Reflections upon Jane Austen’s death, July 18, 1817: “her talents, her virtues, and her engaging manners”

Much has been written on the cause of Jane Austen’s lingering illness and untimely death in Winchester on 18 July 1817. I have a stack of biographies that I perused in search of a poignant passage that would express the tenor of this solemn day. Her great biographers Claire Tomalin, David Nokes and Elizabeth Jenkins give detailed accounts from family in attendance and their own conclusions. I find her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s interpretation from his A Memoir of Jane Austen simple and touching. Even though it is not elaborate or detailed, it is the only version from the view point of someone who actually knew her, and I find that unique and invaluable.

Throughout her illness she was nursed by her sister, often assisted by her sister-in-law, my mother. Both were with her when she died. Two of her brothers, who were clergymen, lived near enough to Winchester to be in frequent attendance, and to administer the services suitable for a Christian’s death-bed. While she used the language of hope to her correspondents, she was fully aware of her danger, though not appalled by it. It is true that there was much to attach her to life. She was happy in her family; she was just beginning to feel confidence in her own success; and, no doubt, the exercise of her great talents was an enjoyment in itself. We may well believe that she would gladly have lived longer; but she was enabled without dismay or complaint to prepare for death. She was a humble, believing Christian. Her life had been passed in the performance of home duties, and the cultivation of domestic affections, without any self-seeking or craving after applause. She had always sought, as it were by instinct, to promote the happiness of all who came within her influence, and doubtless she had her reward in the peace of mind which was granted her in her last days. Her sweetness of temper never failed. She was ever considerate and grateful to those who attended on her. At times, when she felt rather better, her playfulness of spirit revived, and she amused them even in their sadness. Once, when she thought herself near her end, she said what she imagined might be her last words to those around her, and particularly thanked her sister-in-law for being with her, saying: ‘You have always been a kind sister to me, Mary.’ When the end at last came, she sank rapidly, and on being asked by her attendants whether there was anything that she wanted, her reply was, ‘Nothing but death.’ These were her last words. In quietness and peace she breathed her last on the morning of 18 July, 1817.

On the 24th of that month she was buried in Winchester Cathedral, near the centre of the north aisle, almost opposite to the beautiful chantry tomb of William of Wykeham. A large slab of black marble in the pavement marks the place. Her own family only attended the funeral. Her sister returned to her desolated home, there to devote herself, for ten years, to the care of her aged mother; and to live much on the memory of her lost sister, till called many years later to rejoin her. Her brothers went back sorrowing to their several homes. They were very fond and very proud other. They were attached to her by her talents, her virtues, and her engaging manners; and each loved afterwards to fancy a resemblance in some niece or daughter of his own to the dear sister Jane, whose perfect equal they yet never expected to see. [1]

Her burial and gravestone are a bit of an enigma. The fact that she was laid to rest in the north aisle of the nave at Winchester Cathedral is a mystery that has never been explained to me with any satisfaction. Why was she given this sacred spot reserved for dignitaries and aristocrats, not daughters of clergymen who wrote anonymously and were unknown by the general public? To add to the quandary, when her brother Henry composed the epitaph for her gravestone he mentioned her family and faith, but not her writing achievements. Is this a clue that her family did not acknowledge that she was being given this place of honor because of her novels? Why else would the church have approved her burial among saints, cardinals, bishops and other men of distinction? Regardless of the initial reason for approval, close to two hundred years later, she is befittingly its most famous resident.

The Jane Austen Story, an exhibit honoring Jane Austen continues at the cathedral until 20 September, 2010. You can visit Jane Austen’s final resting place and tour the exhibit on her life and funeral.

“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, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself…” Letter from Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra to her niece Fanny Knight, 20 July 1817.

Further reading

1. J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen (1989 reprint of 1871 2nd edition) Folio Society, London, p. 154-55

17 thoughts on “Reflections upon Jane Austen’s death, July 18, 1817: “her talents, her virtues, and her engaging manners”

  1. Thanks for this timely and interesting post.

    I thought I read in some biography that JA’s being buried in Winchester Cathedral was Henry’s doing; that Cassandra, in particular, would have been much happier to have her at Chawton, where she could visit the grave as often as she liked, but that this was Henry’s idea of what was due to the dignity of his sister. And additionally, that he was the one who arranged for the location, perhaps using his influence as a member of the clergy. Does anyone else recall reading this, or have I imagined the whole thing?

