In mid April 1817 Jane Austen was so ill she took to her bed in Chawton. By the 27th April she had written her will. After a visit from her brother James and his wife Mary she agreed to go to Winchester to be close to her surgeon who would take care of her there.
Lodgings were found in 8 College Street, Winchester, which backed on to the grounds of Winchester College and was close to the precincts of Winchester Cathedral.
At first she was able to take trips from the house in College street in a sedan chair. This was an upright box about the size of a telephone kiosk, often with glazed windows to each side and furnished with a comfortable chair. Too long vertical poles secured, one to each side by iron retaining loops, were used to carry the sedan chair and its occupant.
As you can imagine only short journeys could be attempted in this way because the chair and occupant would be heavy. Winchester is a not a big city and the cathedral and its precinct, a picturesque and shaded walk along the River Itchen which passes through the city, and the shops in the high Street, were only a short journey from the front door of 8 College Street.
Jane was also able to walk around the rooms inside the house in College Street. Jane herself was always optimistic. Cassandra was far more fearful.
In early June of 1817 James Austen wrote to his son at Oxford, “I grieve to write what 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.”
Later in the same letter James states that his sister is “….. well aware of her situation.” and also at another point he writes “…. an easy departure from this to a better world is all that we can pray for.”
All this sounds very gloomy. However, Jane’s health seemed to improve for a while to the surprise of all.
On the morning of the 15th July, St Swithuns Day Jane dictated a humorous poem to Cassandra. She must have been mulling the words over in her head. It was called, Venta, an old fashioned name for Winchester.
“Oh subjects rebellious!
Oh Venta depraved
By vice you’re enslaved…..
St. Swithun was a Saxon saint who had lived in Winchester. He was buried in the Cathedral and his grave became a focus for pilgrims coming to pray for favours. Winchester was as famous as a place for pilgrimage because of St Swithun, as Canterbury became later because of Thomas a Beckets martyrdom near the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral.. There is a famous rhyme associated with St Swithun:
‘St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.’
However the depraved and enslaved that Jane refers to was probably about some of the characters who frequented the yearly tradition of horse racing and betting on the races that took place on St Swithun’s day to celebrate the saint. I’m sure there was some depraved activities at these Winchester races.
There is a line in the poem that is thought to have been edited by Cassandra herself as Jane dictad the poem to her.
“When once we are buried you think we are gone.”
The poem is a rhyming poem and the last word of this line,
” gone,” does not rhyme with the final word of the next couplet which is the word, “said.” The word dead fits perfectly.
Cassandra’s first tentative foray into editing her sister’s words. The letters came later.
On the 17th July the sun shone during the day and evening and rained at night time. Mary Austen, James’s wife ( Jane didn’t get on with her) wrote “ Jane Austen was taken for death about ½ past 5 in the evening” This was a seizure and Mr Lyford Jane’s doctor thought that a blood vessel had ruptured inside Jane’s head. Dr Lyford administered something, which Cassandra does not make clear in her letters afterwards. It was probably laudanum, a derivative of opium.
Some of the last recorded words of Jane’s are, “ God grant me patience, Pray for me oh Pray for me.” She had struggled somewhat during these last moments and had partly come off her bed. Cassandra got a stool and sat next to Jane resting her head in her lap. She sat like this for six hours before she had a rest and Mary Austen took over for the next two hours until 3am in the morning then Cassandra took over the position once again. An hour later Jane Austen breathed her last breath. She was pronounced dead at 4am. Cassandra closed Jane’s eyes.
A few days later the Salisbury and Winchester Journal wrote,
“On Friday 18th inst. Died, in this city, Miss Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Rev. George Austen, rector of Steventon , in the county and authoress of Emma, Mansfield park, pride and prejudice and sense and Sensibility.”
Henry, her beloved brother, wrote the words to be etched on her tomb in Winchester Cathedral. He failed to mention her literary achievements.
Cassandra was distraught at her sister’s death.
However she was able to write letters to friends and family and deal with many of the practical things needed to be done after Jane’s death. On Sunday 20th July, two days after Jane died, Cassandra wrote to fanny Knight and Cassandra expresses a lot of the emotion she must have felt.
“ I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can be 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 if I had lost a part of myself.”
Four days later on the 24th July Jane was buried in the north aisle of Winchester cathedral. There has been some speculation as to how she was buried in such an honoured place. Her father was a local vicar, but that would not have been sufficient to get her a burial inside the cathedral. It might have been there was a friend of the family who was part of the diocesan hierarchy who got permission as a favour.
Four days after the internment on the 28th July Cassandra got down to the business of sorting out formalities. She wrote to Anne Sharp;
“ My dear Miss Sharp, I have great pleasure in sending you the lock of hair you wish for,& I add one pair of clasps which she sometimes wore & a small bodkin which she had had in use for more than twenty years.”
A certain austere efficiency has entered Cassandra’s actions.
So Jane Austen was dead. But, she lives on.
Posted by Tony Grant, the blog author of London Calling
About Tony Grant:
I am now partly retired from teaching. I do some supply teaching but I also work as a freelance tour guide for a Canadian company called Tours by Locals.
I lead tours of the South of England for family and friendship groups. Many of the tours are tailor made to peoples personal requirements.
I was born in Southampton. From an early age my grandmother made me aware of Jane Austen. It was my grandmother who showed me the site in Castle Square where Jane lived for two years. On visits to Winchester my grandmother also showed me the house where Jane died and her tomb in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral.
I read my first Jane Austen novel, Mansfield Park, when I was doing my Batchelor of Arts degree in the early 1970’s. Having been born and brought up in Southampton, Hampshire, and now living in North Surrey, I have been able to visit, over the years many of the places Jane mentions in her letters and uses in her novels. I live very close to some of those places.
I have my own BLOG, London Calling, in which I discuss ideas and places to do with Jane. My BLOG also allows me to present one of my other passions photography. I have photographed many Jane Austen sites.
Also about this topic:
- Jane Austen’s last hours
- On the Anniversary of Jane Austen’s Death
- Cause of Jane Austen’s Death Not Universally Acknowledged