Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters

A Family Record

Chapter XX



Even after the beginning of April, Jane's hopefulness did not desert her. 'I am happy,' says James Austen, writing to his daughter Anna, 'to give you a good account, written by herself in a letter from your Aunt Jane; but all who love--and that is all who know her--must be anxious on her account.'

When May came, she consented to the proposal of those around her that she should move to Winchester, in order to get the best medical advice that the neighbourhood afforded. The Lyford family had maintained for some time a high character for skill in the profession of medicine at that place; and the Mr. Lyford of the day was a man of more than provincial reputation, in whom great London consultants expressed confidence.[363] Accordingly, on Saturday, May 24, she bade farewell to her mother and her home, and her brother James's carriage conveyed Cassandra and herself to Winchester. The little cavalcade--for they were attended by two riders--started in sadness and in rain; and all must have doubted whether she would ever come back to Chawton.

She was going, however, to a place for which she felt the veneration which all good Hampshire people owe to their county town: a veneration shared by a good many Englishmen outside the limits of the county.

The sisters took lodgings in College Street, in the house next to what was then called 'Commoners,' and is now the head master's house. On the front wall of the little house where they lived there is now a plaque commemorating the stay of Jane Austen. Near to them, in the Close, were living their old friends Mrs. Heathcote and Miss Bigg, who did all they could to add to their comforts; while at the school were their nephew, Charles Knight, and young William Heathcote--either of whom they might hope to see from time to time.

The course of the illness, and its fatal termination, are shown pretty clearly in the letters which follow; the most informing and the most pathetic of which (next to her own) are the two written by Cassandra to Fanny Knight after all was ended.

Some of the letters are undated, and we cannot therefore be certain of the order in which they were written; we must also allow for the probable fact that Cassandra did not say more than was necessary to her mother of Jane's increasing weakness and discomfort.

Mr. Lyford spoke encouragingly, though it is believed that he had, from the first, very little expectation of a permanent cure. Some temporary rally there seems to have been; and, soon after settling in her lodgings, Jane was able to write as follows to Edward Austen:--

Mrs. David's, College Street, Winton:
Tuesday [May 27, 1817].[364]

I know no better way, my dearest Edward, of thanking you for your most affectionate concern for me during my illness than by telling you myself, as soon as possible, that I continue to get better. I will not boast of my handwriting; neither that nor my face have yet recovered their proper beauty, but in other respects I am gaining strength very fast. I am now out of bed from 9 in the morning to 10 at night: upon the sopha, 'tis true, but I eat my meals with aunt Cass in a rational way, and can employ myself, and walk from one room to another. Mr. Lyford says he will cure me, and if he fails, I shall draw up a memorial and lay it before the Dean and Chapter, and have no doubt of redress from that pious, learned, and disinterested body. Our lodgings are very comfortable. We have a neat little drawing-room with a bow window overlooking Dr. Gabell's garden. Thanks to the kindness of your father and mother in sending me their carriage, my journey hither on Saturday was performed with very little fatigue, and had it been a fine day, I think I should have felt none; but it distressed me to see uncle Henry and Wm. Knight, who kindly attended us on horseback, riding in the rain almost all the way. We expect a visit from them to-morrow, and hope they will stay the night; and on Thursday, which is Confirmation and a holiday, we are to get Charles out to breakfast. We have had but one visit yet from him, poor fellow, as he is in sick-room, but he hopes to be out to-night. We see Mrs. Heathcote every day, and William is to call upon us soon. God bless you, my dear Edward. If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been. May the same blessed alleviations of anxious, sympathising friends be yours: and may you possess, as I dare say you will, the greatest blessing of all in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their love. I could not feel this.

Your very affecte Aunt,
J. A.

Had I not engaged to write to you, you would have heard again from your Aunt Martha, as she charged me to tell you with her best love.

J. E. Austen, Esq.,
Exeter College, Oxford.

The original of this letter, which is preserved, bears sad testimony to the truth of her remark about her handwriting. Some few days after this, she must have written her last extant letter, quoted in the short Memoir prefixed to the original edition of Northanger Abbey:--

My attendant is encouraging, and talks of making me quite well. I live chiefly on the sofa, but am allowed to walk from one room to the other. I have been out once in a Sedan-chair, and am to repeat it, and be promoted to a wheel-chair as the weather serves. On this subject I will only say further that my dearest sister, my tender, watchful, indefatigable nurse, has not been made ill by her exertions. As to what I owe to her, and to the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion, I can only cry over it, and pray to God to bless them more and more.

