Jane Austen's Last Story

Posted by Mark Horrocks on

By J.A. Horrocks

On the 18th July this year we mark another anniversary of Jane Austen's death. She was only 41 when she sadly passed away with her loving and loyal sister Cassandra at her side.  The cause of her death after a long illness has often been debated, she may have suffered from Addison's disease which causes extreme fatigue and loss of appetite, or she may have died from Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer.

In 1817 England was ruled by the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, due to the illness of King George III, and medicine was still a crude science. Blood-letting, smelling salts, cupping and amputations without adequate painkillers were remedies referred to at this time. Severe illnesses would have low survival rates. When Jane Austen first fell ill she was treated by the local apothecary the equivalent of a chemist today, she was however fortunate to then be treated by a qualified physician Giles King Lyford, and herself and her family had high hopes that she would soon recover once moved to Winchester to be under his care. In one of her last letters to her niece Fanny Knight she writes :

"I am considerably better now and am recovering my looks a little, which have been bad enough - black and white, and every wrong colour. I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again. sickness is a dangerous indulgence at my time of life." March 1817

Jane Austens Memorial Stone

This memorial stone marks her grave in the north aisle of Winchester  Cathedral.

Unfortunately Jane's hopes were not achieved and she died in the early hours of 18th July. Having  finally succumbed to her illness she was laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral on Thursday 24th July. Attended by her brothers  Edward, Henry and Frank, it was a small ceremony, her sister Cassandra did not attend, as was the custom at the time. In a letter she described the funeral "...watched the little mournful procession the length of the street & when it turned from my sight I had lost her forever".

 In Jane Austen's novels death is never far away, we enjoy the romancing and apparently pleasant lives of her characters but their situation and prospects are often affected by the outcome of a timely or untimely death. With death there was always the topic of inheritance and the constant worry of her female characters being forced from their family home. In "Sense & Sensibility" the Dashwood family future is at once made decidedly unclear by the will of the old Mr. Dashwood : "The old gentleman died , his will was read, and, like almost every other will, gave as much disappointment as pleasure."  This caused his son Mr. Henry Dashwood who had now inherited, no means of providing for his wife and three daughters on his own death. The large estate Norland Park was to be passed to his surviving son from an earlier marriage. And so our two heroines of "Sense & Sensibility", Elinor and Marianne, are forced to leave their family home when the new Mrs. John Dashwood arrives ensuring that they are only receiving a far reduced inheritance ;

"Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something."

We are all familiar with Mrs. Bennet in 'Pride & Prejudice'  and her enthusiasm for her daughters to marry quickly and to marry well, as they also will be without a home on the death of their father when the Longbourn estate is to be passed on to Mr. Collins

"Pray do not talk of that odious man. I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children".

In the same novel we witness the character of Mr. Wickham being moulded by opportunities of inheritance, first on the death of old Mr. Darcy, who we understand, was extremely fond of his steward's son and arranged for him to acquire a position in the church and a legacy of £1000 "He was my godfather, and excessively attached to me."  This opportunity was rejected for a larger amount of £3000 and the understanding to pursue a career in law, this came to nothing and on reapplying to Darcy for the living again, now apparently a changed man, he was rejected. Wickham then is determined to acquire the inheritance of Miss Georgiana Darcy with a false romance followed by an elopement. Earlier in the novel his mercenary character is suggested when he abandons his courtship with Elizabeth Bennet to attract a young Miss King;

"But he paid her not the smallest attention, till her grandfather's death made her mistress of this fortune."

In "Emma" Frank Churchill pays deference to an aged aunt and will not disclose his secret engagement until after her death. Likewise Edward Ferrars in "Sense & Sensibility" is able to release himself from an engagement to Lucy Steele  when his mother disowns him and of course the very romantic Willoughby is forced to put aside his affections for poor Marianne when he is threatened with being disinherited. The resulting heartache and shock to Marianne nearly causes her death, this is one novel where the threat of a character dying is described in detail ;

"The rapid decay, the early death of a girl so young, so lovely as Marianne, must have struck a less interested person with concern."

In "Northanger Abbey" the subject of death takes a different place within the novel. Our heroine Catherine Morland, her head filled with gothic mysteries and literature, convinces herself that the death of Mrs. Tilney nine years earlier was suspicious. In fact she rushes to imagine that she was murdered by her husband:

" 'Her illness was sudden and short; and before I arrived it was all over'. Catherine's blood ran cold with the horrid suggestions which naturally sprang from these words."

Catherine is eventually convinced by Henry Tilney that her suspicions are completely wrong and she is reduced to "tears of shame" by her own behaviour.

With Jane dying so young she was survived by all members of her immediate family with the exception of her father George Austen. He died while the family were living in Bath in 1805 from a fever he had suffered with for a number of years, Jane was given the sad task to write to all her brothers to inform them of his death. In her unfinished novel "The Watsons" Jane's story line would include the death of the father of the family, Jane abandoned this novel in 1805, no doubt due to the sadness of her own father's death. With the death of her father Jane, her mother and sister Cassandra were immediately placed in a very worrying financial state. The majority of her father's income ceased with his death, so it fell to Jane's brothers to ensure that the women in the family would be financially supported. They would remain in Bath for the next year moving to new accommodation on two occasions, after a brief spell in Southampton they were given Chawton Cottage in Alton as their home by her brother Edward and this is where Jane resided for the rest of her life and produced the majority of her novels.

There was another death in Jane's life which would also have a great impact. Her elder sister Cassandra was engaged to Tom Fowle who was to be a clergyman, their engagement was a long one while Tom waited for a living to be available in Shropshire. In order to earn money he took a position as a chaplain on board a ship bound for the West Indies. While Cassandra was planning her wedding day and the whole family waited in excitement for Tom's return the saddest news was received. Tom Fowle had died of yellow fever and had been buried at sea. Her sister Cassandra would remain unmarried for the rest of her life, her heart was truly broken. The distress that Jane witnessed from her sister may have also affected Jane herself as she also seemed determined to remain a single woman. Some theories are that Jane based the character Anne Elliot in "Persuasion" on her sister, the quiet, very loyal daughter who hides her heartache for many years. Of course in the novel the naval Captain and his sweetheart are eventually reunited, the happy ending that did not occur in real life.

With Jane Austen the conclusion to all her novels ends with a happy ever after feeling, we are all invited to a wedding, never a funeral.