BY MAY 1817, JANE HAD NOT BEEN WELL FOR SOME TIME.
There is speculation that she tried to hide her illness by making it out to be less serious to spare her loved ones their concern. Perhaps, on the other hand, she herself was in denial, and doubted the severity of her condition. We will probably never know what she was suffering from (retrospective diagnoses range from Addison’s disease to lymphoma) but there is no doubt that it was serious.
She had stopped writing in March, was bed bound in April and had written a short will on April 27th.
I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last Will & Testament give and bequeath to my dearest Sister Cassandra Elizth every thing of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral Expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50. to Mde Bigeon–which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear Sister the Executrix of this my last Will & Testament.
April 27, 1817
Her doctor recommended her to another physician in Winchester, Dr Lyford, and on the 24th of May, Jane left her home in Chawton for what would be the last time. Cassandra accompanied her, and together they travelled to Winchester for further medical treatment.
The house that they stayed in at number 8 College Street is now a private residence. It was a stone’s throw from the cathedral where Jane would be laid to rest and also right next to Winchester College, where several members of Jane’s extended family had attended classes. Jane describes the lodgings as ‘very comfortable. We have a neat little Drawg-room with a Bow-window overlooking Dr Gabell’s [the headmaster’s] Garden’. Their accommodation had been arranged by Mrs Heathcote and Miss Bigg, lifelong friends of the Austens and elder sisters of Jane’s overnight, one-time fiance, Harris Bigg-Wither. The sisters lived a few minutes away and visited regularly.
According to the various diaries and correspondence surviving from the time (by Jane and by others), Jane and Cassandra had plenty of visitors during their time in Winchester, including their nephew, Charles, who was attending Winchester College at the time, and their brothers Henry, Charles, James and James’ wife Mary. Letters with varying accounts of her health flew back and forth between the family who were scattered across the south of England. It is frustrating reading - several members of the family report the likelihood of her imminent death with determined stoicism, only for the news of her rallying to arrive the next day, before she is reported to be failing again. In her last surviving letter - a fragment - Jane says she has been out once in a sedan chair, soon to be promoted to a wheelchair dependent on weather. This letter was written on or around May 29. She would be dead in seven weeks time.
© Emily Prince - Editor, Pride & Possibilities
Le Faye, Deirdre. (2013). A chronology of Jane Austen and her family (2nd rev. ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Le Faye, D. (Ed.). (2011). Jane Austen’s Letters (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.
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Image credit: Julia Grantham