Some allusion to the family disappointment about the will probably followed, and she added: 'But I am getting too near complaint. It has been the appointment of God, however secondary causes may have operated.'

Jane's mother could still indulge in the hope of her amendment. In a note to Anna, she says:--

You will be happy to hear that our accounts from Winchester are very good. Our letter this morning, which was written yesterday evening, says 'Jane has had a better night than she has had for many weeks and has been comfortable all day. Mr. Lyford says he thinks better of her than he has ever done, though he must still consider her in a precarious state.'

And, in another letter--

I had a very comfortable account of your Aunt Jane this morning; she now sits up a little. Charles Knight came this morning: he saw her yesterday, and says she looks better and seem'd very cheerful. She hoped to be well enough to see Mrs. Portal to-day; your Mamma is there (went yesterday by the coach), which I am very glad of. Cassandra did not quite like the nurse they had got, so wish'd Mrs. J. A. to come in her stead, as she promised she would whenever she was wanted.

Mrs. James Austen went to Winchester on a Friday; perhaps Friday, June 6. Two or three days afterwards, her husband wrote to their son Edward, who no doubt was following at Oxford with painful interest the varying news. James, at any rate, cherished no illusions as to the possibility of a cure.

Steventon: Thursday.

MY DEAR EDWARD,--I grieve to write what you will grieve to read; but I must tell you that we can no longer flatter ourselves with the least hope of having your dear valuable Aunt Jane restored to us. The symptoms which returned after the first four or five days at Winchester, have never subsided, and Mr. Lyford has candidly told us that her case is desperate. I need not say what a melancholy gloom this has cast over us all. Your Grandmamma has suffered much, but her affliction can be nothing to Cassandra's. She will indeed be to be pitied. It is some consolation to know that our poor invalid has hitherto felt no very severe pain--which is rather an extraordinary circumstance in her complaint. I saw her on Tuesday and found her much altered, but composed and cheerful. She is well aware of her situation. Your Mother has been there ever since Friday and returns not till all is over--how soon that may be we cannot say--Lyford said he saw no signs of immediate dissolution, but added that with such a pulse it was impossible for any person to last long, and indeed no one can wish it--an easy departure from this to a better world is all that we can pray for. I am going to Winchester again to-morrow; you may depend upon early information, when any change takes place, and should then prepare yourself for what the next letter may announce.

Mrs. Heathcote is the greatest possible comfort to them all. . . .

We all join in love.

Your affectionate Father,

Edward's young sister Caroline (aged twelve) adds a few unhappy lines about her aunt, saying: 'I now feel as if I had never loved and valued her enough.'

Jane Austen 'retained her faculties, her memory, her fancy, her temper, and her affections--warm, clear, and unimpaired to the last. Neither her love of God, nor of her fellow-creatures flagged for a moment.'[365] Her two clergyman brothers were near at hand to administer the consolations of religion, and she made a point of receiving the Holy Communion while she was still strong enough to follow the Service with full attention.

'While she used the language of hope to her correspondents, she was fully aware of her danger, though not appalled by it.[366] 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."'

She wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen had become too laborious. Even a day or two before her death she was able to compose some light verses on St. Swithin, Winchester Races, and the weather. But the record of the last sad hours and of her death in the early morning of Friday, July 18, will be best read in the letter of Cassandra to Fanny Knight.

Winchester: Sunday [July 20, 1817].[367]

MY DEAREST FANNY,--Doubly dear to me now for her dear sake whom we have lost. She did love you most sincerely, and never shall I forget the proofs of love you gave her during her illness in writing those kind, amusing letters at a time when I know your feelings would have dictated so different a style. Take the only reward I can give you in the assurance that your benevolent purpose was answered; you did contribute to her enjoyment.

Even your last letter afforded pleasure. I merely cut the seal and gave it to her; she opened it and read it herself, afterwards she gave it me to read, and then talked to me a little and not uncheerfully of its contents, but there was then a languor about her which prevented her taking the same interest in anything she had been used to do.

Since Tuesday evening, when her complaint returned, there was a visible change, she slept more and much more comfortably; indeed, during the last eight-and-forty hours she was more asleep than awake. Her looks altered and she fell away, but I perceived no material diminution of strength, and, though I was then hopeless of a recovery, I had no suspicion how rapidly my loss was approaching.

