"In May 1817 she was persuaded to remove to Winchester... All that was gained by the removal from home was the satisfaction of having done the best that could be done, together with such alleviations of suffering as superior medical skill could afford."
-- Memoir of Jane Austen, by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh
If nothing could be done for Austen in Winchester, could there be another reason why Austen chose to remain there, to spend her last days in a strange town? Instead of dying in her own bed at home? Even the extra expense of taking lodgings was no idle consideration for this family. Perhaps her rich brother Edward stepped up to help or perhaps Jane paid for the lodging, food, doctor and nurse out of her own earnings, but this was a family of very modest means that had recently suffered the catastrophe of brother Henry's bank failure and had been disappointed by last will and testament of a wealthy uncle.
So why the 11th-hour trip to Winchester? I incline toward the theory that it was because of a wish on Austen's part to put distance between herself and her mother. Austen's mother was thought to be a bit of a hypochondriac. Personally, I think a woman who has borne eight children deserves to be a hypochondriac if she wants to be. However I suspect the reality of her daughter's illness was something she was unwilling or unable to face. For a year, Austen herself had tried to minimize and dismiss her recurring symptoms and her slow decline. By the spring of 1817, the truth could no longer be hidden.
Was Austen sparing her own feelings by leaving home to die, or was she sparing her mother's feelings? Or both? Jane's mother was 78 years old at the time, and although she lived for another ten years, we might suppose that keeping constant attendance by her dying daughter's bed would have been an enormous strain for her. Jane saw to it that this never happened. Nor, it seems, was it essential to Jane Austen that her mother be with her during those last days. That role was filled by Cassandra, was assisted by their sister-in-law and a maid.
Naturally enough, Austen and Cassandra tried to soothe and reassure their mother. Austen biographer Claire Tomalin says Austen's mother "was sent optimistic bulletins" from Winchester. But she did not go to visit her daughter in Winchester.
"Your grandmamma has suffered much," Austen's brother Henry wrote to his niece, after they got the bad news from Dr. Lyford in early June, "but her affliction can be nothing to Cassandra's." Other family members came and went during those last weeks and days, to say good-bye.
Austen died on July 18th, 1817 and was buried early in the morning on the 24th. Her older brother James wrote a poem in tribute to her: "But to her family alone / her real, genuine worth was known."
And someone arranged a burial place for her which was more elaborate, more public, than any other member of the family received.
"Why was Austen buried in Winchester Cathedral?"
This FAQ is from Winchester Cathedral's website, but the posted answer is rather unsatisfactory. It merely says that Austen moved to lodgings in Winchester shortly before her death and was buried in the cathedral, "a building she greatly admired."
But this does not answer the question. Not everyone who dies in Winchester or admires the cathedral is buried there. Claire Harmon's biography of Austen says that only three people were buried in the cathedral that year.
It is generally supposed that Austen's brother Henry pulled some strings for his sister. His career as a banker had ended by that time, but he was an accomplished--even shameless--networker and string-puller. As well, the inscription prominently mentions Austen's late father, who might have had connections in the Anglican establishment who still remembered him with respect. Another possible connection was through Elizabeth Heathcote, who lived near the cathedral, a friend of Jane and Cassandra. In fact, she was the sister of Harris Bigg-Wither, the man who proposed marriage to Austen. Mrs. Heathcote was the widow of a clergyman.
So, in addition to asking, why did Austen go to Winchester, we can add the questions: where did she want to be buried, and did she know her family was going to reveal the secret of her authorship after her death?
There is no consensus among Austen scholars and devotees about the answers. EJ Clery believes that Henry was probably behind the cathedral burial: "To bury her in the Cathedral was an act of faith in her future fame." Claire Tomalin thinks Henry might have overruled his sister's wishes: "splendid as [the cathedral] is, she might have preferred the open churchyard at Steventon or Chawton." Dr. Helena Kelly thinks it was Austen's choice to be buried in Winchester.
The most vexed question is: what about the wording of the inscription on the slab which marks her final resting place? It stresses her virtues and the family's grief, but does not mention her authorship. Suffice it to say many people have questioned and criticized Austen's family for not mentioning Austen's authorship on the tombstone. Why bury her in such a public place, and only expiate on her private virtues? That question will be considered in my next post. In the meantime, two other points about her fame and her resting place:
'Jane Austen known to many by her writings, 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 Hands Dec. xvi mdcclxxv, and buried in this Cathedral July xxiv mdcccxvii “She openeth her mouth in wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” Prov xxxi. v. xxvi'"
The family emphasized 1) their love for her, 2) her Christian virtues, and 3) her charming personality. The plaque just reiterates what was said on the tombstone. The only addition is the vague: "known to many by her writings."
Later still, there was a public subscription drive to add a stained glass window. More recently, an attempt to erect a statue in Austen's honour was cancelled.
- Mansfield Park is a radical anti-slavery novel.
- The references to slavery are nonetheless veiled because it was dangerous and unpopular to speak out against slavery.
- Mansfield Park is specifically a critique of the Church of England's ownership of slave plantations, the Codrington plantations.
- Having Mansfield Park on her tombstone would have been widely understood as a rebuke to the Anglican church.
- Austen was the sort of person who would arrange to turn her tombstone into a lasting protest sign in a beautiful sacred space where people had worshipped for 800 years. "Jane, in her wilder moments, could have delighted in getting the title of her anti-church, antislavery novel into a cathedral run by slave owners."
An earlier post written for the anniversary of Austen's death is here.
Austen's brother, Rear Admiral Charles Austen, died at sea. A recent article shows his long-forgotten memorial in Sri Lanka.
Barchas, Janine and Devoney Looser. "Introduction: What's Next for Jane Austen?" Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 61 no. 4, 2019, p. 335-344. Project MUSE