    Is it also possible that prime space in the cathedral was not the same demand in 1817 it would become later? The world was not so crowded then.

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    • As mentioned by another commenter, it was Henry Austen and Elizabeth Bigg-Wither who made the arrangements for Jane to be buried in WC. She remembers the mention of it in J A bio by Claire Tomalin. If you have read it, that may be where your remembered it from.

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  4. Thank you for sharing. I was very moved and remain heartbroken when I realize what a treasure we all lost.

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  5. Thank you for sharing such a moving passage from Jane’s nephew! What a sad day.

    And 168 years later, I was born thousands and thousands of miles away.

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  6. I went on the JASNA tour of England last year, and we were told during our visit to Winchester that JA’s being buried in the cathedral was due to a combination of Henry Austen’s efforts and those of Mrs. Heathcote, nee Elizabeth Bigg. Elizabeth and her sister Alethea remained friends with the Austen sisters even after JA’s rejection of Harris Bigg-Wither’s marriage proposal. Elizabeth was living in Winchester at the time Jane fell ill, and she made the arrangements for the College Street lodgings for Jane and Cassandra. She also apparently had some pull with the Dean and Chapter of the cathedral and exerted it to help get JA buried there. (Claire Tomalin’s biography confirms this and gives the details.) Kathleen is probably right that it was Henry’s idea to start with. And space in the cathedral was limited even then; JA was the last of only three people to be buried there that year.

    As for the gravestone’s famous omission of JA’s writing achievements, I’m a little more inclined to be forgiving of this than a lot of folks are. Remember that JA’s authorship was not yet *general* public knowledge at the time of her death, even though the secret was getting out thanks to Henry’s wagging tongue. Perhaps the family, the Dean and Chapter, or both felt that the gravestone wasn’t the place to divulge the secret. Perhaps it was JA’s own wish that it not be mentioned. As with so many details of her life, we’ll never know for sure.

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    • Thanks for the info A. Marie. I will pull out my edition of Claire Tomalin’s bio of JA. Jane’s friend Elizabeth and brother Henry might have opened the doors to her being buried at Winchester – but – the Bishop would have had final approval of her burial in the Cathedral. He must have been a fan too. (or shudder to think, accepted a big donation from Elizabeth)

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    • Being completely pragmatic (and I think Jane would have approved), considering it was July, they probably didn’t want to have to move her body very far. If you follow me.

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  10. Thank you for this very moving post! We may not truly understand the impact of Jane Austin’s premature death.

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  11. Laurel Ann: As I’ve demonstrated in a dozen or two posts in my blog over the years, James Edward Austen Leigh was the chief architect of the Myth of Jane Austen. This passage from your quote is illustrative:
    “She was happy in her family; she was just beginning to feel confidence in her own success; and, no doubt, the exercise of her great talents was an enjoyment in itself. We may well believe that she would gladly have lived longer; but she was enabled without dismay or complaint to prepare for death. She was a humble, believing Christian. Her life had been passed in the performance of home duties, and the cultivation of domestic affections, without any self-seeking or craving after applause.:”

    To the contrary, Jane Austen knew she was a towering genius, she knew that she had already created a half dozen masterpieces, and was hard at work on another when she died. She was not humble, and she was a radical feminist Christian, who did not want to marry and have children, so she would be free to create her masterpieces. Plus..JEAL was very busy in his Memoir hiding the fact that he inherited the fortune from Leigh-Perrot that should have gone to the Austen women, and might have helped Jane survive.

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  12. Laurel Ann, this is of course your blog, and so I will honor your rules. Anyone who reads my comment and is interested in learning why I took such a strong stance should browse in my blog, where they will find several posts specifically about James Edward Austen Leigh’s numerous distortions of his aunt’s career, personal biography and letters.

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