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. I loved her only too well--not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.

You know me too well to be at all afraid that I should suffer materially from my feelings; I am perfectly conscious of the extent of my irreparable loss, but I am not at all overpowered and very little indisposed, nothing but what a short time, with rest and change of air, will remove. I thank God that I was enabled to attend her to the last, and amongst my many causes of self-reproach I have not to add any wilful neglect of her comfort.

She felt herself to be dying about half an hour before she became tranquil and apparently unconscious. During that half-hour was her struggle, poor soul! She said she could not tell us what she suffered, though she complained of little fixed pain. When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death, and some of her words were: 'God grant me patience, pray for me, oh, pray for me!' Her voice was affected, but as long as she spoke she was intelligible.

I hope I do not break your heart, my dearest Fanny, by these particulars; I mean to afford you gratification whilst I am relieving my own feelings. I could not write so to anybody else; indeed you are the only person I have written to at all, excepting your grandmamma--it was to her, not your Uncle Charles, I wrote on Friday.

Immediately after dinner on Thursday I went into the town to do an errand which your dear aunt was anxious about. I returned about a quarter before six and found her recovering from faintness and oppression; she got so well as to be able to give me a minute account of her seizure, and when the clock struck six she was talking quietly to me.

I cannot say how soon afterwards she was seized again with the same faintness, which was followed by the sufferings she could not describe; but Mr. Lyford had been sent for, had applied something to give her ease, and she was in a state of quiet insensibility by seven o'clock at the latest. From that time till half-past four, when she ceased to breathe, she scarcely moved a limb, so that we have every reason to think, with gratitude to the Almighty, that her sufferings were over. A slight motion of the head with every breath remained till almost the last. I sat close to her with a pillow in my lap to assist in supporting her head, which was almost off the bed, for six hours; fatigue made me then resign my place to Mrs. J. A. for two hours and a half, when I took it again, and in about an hour more she breathed her last.

I was able to close her eyes myself, and it was a great gratification to me to render her those last services. There was nothing convulsed which gave the idea of pain in her look; on the contrary, but for the continual motion of the head, she gave one the idea of a beautiful statue, and even now, in her coffin, there is such a sweet, serene air over her countenance as is quite pleasant to contemplate.

This day, my dearest Fanny, you have had the melancholy intelligence, and I know you suffer severely, but I likewise know that you will apply to the fountain-head for consolation, and that our merciful God is never deaf to such prayers as you will offer.

The last sad ceremony is to take place on Thursday morning; her dear remains are to be deposited in the Cathedral. It is a satisfaction to me to think that they are to lie in a building she admired so much; her precious soul, I presume to hope, reposes in a far superior mansion. May mine one day be re-united to it!

Your dear papa, your Uncle Henry, and Frank, and Edwd. Austen instead of his father, will attend. I hope they will none of them suffer lastingly from their pious exertions. The ceremony must be over before ten o'clock, as the Cathedral service begins at that hour, so that we shall be at home early in the day, for there will be nothing to keep us here afterwards.

Your Uncle James came to us yesterday, and is gone home to-day. Uncle H. goes to Chawton to-morrow morning; he has given every necessary direction here, and I think his company there will do good. He returns to us again on Tuesday evening.

I did not think to have written a long letter when I began, but I have found the employment draw me on, and I hope I shall have been giving you more pleasure than pain. Remember me kindly to Mrs. J. Bridges (I am so glad she is with you now), and give my best love to Lizzie and all the others.

I am, my dearest Fanny,
Most affectionately yours,

I have said nothing about those at Chawton, because I am sure you hear from your papa.

During these sad days, Anna Lefroy had written to her grandmother at Chawton, offering to go to her. Mrs. Austen answered:--

I thank you sincerely for all your kind expressions, and your offer. I am certainly in a good deal of affliction, but trust God will support me. I was not prepared for the blow, though it in a manner hung over us; I had reason to think it at a distance, and was not quite without hope that she might in part recover. After a few months' illness she may be said to have died suddenly. Mr. Lyford supposed a large blood-vessel had given way. I hope her sufferings were not severe--they were not long. I had a letter from Cassandra this morning. She is in great affliction, but bears it like a Christian. Dear Jane is to be buried in the Cathedral, I believe on Thursday--in which case Cassandra will come home as soon as it is over.

