Jane Austen and Her Times
Chapter 19 - Last Days
The evening of Jane's life had set in, but yet it had not occurred even to those who loved her best that they must inevitably lose her. She was in her forty-first year; recognition from the public had just begun to be accorded to her; in the novels she had lately written no sign of decay could be detected. It is true that in both Emma and Persuasion there is a particular maturity of rendering, and a kindlier tone that marks perhaps a difference, but not degeneracy. If the word seriousness can ever be used of such clear-cut, brilliant work as hers, we might say that a certain sweet seriousness pervaded these two, which are more alike in tone than any of the other novels. Persuasion has been called the "most beautiful of all the novels"; it has many excellencies, not the least among which is the character of the heroine, whose girlish weakness develops into a loyal steadfastness. She has also that endearingness that perhaps certain others of the heroines lack. In fact, of all the principal female characters that of Anne Elliot has most of that nameless and indefinable charm, which comes from a combination of qualities such as firmness, gentleness, unselfishness, sympathy and sweetness, a charm which is more lovable than any number of stereotyped graces. Though Anne was at one time weak, we feel that she outgrows it, that it was the weakness of immaturity, not of character, and that her loyalty fully redeems it.
Jane herself says of Anne Elliot, "You may perhaps like the heroine as she is almost too good for me," yet the too-good note seems less obtrusive with Anne than with Fanny Price, whose exceeding surface meekness does sometimes produce a little exasperation. Anne and Fanny have the most in common among the heroines of the novels, yet what a difference is there! Fanny has many virtues, but her intense nervous sensitiveness makes one feel her self-consciousness, and underlying all her shrinking there was a quality of obstinacy that is felt without being insisted upon. It is just the subtle difference that Jane knew so well how to make, the feeling perhaps is that Fanny is not quite a gentlewoman, that she would be difficult to get on with, however meek and self-effacing on the surface, while Anne could never be anything but a delightful companion.
Incidentally some parts of Persuasion have already been referred to, Louisa Musgrove's fall on the Cobb, the scenes that take place in Bath, the touching words of Anne when she feels that she has hopelessly lost her lover, which strike a deeper note of feeling than any other in the whole range of the novels. It remains therefore but to say that there is no secondary character to equal those of Miss Bates or Mr. Collins, that the secondary characters are in all cases less sharply defined than those usually depicted by Jane, but that Captain Wentworth is equal to his good fortune, and that as a pair of lovers he and Anne stand unrivalled.
Persuasion was finished in July 1816, but Jane was not satisfied with it, perhaps her own failing health and the sense of tiredness that went with it, had made her lose that grip of the action that she had hitherto held so well; she felt the story did not end satisfactorily, that it wanted bringing together and clinching so to speak; Mr. Austen-Leigh says: "This weighed upon her mind, the more so probably on account of her weak state of health, so that one night she retired to rest in very low spirits. But such depression was little in accordance with her nature, and was soon shaken off: The next morning she woke to more cheerful views and brighter inspirations; the sense of power revived and imagination resumed its course. She cancelled the condemned chapter and wrote two others, entirely different, in its stead."
These were the tenth and eleventh chapters, and contained the scene in which Anne so touchingly expresses her ideas on the theme of woman's love. There is no question that the story as it now stands is improved by the change, and that her instinct was true. Mr. Austen-Leigh gives the cancelled chapter in his Memoir, and it certainly is "tame and flat" compared with the others, and had she not made the substitution it might justly have been said that Persuasion, however charming, did show signs of failing power.
This book was not published until after her death, when it appeared in one volume with Northanger Abbey, the first to which her name was prefixed, this came out in 1818 with a Memoir by her brother Henry. Up to the time of her death she had received nearly seven hundred pounds for the published books, which, considering her anonymity, and entire lack of publicity and influence, must have appeared to her, and indeed was, wonderful, though in comparison with the true value of the work very little indeed.
In December 1816 her brothers, Henry and Charles, were both at Chawton, and she speaks of their being in good health and spirits. She got through the winter well, and wrote to a friend in January, "Such mild weather is, you know, delightful to us, and though we have a great many ponds and a fine running stream through the meadows on the other side of the road, it is nothing but what beautifies us and does to talk of. I have certainly gained strength through the winter, and am not far from being well. And I think I understand my own case now so much better than I did, as to be able by care to keep off anyserious return of illness."
