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The effects of the family’s misfortunes on Jane Austen’s death

Jane Austen's Death

By Caroline Kerr Taylor

Jane Austen's death

2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. She is one of the world’s most popular literary giants. It was a tragic loss that she died at 41, just as her star was gaining traction in the literary firmaments.

We will never know for sure the exact cause of her death. The medical community has conjectured Addison’s disease, an adrenal insufficiency, or some form of cancer such as lymphoma. Any one of these diseases would have been exacerbated by long periods of extreme stress. Though she enjoyed a good deal of literary success in her last years, there is much evidence that they were also filled with insecurity and worry.

Family was the centre of Jane’s world. As she never married, she lived her entire life within the family circle. George Austen, Jane’s father, was a member of the clergy and Oxford educated. Their family was part of local genteel society; however, financially they were barely inside the bounds of polite society. Women of her class did not work. Jane and her sister Cassandra, as unmarried women, continued to live with their parents. While Jane’s closest and deepest connection was to her only sister Cassandra, she also enjoyed a close relationship with her brothers. As the boys grew up they left home, had careers, and raised families of their own. They did, however, keep a close extended family connection with visits between families, and corresponding when apart.

George Austen retired in 1800 and gave the Steventon parish living to their oldest son James. The Austens, along with their daughters, then moved to Bath. Here they rented various temporary accommodations. After living in a large house in the country it was not an easy adjustment. Continue reading The effects of the family’s misfortunes on Jane Austen’s death

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Rural England in the Age of Jane Austen

Rural England in the Age of Jane Austenby Marc DeSantis A Rural England Though Jane Austen’s life of forty-one years was lamentably short, her time on earth, 1775 to 1817, was nonetheless one of great and momentous change.  England was still largely rural in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the rhythm of its country life was tied to the seasonal needs of agriculture.  The population of Britain at the dawn of the nineteenth century was nine million, with four-fifths of this total living in the country.  Fully one-third of the population of England was employed in agriculture. Like farmers in all times and places, the rural folk of Jane’s English countryside were at the mercy of the weather, which was especially fickle in the late eighteenth century.  The winters were often very cold, and the springs very wet and late in arriving.  Summers could be either very dry or cold and wet.  Crops and livestock could be devastated by too much cold or not enough rain.  Poor weather also encouraged the spread of blights and rots.  When the wheat harvest was bad, the price of bread shot up, making it hard for the poor to feed themselves, and riots over food would sometimes erupt among the rural hungry. Life in the country had other hardships.  There were highwaymen on the roads ready to waylay travelers, groups of gypsies robbed countryfolk as well, and thieves stole horses and other valuables.  On some occasions there were even murders, particularly when it was thought that a vulnerable (more…)
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Netley Abbey

We had a little water party yesterday; I and my two nephews [George and Edward Knight] went from the Itchen Ferry up to Northam, where we landed, looked into the 74, and walked home, and it was so much enjoyed that I had intended to take them to Netley to-day; the tide is just right for our going immediately after noonshine, but I am afraid there will be rain; if we cannot get so far, however, we may perhaps go round from the ferry to the quay.” Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra Monday, 24 October 1808 “ Netley Abbey was founded by monks in 1239. If you find Southampton on the map, you can see why Jane Austen crossed over to it by ferry. Now the distance can be covered by bus. The Abbey is close to the water in a wooded area. There must have been some facility at the ferry landing when Austen visited but not much more. The little town that is near it was not developed until Victorian times. The ruins are quite substantial. One of the windows has the same characteristics of the window in Westminster Abbey and it is believed that the same mason worked on both windows. By Gillian Moy, CC BY-SA 2.0 Richard John King’s 1876 guidebook, A handbook for travellers in Surrey, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight, offers a close hand look at the history of the Abbey: Netley Abbey, about 3 m. S. of Southampton, must not be (more…)
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Lord Elgin’s Marbles – The Partheon Marbles of Greece

The Elgin Marbles also known as the Parthenon Marbles, are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures (made mostly by Greek sculptor Phidias and his assistants), inscriptions and architectural pieces that were originally part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin claimed to obtain in 1801 a controversial permit from the Sublime Porte, which then ruled Greece.

