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. 
In celebration of the upcoming bicentenary decade of Jane Austen’s published works (1811-2011), a new permanent exhibit will open on April 10, 2010 at her resting place Winchester Cathedral in Winchester, England. The exhibit will reveal the renowned British author’s life and times in Hampshire and focus prominence to her grave site in the cathedral’s north aisle of the nave where she was buried on July 24th, 1817, five days after her death in Winchester at age 41.
The exhibition, which will document Jane’s home and social life, will be supported by a mix of permanent and rolling exhibits borrowed from collections around the world. From 10 April until 20 September items from Winchester Cathedral’s and Winchester College’s archives will be on display. Some of these items have rarely, if ever, been displayed publicly before and include her burial register, first editions and fragments of Jane’s own writing.
There will also be guided tours, specific exhibitions and talks taking visitors through her life and works to mark her legacy and set the stage for Jane’s bicentenary. Highlights include:
- 1 May: Special Evensong to mark Jane Austen’s life, and place in the Cathedral’s history
- 16-18 July: Jane Austen Weekend (including Regency Dinner) which coincides with the Jane Austen Society AGM
- 5-6 August: Outside theatre production of Pride and Prejudice
- Extended tours which take visitors beyond the Cathedral to see Jane’s final home just beyond the Cathedral Inner Close.
“Hampshire offers Jane Austen admirers a wonderful window into her life, at her birthplace of Steventon, where she lived at Chawton and in Winchester, her final resting place. The Cathedral provides the perfect space to bring together each element of Jane’s life through the public exhibition and to give prominence to her ledgerstone, which lies quietly in the north nave aisle and often goes unnoticed.
“Our focus will be on Jane Austen the person, her life, family and friends. So much of daily life during the regency period is so different to today, and we know this will reveal a totally different side to Jane Austen’s fans and followers.” Charlotte Barnaville, the Cathedral’s Marketing Officer
Additional information on the exhibit and visiting details can be found at the Winchester Cathedral’s website and the official Visit Winchester travel website. Now Janeites, yet another reason to rationalize the expenditure of a trip to England! ;-)
Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817 at age forty-one. She left us with six major novels, letters, juvenilia, some miscellanea and a posthumous mystery. What caused her early demise?
One hundred and ninety-two years later experts are still speculating on the fatal illness that robbed her of full life and us the possibility of more remarkable prose. There are a few clues from her letters and family recollections, but no surviving medical records. So, therein lies the mystery – and the sleuthing begins.
In 1964, surgeon Sir Zachary Cope proposed that Addison’s disease which affects the adrenal gland could explain her “two-year deterioration into bed-ridden exhaustion, her unusual colouring, bilious attacks, rheumatic pains and the absence of more specific indicators of disease”, but it appears that this theory is not universally acknowledged. Jane Austen’s biography Claire Tomalin investigated Austen’s symptoms in 1997 while researching her bio Jane Austen: A Life and came up with her own conclusion. Lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system) and not Addison’s disease had taken her life.
Now, an Addison’s disease expert Katherine White writing in the British Medical Journal’s Medical Humanities magazine thinks that the evidence points to tuberculosis contracted from drinking unpasteurized milk. She argues that one of the symptoms of Addison’s is mental confusion, and we know that Jane Austen retained her writing faculties to the end, composing the comic poem When Winchester Races two days before her death.
So the speculation continues. We may never know with complete uncertainty what ailment claimed the novelist life. Honestly, I am fine with that. Let’s just hope that some poor fool does not exhume her body from Winchester Cathedral to do a C.S.I. on her.
Jane Austen: 16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
A sad day for Janeites. I will let other excellent
pens dwell on the guilt and misery.
Jane Austen’s Last Days, at Jane Austen’s World
Austen’s Obituaries, at Jane Austen in Vermont
Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral, at Jane Austen Society of Australia