on his grave reads:

Under this stone rests the remains of
the Revd. George Austen
Rector of Steventon and Deane in Hampshire
who departed this life
the 1st. of January 1805
aged 75 years.”

Double click on this grave marker to read the words. (From: Find a Grave Memorial. Image of George and his grave is from this site.)

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