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine by Anton Graff (around 1788)


From 1801 to 1812, Elgin’s agents removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as sculptures from the Propylaea and Erechtheum. The Marbles were transported by sea to Britain. In Britain, the acquisition of the collection was supported by some, while others likened Elgin’s actions to vandalism or looting.

Following a public debate in Parliament and the subsequent exoneration of Elgin, the marbles were purchased from Elgin by the British government in 1816 and were passed to the British Museum, where they stand now on display in the purpose-built Duveen Gallery.

The Duveen Gallery of the British Museum

After gaining its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Greece began major projects for the restoration of the country’s monuments, and has expressed its disapproval of Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Acropolis and the Parthenon, which is regarded as one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. Greece disputes the subsequent purchase of the Marbles by the British Government and urges the return of the marbles to Greece for their unification.

In the beginning…
In November of 1798 the Earl of Elgin was appointed as “Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of His Britannic Majesty to the Sublime Porte of Selim III, Sultan of Turkey” (Greece was then part of the Ottoman realm). Before his departure to take up the post he had approached officials of the British government to inquire if they would be interested in employing artists to take casts and drawings of the sculptured portions of the Parthenon. According to Lord Elgin, “the answer of the Government … was entirely negative.”

Statuary from the east pediment

Lord Elgin decided to carry out the work and employed artists to take casts and drawings under the supervision of the Neapolitan court painter Giovani Lusieri. According to a Turkish local, marble sculptures that fell were burned to obtain lime for building. Although the original intention was only to document the sculptures, in 1801 Lord Elgin began to remove material from the Parthenon and its surrounding structures under the supervision of Lusieri. Continue reading Lord Elgin’s Marbles – The Partheon Marbles of Greece

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William Herschel and the Bath Museum of Astronomy

Sir Frederick William Herschel, KH, FRS  (15 November 1738 – 25 August 1822) was a German-born British astronomer, composer, and brother of Caroline Herschel. Born in the Electorate of Hanover, Herschel followed his father into the Military Band of Hanover, before migrating to Great Britain at the age of nineteen. Replica in the William Herschel Museum, Bath, of a telescope similar to that with which Herschel discovered Uranus Herschel became interested in astronomy in 1773, and after constructing his first large telescope in Bath, in 1774, he spent nine years carrying out thorough sky surveys, where his purpose was the investigation of double stars. The resolving power of the Herschel telescopes revealed that the nebulae in the Messier catalogue were clusters of stars: catalogues of nebulae were published in 1802 (2,500 objects) and 1820 (5,000 objects). In the course of an observation on 13 March 1781 he realized that one celestial body he had observed was not a star, but a planet, Uranus. This was the first planet to be discovered since antiquity and Herschel became famous overnight. As a result of this discovery George III appointed him ‘Court Astronomer’. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and grants were provided for the construction of new telescopes. A 1998 false-colour near-infrared image of Uranus showing cloud bands, rings, and moons obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope’s NICMOS camera. Herschel pioneered the use of astronomical spectrophotometry as a diagnostic tool, using prisms and temperature measuring equipment to measure the (more…)
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The Foundling Hospital

Thomas Coram painted by William Hogarth, 1740
Thomas Coram
painted by William Hogarth, 1740

The Foundling Hospital in London, England was founded in 1741 by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. It was a children’s home established for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children.” The word “hospital” was used in a more general sense than it is today, simply indicating the institution’s “hospitality” to those less fortunate.

The first children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital on 25 March 1741, into a temporary house located in Hatton Garden. At first, no questions were asked about child or parent, but a distinguishing token was put on each child by the parent. These were often marked coins, trinkets, pieces of cotton or ribbon, verses written on scraps of paper. Clothes, if any, were carefully recorded. One entry in the record reads, “Paper on the breast, clout on the head.” The applications became too numerous, and a system of balloting with red, white and black balls was adopted. Children were seldom taken after they were twelve months old.

On reception, children were sent to wet nurses in the countryside, where they stayed until they were about four or five years old. At sixteen girls were generally apprenticed as servants for four years; at fourteen, boys were apprenticed into variety of occupations, typically for seven years. There was a small benevolent fund for adults.