She had taken to using a donkey-carriage in good weather, and doubtless this was a great boon, though she was able to walk one way either to or from Alton without over-fatigue, and hoped to be able to manage both ways when the summer came. In January also she mentions that her brother Henry, who was now ordained, was coming down to preach. "It will be a nervous hour for our pew, though we hear that he acquits himself with as much ease and collectedness as if he had been used to it all his life."
Her last completed book Persuasion was not her last work, even in declining strength the motive power was unabated. "Upon a fitful revival of her strength, at the beginning of 1817, she fell eagerly to work at a story, of which she wrote twelve chapters. It has no name, and the plot and purpose are undeveloped. But some of the personages sketched have more than promise. There is a Mr. Parker with fixed theories as to the fashionable watering place he hopes to evolve out of a Sussex fishing village; there is a rich and vulgar Lady Denham, who will certainly disappoint her relatives by the testamentary disposition of her property, and there are two maiden ladies who thoroughly 'enjoy' bad health, and quack themselves to their heart's content. Whatever the plot to be unravelled, there is no sign that the writer's hand had lost its cunning." (Mr. Austin Dobson's preface to Macmillan's edition of Northanger Abbey.)
We are told by Mr. Austen-Leigh that the date on the last chapter of this MS. was March 17, which, las the watch of a drowned man denotes the time of his death, so does this final date seem to fix the period when her mind could no longer pursue its accustomed course."
It was in March that her own family began to think seriously of the malady that was so insidiously making inroads on her vitality. Her niece Caroline, Anna's half-sister, and sister of the Mr. Austen-Leigh to whose Memoir the world is so much indebted, was then a child of twelve; she came about the end of March to stay at Chawton, but found her aunt so ill that she could not be taken in, so she was sent on to her half-sister Anna Lefroy; in her private records she gives the following account from recollection: "The next day we walked over to Chawton to make enquiries after our aunt, she was then keeping hey room, but said she would see us and we went up to her. She was in her dressing-gown, and was sitting quite like an invalid in an arm-chair, but she got up and kindly greeted us, and then pointing to seats which had been arranged for us by the fire,lhere is a chair for the married lady, and a little stool for you, Caroline.' I was struck by the alteration in herself. She was very pale, her voice was weak and low, and there was about her a general appearance of debility and suffering, but I have been told that she never had much acute pain. She was not equal to the exertion of talking to us, and our visit to the sick room was a very short one, aunt Cassandra soon taking us away. I do not suppose we stayed a quarter of an hour, and I never saw aunt Jane again."
It was in May that Jane was persuaded to go with her sister to lodgings in Winchester for the sake of further medical advice, and she never returned to Chawton, though probably that was the last thought that would have occurred to her on leaving it, for she was never inclined to be analytical or valetudinarian, and certainly she was one of the last to affect illness, or become an invalid for fancy. Cassandra cannot have known how soon she was to be bereaved of that dear sister whose life had run in such harmony with her own, and though anxiety must have darkened her heart, Jane's own sanguineness would buoy her with fresh hope, and the weeks the sisters passed together in Winchester must have been singularly peaceful.
The house in which Jane stayed still stands, it is in College Street, close to the great archway that marks the entrance to the College precincts. She says of it herself, "Our lodgings are very comfortable, we have a neat little drawing-room with a bow window over-looking Dr. Gabell's garden."
Here her life and strength slowly ebbed away; day by day she was longer chained to her sofa from increasing weakness. The elementary medical knowledge of her day was powerless to help her, though her life, humanly speaking, could probably have been prolonged if medical science had then known what it knows now. Day by day through the bow window overlooking the street, would come the sound of boyish voices, the clatter of boyish feet, and she could see the greenery of the trees it? the garden beyond the wall. She had plenty of companionship, Cassandra was ever with her, and Mrs. James Austen helped in the nursing.
The slight sharpness arising from unusual penetration, which had sometimes marked Jane's comments in earlier days, had all died down, she said gratefully to her sister-in-law, "You have always been a kind sister to me, Mary," and of her own dear Cassandra she said, III 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 her, and the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion, I can only cry over it, and pray God to bless them more and mole."
And on July 18, when all the trees were at their greenest, and the bright sunshine lighted up the walls of the hoary abbey, she passed away. We can add nothing to her sister's account, written in the agony of the first bereavement, to her who was now closest to her heart, her niece, Fanny Knight.
"My dearest Fanny,--Doubly dear to me now for her dear sake whom we have lost. She did love you most sincerely. . . . 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 her 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.And later on after the funeral she wrote again, "Thursday was not so dreadful a day to me as you imagined. . . . Everything was conducted with the greatest tranquillity, and but that I was determined that 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 over-powered, nor so much agitated as I am now in writing of it. Never was a 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! . . . Oh, if I may one day be reunited to her there!"