Cassandra did go home, and a few days later wrote again to Fanny Knight as follows:--

Chawton: Tuesday [July 29, 1817].[368]

MY DEAREST FANNY,--I have just read your letter for the third time, and thank you most sincerely for every kind expression to myself, and still more warmly for your praises of her who I believe was better known to you than to any human being besides myself. Nothing of the sort could have been more gratifying to me than the manner in which you write of her, and if the dear angel is conscious of what passes here, and is not above all earthly feelings, she may perhaps receive pleasure in being so mourned. Had she been the survivor I can fancy her speaking of you in almost the same terms. There are certainly many points of strong resemblance in your characters; in your intimate acquaintance with each other, and your mutual strong affection, you were counterparts.

Thursday was not so dreadful a day to me as you imagined. There was so much necessary to be done that there was no time for additional misery. Everything was conducted with the greatest tranquillity, and but that I was determined I would see the last, and therefore was upon the listen, I should not have known when they left the house. I watched the little mournful procession the length of the street; and when it turned from my sight, and I had lost her for ever, even then I was not overpowered, nor so much agitated as I am now in writing of it. Never was human being more sincerely mourned by those who attended her remains than was this dear creature. May the sorrow with which she is parted with on earth be a prognostic of the joy with which she is hailed in heaven!

I continue very tolerably well--much better than any one could have supposed possible, because I certainly have had considerable fatigue of body as well as anguish of mind for months back; but I really am well, and I hope I am properly grateful to the Almighty for having been so supported. Your grandmamma, too, is much better than when I came home.

I did not think your dear papa appeared unwell, and I understand that he seemed much more comfortable after his return from Winchester than he had done before. I need not tell you that he was a great comfort to me; indeed, I can never say enough of the kindness I have received from him and from every other friend.

I get out of doors a good deal and am able to employ myself. Of course those employments suit me best which leave me most at leisure to think of her I have lost, and I do think of her in every variety of circumstance. In our happy hours of confidential intercourse, in the cheerful family party which she so ornamented, in her sick room, on her death-bed, and as (I hope) an inhabitant of heaven. Oh, if I may one day be re-united to her there! I know the time must come when my mind will be less engrossed by her idea, but I do not like to think of it. If I think of her less as on earth, God grant that I may never cease to reflect on her as inhabiting heaven, and never cease my humble endeavours (when it shall please God) to join her there.

In looking at a few of the precious papers which are now my property I have found some memorandums, amongst which she desires that one of her gold chains may be given to her god-daughter Louisa, and a lock of her hair be set for you. You can need no assurance, my dearest Fanny, that every request of your beloved aunt will be sacred with me. Be so good as to say whether you prefer a brooch or ring. God bless you, my dearest Fanny.

Believe me, most affectionately yours,

So ends the story of Jane Austen's life. We can only hope that we have succeeded in conveying to the reader even a small part of the feeling which we ourselves entertain of the charm of her personality--a charm almost as remarkable in its way as the brightness of her genius. In one respect it is easy to write about her--there is nothing to conceal. Some readers may perhaps add 'There is little to tell'; and it is true that, though the want of incident in her life has often been exaggerated, her occupations were largely those of helpfulness and sympathy towards others whose lot was more variable than hers, and the development of her own powers to be the delight of generations of readers.

But this position gave her quite sufficient opportunity of showing her character--and it is a character which it is a continual pleasure to contemplate. Her perfect balance and good sense did not diminish her liveliness. Her intellectual qualities did not prevent the enjoyment of a dance, or attention to the most domestic duties. Her consciousness of genius left room for a belief that Cassandra was wiser and better than herself. Her keen and humorous observation of the frailties of mankind was compatible with indulgence towards the faults of her neighbours. Her growing fame did not make her the less accessible and delightful to her nieces, who could consult their aunt and obtain a willing listener in any difficulty whatever, from a doubtful love affair to the working of a sampler. Indeed, she is a standing witness to the truth that eccentricity and self-consciousness are not essential parts of genius.

When her body had been laid in Winchester Cathedral, the small band of mourners went back in sadness to their different homes. They were very fond and very proud of her; and each, we are told, loved afterwards to fancy a resemblance in some niece or daughter of their own to the dear sister Jane, whose perfect equal they yet never expected to see.

