IT IS 200 YEARS TODAY SINCE THE DEATH OF JANE AUSTEN.
Jane spent her final months in Winchester with her sister. According to Cassandra, Jane suffered some form of seizure or faintness on the evening of July 17.
By 6pm she was well enough to talk quietly, but was then ‘seized again with the same faintness, which was followed by the sufferings she could not describe’. After this, she ‘scarcely moved a limb’. She knew she was dying, and Cassandra describes her struggle - ‘When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death & some of her words were: "God grant me patience, Pray for me Oh Pray for me"’
Cassandra sat with her for six hours, cradling her sister’s head. Their sister-in-law, Mary Lloyd Austen, was also present, and she took over at some point to give Cassandra respite for a couple of hours, before Cassandra returned to hold her sister once more. At 4.30am on July 18, 1817, back in the arms of the person she loved best, Jane Austen breathed her last. Cassandra closed her sister’s eyes.
Cassandra wrote to Fanny Knight afterwards and the words she used are heartbreaking in their bleakness. ‘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, & it is as if I had lost a part of myself.’
Surviving letters and diary entries show the sorrow of Jane’s extended family, who were all informed by post over the next couple of days. Her funeral took place early on the morning of July 24. She was interred at Winchester Cathedral, and the morning service was to start at 10am, so the small funeral had to be concluded by that time. Not nearly as famous as she was yet to become, the original inscription on her grave contained no mention of her career as an author. As her fame grew, literary pilgrims began to visit the cathedral in the later 19th century. More memorials were added and her gravesite now features a semi-permanent exhibit on her life and works.
Jane Austen, arguably the world’s most famous female author, died at the age of 41. It is impossible to predict the work she could have produced had she lived longer, but given the accomplishment of the six novels she completed before her death, it is safe to say that literary history was deprived of a talent at the peak of her career. 200 years later, the collection of letters, juvenilia, and novels continue to fascinate and delight readers worldwide, in languages and countries Jane would never have known of. She is the study of continuous scholarship and new theories about her life and work appear daily.
Today is the anniversary of this remarkable woman’s death. Whatever successes Jane enjoyed in her lifetime, her legacy has become far more than she could have ever imagined. How will you mark the occasion?
To raise money for reading and writing materials for communities in literacy crisis, in Jane’s honour, please consider donating below. All donors will receive a personalised commemorative bookplate, for yourself, or a friend.
© 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.
Support our work today and receive a commemorative bookplate with your name in Jane’s handwriting. We are a volunteer organisation with no wages paid to anyone, so you can be confident your donation will be used wisely to buy books and writing materials for communities in literacy crisis, in honour of Jane. 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 and bookplate credit: Julia Grantham