A GLIMPSE INTO ENGLAND IN 1816, THE LAST FULL YEAR OF JANE'S LIFE
1816 was an important year in Jane’s life. By this time, she had published four novels and had no plans for retirement.
Despite her ill health, she had spent the first half of the year revising Susan (later published posthumously as Northanger Abbey). She had completed her first draft of Persuasion mid-July, and would soon begin work on Sanditon in the new year. It is not known whether Jane truly realised how serious her illness was, but she seemed to be writing more voraciously than ever.
She had also achieved some small degree of fame. Despite her early work being published anonymously, her identity was known to many - she was even invited to visit the Prince Regent’s library in November of 1815, extraordinary for an unmarried gentleman’s daughter living in the country! Jane and Cassandra traveled throughout the year to visit friends and family, and opinions of Jane’s work, whether from strangers or acquaintances, most definitely reached her ears.
In amongst the writing and traveling, there was still the wider world to contend with - both familial and global events impacted Jane’s life that year. Although there had been relative peace on the continent since the end of the Napoleonic Wars the year before, Europe was in turmoil. 1816 became known as ‘the year without a summer’ – harvests across Britain and Ireland failed under heavy rains and low temperatures. Famine was prevalent in north and southwest Ireland and across Europe. It was the worst famine of 19th-century Europe and riots, arson and looting took place in many cities.
Jane lived rent-free in Chawton on her brother Edward’s estate, but this comfortable security was under threat - the catastrophic crop failure and post-war instability in the agricultural markets saw many tenant farmers fail. This would have been another financial blow for Edward, in addition to the large losses he had suffered as an investor in his brother Henry’s failed bank, Henry having been declared bankrupt in March. Furthermore, Edward’s ownership of Chawton was threatened by a legal challenge to his inheritance. Edward eventually settled the case, for the enormous sum of £15,000, and worked diligently to overcome the setbacks, but not until after Jane died. Jane did not know that her mother and sister were able to stay in Chawton Cottage for the rest of their lives.
It was the last full year of Jane Austen’s life. By the start of November, she had less than nine months to live. Her illness was bad enough for other people to have noticed she did not seem well, but despite the discomfort she was experiencing, Jane continued to proceed with her life – seeing friends, performing her duties as aunt to many nieces and nephews, and, of course, writing.
© Emily Prince, Editor of Pride & Possibilities
The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation works with the Jane Austen community and industry to provide literacy resources for communities in need across the world. Reading and writing skills empower individuals to participate in society and achieve their dreams. Literacy gives a child pride and opens up a world of possibilities.
Image credit: Julia Grantham