Cassandra returned to Chawton and devoted a further ten years to the care of her aged mother. Till old Mrs. Austen's death in 1827, Martha Lloyd remained an inmate, and everything went on, nominally, as before; but the 'chief light was quenched and the loss of it had cast a shade over the spirits of the survivors.'[369] So, when the young Austens went to stay there, expecting to be particularly happy, they could not help feeling something of the chill of disappointment. Later, Martha became the second wife of Francis Austen, while Cassandra lived on at Chawton. One of her great-nieces remembers seeing her towards the end of her life at a christening, 'a pale, dark-eyed old lady, with a high arched nose and a kind smile, dressed in a long cloak and a large drawn bonnet, both made of black satin.' She died of a sudden illness in 1845, at the house of her brother Francis, near Portsmouth--at his house, but in his absence; for he and his family had to leave for the West Indies (where he was to take up a command) while she lay dying. She was tended by her brothers Henry and Charles and her niece Caroline. She was buried beside her mother at Chawton.

All her brothers survived her, except James, who was in bad health when his sister Jane died, and followed her in 1819.

Edward (Knight) saw his children and his children's children grow up around him, and died at Godmersham as peacefully as he had lived, in 1852.

Henry held the living of Steventon for three years after the death of his brother James, till his nephew, William Knight, was ready to take it. He was afterwards Perpetual Curate of Bentley, near Farnham. Later on, he lived for some time in France, and he died at Tunbridge Wells in 1850.

Both the sailor brothers rose to be Admirals.[370] Charles was employed in the suppression of the Slave Trade and against Mehemet Ali, and became Rear-Admiral in 1846. In 1850 he commanded in the East Indian and Chinese waters, and died of cholera on the Irawaddy River in 1852, having 'won the hearts of all by his gentleness and kindness whilst he was struggling with disease.'

Francis had thirty years on shore after the end of the long war; and his only subsequent foreign service was the command of the West Indian and North American Station, 1845-48. He, however, constantly rose in his profession, and enjoyed the esteem and respect of the Admiralty. He ended by being G.C.B. and Admiral of the Fleet, and did not die until 1865, aged ninety-one.

* * * * *

Shortly before the end of her life, Jane Austen wrote on a slip of paper:--

Profits of my novels, over and above the £600 in the Navy Fives.

  £ s.
Residue from the 1st edit. of Mansfield Park remaining in Henrietta St., March 1816 13 7
Received from Egerton, on 2nd edit. of Sense and S., March 1816 12 15
February 21, 1817, First Profits of Emma 38 18
March 7, 1817. From Egerton--2nd edit. of S. and S. 19 13

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published in four volumes by John Murray in 1818, and to the former was prefixed a short biographical notice of the author from the pen of Henry Austen. In 1832 Mr. Bentley bought the copyright of all the novels, except Pride and Prejudice (which Jane Austen had sold outright to Mr. Egerton), from Henry and Cassandra Austen, the joint proprietors, for the sum of two hundred and fifty pounds. Mr. Bentley must also have bought from Mr. Egerton's executors the copyright of Pride and Prejudice, for he proceeded to issue a complete edition of the novels with a biographical notice (also by Henry) containing a few extra facts not mentioned in the original edition of Northanger Abbey.

(James) Edward Austen, who added 'Leigh' to his name on succeeding to the property of Scarlets in 1836, wrote (in 1869-70) the Memoir of his aunt which has been so often used in these pages, and which, as the work of three eyewitnesses,[371] enjoys an authority greater than that of any other account of her. Its publication coincided with the beginning of a great advance in her fame, and we think it may be claimed that it was an important contributory cause of that advance. Before that date, an appreciation of her genius was rather the special possession of small literary circles and individual families; since that date it has been widely spread both in England and in America. From her death to 1870, there was only one complete edition of her works, and nothing, except a few articles and reviews, was written about her. Since 1870, editions, lives, memoirs, &c., have been almost too numerous to count. We, who are adding to this stream of writings, cannot induce ourselves to believe that the interest of the public is yet exhausted.


[363] Memoir, p. 162.

[364] Memoir, p. 163.

[365] Preface to original edition of Northanger Abbey.

[366] Memoir, p. 165.

[367] Brabourne, vol. ii. p. 333, &c.

[368] Brabourne, vol. ii. p. 338, &c.

[369] Memoir, p. 87.

[370] Sailor Brothers, chap. xviii.

[371] His two sisters and himself.