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 while I am relieving my own feelings. I could not write so to anybody else. . . . On Thursday, when the clock struck six, she was talking quietly to me. I cannot say how soon afterwards she was seized again with faintness, which was followed by the sufferings which she could not describe, but Mr. Lyford who 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.
". . . 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 comtemplate."
Cassandra herself survived for twenty-eight years, and spent her last days in the cottage at Chawton endeared to her by recollections of her mother and beloved sister.
Jane's resting-place in the Cathedral is almost opposite the tomb of the founder, William of Wykeham. A large black slab of marble let into the pavement marks the spot, it bears an inscription including the following words: "The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her, and the warmest love of her immediate connexions."
Subsequently her nephew Mr. Austen-Leigh inserted a brass on the wall near with an inscription which runs as follows: "Jane Austen, known to many by her writing, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character, and ennobled by Christian faith and piety, was born at Steventon in the county of Hampshire Dec. 16, 1775, and buried in this cathedral July 24, 1817. 'She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness.'"
In 1900 a memorial window was inserted as the result of a public subscription; it was designed and executed by C. E. Kemp. In the head of the window is a figure of St. Augustine whose name in its abbreviated form is St. Austin. In the centre of the upper row of lights is David with his harp. Below his figure, in Latin, are the words, "Remember in the Lord Jane Austen who died July 18, A.D. 1817." In the centre of the bottom row is the figure of St. John, and the remaining figures are those of the sons of Korah carrying scrolls, with sentences in Latin, indicative of the religious side of Jane Austen's character, namely, "Come ye children, hearken unto me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord." " Them that are meek shall He guide in judgement, and such as are gentle them shall He teach His way." "My mouth shall speak of wisdom and my heart shall muse on understanding." " My mouth shall daily speak of Thy righteousness and Thy salvation."
That Jane was so deeply and dearly loved by her own people speaks much for her worth. She and Cassandra, especially Cassandra, were very reticent in their expression of feeling, but seldom has heart been knit to heart as were theirs. The love of sisters has not often formed the theme of song or romance; we hear of a mother's love for her son, of a brother for a brother, but the love of sisters is, when it exists in perfection, as strong as these, as pure in its spring, and more full of feeling. Sisters whose hearts are open to one another, who have shared the same experiences, look on the world from a similar standpoint, and the breaking of such ties is severe agony. At only forty-one Jane had passed away still in the highest maturity of her powers, leaving behind her but six completed books, all short, but each one perfect in itself. This is what will be said of her-- She did what she attempted to do perfectly. The books are all instinct with the same qualities, the precision of word and phrase, the genius for knowing what to select and what to leave unsaid, but not one is a repetition of another, in the whole gallery of characters each one is distinct.
She was a real artist. Her work lay apart from and outside of herself. We do not find a picture of herself under different names playing heroine in different sets of circumstances; each heroine stands by herself, and in her women's portraits she reaches her high-water mark Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot, Catherine Morland, Elinor Dashwood, we know each one as a friend, and each one is completely differentiated.
So brilliant, so perfect, so stamped with its own individuality is each of the books, that one wonders what she could possibly have produced next to take rank with its forerunners. Within so small a compass, with such a narrow stage on which to set the dramatis personae how did she manage to make so great a variety?
It is in keeping with her character and work that there should be no decline, no falling off; that all should be good; it is true that some of the novels are preferred by one, some by another; some are stronger in one point, some in another, but neither decay nor improvement can justly be found between first and last. This is genius. Genius cannot grow nor can it be cultivated, it is there, and its work is done without effort and without labour. If Jane had not died at so early an age, her life would not have seemed so complete, so rounded as it did. Her dying in the full plenitude and maturity of power is in keeping with the level excellence of her work.
Her life had been a happy one, free from mind worries, free from great sorrows, her affections had wide play, her tastes full development; she was happy in the love ofone very near and dear, and if she missed great ecstasies, she at least had no hideous sorrows to endure in the sin or vice of those near to her. Her one great sorrow was perhaps the death of her father, but he was not young, and in the natural course of events his death cannot be called unexpected. Sunny, well-occupied, surrounded with the refinements that a sensitive mind appreciates, she lived out a life on a high uniform level. Her books supplied a motive and mainspring that other- wise might have been felt to be lacking by one so energetic. If, as has been said, happiness on earth demands "someone to love, something to do, and some- thing to hope for," she had all these, and much more.
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.