In September 1742, the stone of the new Hospital was laid in the area known as Bloomsbury, lying north of Great Ormond Street and west of Gray’s Inn Lane. The Hospital was designed by Theodore Jacobsen as a plain brick building with two wings and a chapel, built around an open courtyard. The western wing was finished in October 1745. An eastern wing was added in 1752 “in order that the girls might be kept separate from the boys”. The new Hospital was described as “the most imposing single monument erected by eighteenth century benevolence” and became London’s most popular charity.

In 1756, the House of Commons resolved that all children offered should be received, that local receiving places should be appointed all over the country, and that the funds should be publicly guaranteed. A basket was accordingly hung outside the hospital; the maximum age for admission was raised from two months to twelve, and a flood of children poured in from country workhouses. In less than four years 14,934 children were presented, and a vile trade grew up among vagrants, who sometimes became known as “Coram Men”, of promising to carry children from the country to the hospital, an undertaking which they often did not perform or performed with great cruelty. Of these 15,000, only 4,400 survived to be apprenticed out. The total expense was about £500,000, which alarmed the House of Commons. After throwing out a bill which proposed to raise the necessary funds by fees from a general system of parochial registration, they came to the conclusion that the indiscriminate admission should be discontinued. The hospital, being thus thrown on its own resources, adopted a system of receiving children only with considerable sums (e.g., £100), which sometimes led to the children being reclaimed by the parent. This practice was finally stopped in 1801; and it henceforth became a fundamental rule that no money was to be received. The committee of inquiry had to be satisfied of the previous good character and present necessity of the mother, and that the father of the child had deserted both mother and child, and that the reception of the child would probably replace the mother in the course of virtue and in the way of an honest livelihood. At that time, illegitimacy carried deep stigma, especially for the mother but also for the child. All the children at the Foundling Hospital were those of unmarried women, and they were all first children of their mothers. The principle was in fact that laid down by Henry Fielding in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling: “Too true I am afraid it is that many women have become abandoned and have sunk to the last degree of vice [i.e. prostitution] by being unable to retrieve the first slip.”
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Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death: The Eruption of Mt. Tambora

The year 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer (also the Poverty Year, The Summer that Never Was, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death), because of severe summer climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. Evidence suggests that the anomaly was caused by a combination of a historic low in solar activity with a volcanic winter event, the latter caused by a succession of major volcanic eruptions capped by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), the largest known eruption in over 1,300 years. The Little Ice Age, then in its concluding decades, may also have been a factor.

Aerial view of the caldera of Mount Tambora, formed during the colossal 1815 eruption.

The English governor of Indonesia, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, wrote of the erruption in his “History of Java” (1817). This was later incorporated in Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” (1850):

Island of Sumbawa, 1815. –
In April, 1815, one of the most frightful eruptions recorded in history occurred in the province of Tomboro, in the island of Sumbawa, about 200 miles from the eastern extremity of Java.
In the April of the year preceding the volcano had been observed in a state of considerable activity, ashes having fallen upon the decks of vessels which sailed past the coast. The eruption of 1815 began on the 5th of April, but was most violent on the 11th and 12th, and did not entirely cease till July.

The sound of the explosions was heard in Sumatra, at the distance of 970 geographical miles in a direct line; and at Ternate, in an opposite direction, at the distance of 720 miles. Out of a population of 12,000, in the province of Tomboro, only twenty-six individuals survived.

Violent whirlwinds carried up men, horses, cattle, and whatever else came within their influence, into the air; tore up the largest trees by the roots, and covered the whole sea with floating timber. Great tracts of land were covered by lava, several streams of which, issuing from the crater of the Tomboro mountain, reached the sea.

So heavy was the fall of ashes, that they broke into the Resident’s house at Bima, forty miles east of the volcano, and rendered it, as well as many other dwellings in the town, uninhabitable. On the side of Java the ashes were carried to the distance of 300 miles, and 217 towards Celebes, in sufficient quantity to darken the air. The floating cinders to the westward of Sumatra formed, on the 12th of April, a mass two feet thick, and several miles in extent, through which ships with difficulty forced their way.

The darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night. Although this volcanic dust when it fell was an impalpable powder, it was of considerable weight when compressed, a pint of it weighing twelve ounces and three quarters.

“Some of the finest particles,” says Mr. Crawfurd, “were transported to the islands of Amboyna and Banda, which last is about 800 miles east from the site of the volcano, although the south-east monsoon was then at its height.” They must have been projected, therefore, into the upper regions of the atmosphere, where a counter current prevailed.
Along the sea-coast of Sumbawa, and the adjacent isles, the sea rose suddenly to the height of from two to twelve feet, a great wave rushing up the estuaries, and then suddenly subsiding. Although the wind at Bima was still during the whole time, the sea rolled in upon the shore, and filled the lower parts of the houses with water a foot deep. Every prow and boat was forced from the anchorage, and driven on shore.

The town called Tomboro, on the west side of Sumbawa, was overflowed by the sea, which encroached upon the shore so that the water remained permanently eighteen feet deep in places where there was land before. Here we may observe, that the amount of subsidence of land was apparent, in spite of the ashes, which would naturally have caused the limits of the coast to be extended.

The area over which tremulous noises and other volcanic effects extended, was 1000 English miles in circumference, including the whole of the Molucca Islands, Java, a considerable portion of Celebes, Sumatra, and Borneo. In the island of Amboyna, in the same month and year, the ground opened, threw out water, and then closed again.

In conclusion, I may remind the reader, that but for the accidental presence of Sir Stamford Raffles, then governor of Java, we should scarcely have heard in Europe of this tremendous catastrophe. He required all the residents in the various districts under his authority to send in a statement of the circumstances which occurred within their own knowledge; but, valuable as were their communications, they are often calculated to excite rather than to satisfy the curiosity of the geologist. They mention, that similar effects, though in a less degree, had, about seven years before, accompanied an eruption of Carang Assam, a volcano in the island of Bali, west of Sumatra; but no particulars of that great catastrophe are recorded.

The Year Without a Summer was an agricultural disaster. Historian John D. Post has called this “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world”.The unusual climatic aberrations of 1816 had the greatest effect on most of New England, Atlantic Canada, and parts of western Europe. Typically, the late spring and summer of central and northern New England and southeastern Canada are relatively stable: temperatures (average of both day and night) average between about 68 and 77 °F (20 and 25 °C) and rarely fall below 41 °F (5 °C). Summer snow is an extreme rarity.

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Prussian Blue

Considered the first artificial pigment, Prussian Blue was created in the 1700’s, ironically, by an artist seeking to create a new source for red paint. It rapidly gained popularity as first an artist’s medium, and later as a color fast dye. It is the traditional “blue” in blueprints and is used as an antidote for certain kinds of heavy metal poisoning

A sample of Prussian Blue pigment.
A sample of Prussian Blue pigment.

Prussian blue was probably synthesized for the first time by the paint maker Diesbach in Berlin around the year 1706. Most historical sources do not mention a first name of Diesbach. Only Berger refers to him as Johann Jacob Diesbach. It was named “Preußisch blau” and “Berlinisch Blau” in 1709 by its first trader. The pigment replaced the expensive Lapis lazuli and was an important topic in the letters exchanged between Johann Leonhard Frisch and the president of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, between 1708 and 1716. It is first mentioned in a letter written by Frisch to Leibniz, from March 31, 1708. Not later than 1708, Frisch began to promote and sell the pigment across Europe. By August 1709, the pigment had been termed “Preussisch blau”; by November 1709, the German name “Berlinisch Blau” had been used for the first time by Frisch. Frisch himself is the author of the first known publication of Prussian blue in the paper Notitia Coerulei Berolinensis nuper inventi in 1710, as can be deduced from his letters. Diesbach had been working for Frisch since about 1701.

In 1731, Georg Ernst Stahl published an account of the first synthesis of Prussian blue. The story involves not only Diesbach but also Johann Konrad Dippel. Diesbach was attempting to create a red lake pigment from cochineal but obtained the blue instead as a result of the contaminated potash he was using. He borrowed the potash from Dippel, who had used it to produce his “animal oil”. No other known historical source mentions Dippel in this context. It is therefore difficult to judge the reliability of this story today. In 1724, the recipe was finally published by John Woodward.

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