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.
by 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…)
In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s brother William, who is in the navy, gives her an amber cross from Sicily. …the almost solitary ornament in her possession, a very pretty amber cross which William had brought her from Sicily… –Jane Austen, Mansfield Park Chapter 26 Pieces of a rare type of amber called simetite are found on some of Sicily’s beaches. It is often said that Jane Austen never mentions the Napoleonic Wars. However, I would ask, why did she choose to mention Sicily? A 15th century map of Sicily. Jane and Cassandra received topaz crosses from their sailor brother Charles (top). Below, a piece of amber. Surely the gift inspired Fanny’s cross in Mansfield Park. Sicily was of major strategic importance during the Napoleonic Wars. It was a source of a mineral that was an ingredient in a compound that was of vital importance to the British war effort–gunpowder. Sulfur is one of the components of gunpowder. Gunpowder is a mixture of potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulphur, and charcoal in the ratio 6:1:1. The British interest in Sicily was rooted in the largest Sulphur deposits in Europe. Sulphur was mined at several locations on the island. By 1800, Sicily was the source of most sulphur used by the British government. On the other hand, at that time, saltpeter was produced most efficiently under hot, humid environmental conditions. Ample firewood and inexpensive labour also rounded out the necessities for saltpeter production. A navigable river to enable large scale loading and (more…)
Throughout Jane Austen’s life, she was to hold an affection for the British Royal Navy. This was due to the enlistment of two of her brothers, Francis and Charles. Readers of her novels will find a number of positive naval characters, none more so that Captain Wentworth of Persuasion. Officers like these would have been well aware of the dangers of scurvy and alert to its presence aboard ship. Scurvy is a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C. Scurvy often presents initially with fatigue, followed by formation of spots on the skin, spongy gums, and bleeding from the mucous membranes. Spots are most abundant on the thighs and legs, and a person may look pale, feel depressed, and be partially immobilized. As scurvy advances, there can be open, suppurating wounds, loss of teeth, yellow skin, fever, neuropathy and finally death from bleeding. Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa. 1841/2. Scurvy was at one time common among sailors, pirates and others aboard ships at sea longer than perishable fruits and vegetables could be stored (subsisting instead only on cured and salted meats and dried grains) and by soldiers similarly deprived of these foods for extended periods. It was described by Hippocrates (c. 460 BC–c. 380 BC), and herbal cures for scurvy have been known in many native cultures since prehistory. Scurvy was one of the limiting factors of marine travel, often killing large numbers (more…)
The Mutiny on the Bounty was a mutiny aboard the British Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty on 28 April 1789. The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian against their captain, Lieutenant William Bligh. According to accounts, the sailors were attracted to the “idyllic” life and sexual opportunities afforded on the Pacific island of Tahiti. It has also been argued that they were motivated by Bligh’s allegedly harsh treatment of them.
Eighteen mutineers set Bligh afloat in a small boat with eighteen of the twenty-two crew loyal to him. To avoid detection and prevent desertion, the mutineers then variously settled on Pitcairn Island or on Tahiti and burned the Bounty off Pitcairn.
In an extraordinary feat of seamanship, Bligh navigated the 23-foot (7 m) open launch on a 47-day voyage to Timor in the Dutch East Indies, equipped with a quadrant and pocket watch and without charts or compass. He recorded the distance as 3,618 nautical miles (6,710 km). He then returned to Britain and reported the mutiny to the Admiralty on 15 March 1790, 2 years and 11 weeks after his original departure.
The British government dispatched HMS Pandora to capture the mutineers, and Pandora reached Tahiti on 23 March 1791. Four of the men from the Bounty came on board soon after its arrival, and ten more were arrested within a few weeks. These fourteen were imprisoned in a makeshift cell on Pandora’s deck. Pandora ran aground on part of the Great Barrier Reef on 29 August 1791, with the loss of 31 of the crew and four of the prisoners. The surviving ten prisoners were eventually repatriated to England, tried in a naval court with three hanged, four acquitted and three pardoned. Continue reading The Mutiny on the Bounty
Louisa, by whom she found herself walking, burst forth into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy: their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved.
Two of Jane Austen’s brothers were sailors, and, in the grand tradition of the Austens, were content not to merely exist in their capacities, but rather, excelled in them. By the end of their long careers they were known as Sir Francis Austen, G.C.B., Admiral of the Fleet, and Rear-Admiral Charles Austen (though Jane referred to him as her “own particular little brother”). Both brothers joined the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth upon reaching the age of 12, and as both had several years of service “under their belts” so to speak, would, no doubt have watched with interest the rapid developments in naval warfare produced by the American inventor, Robert Fulton.
It was Fulton, who, in 1800 tested The Nautilus, often considered the first practical submarine (though preceded by Cornelius Drebbel’s of 1620.) And Fulton, who, always in need of financial support for his experiments, worked first for the French Navy, then the British and finally the Americans (during the War of 1812).
Another moment sufficed to explain the mystery. A dress of very elegant materials, but of very simple form, was drawn forth by the dainty hands of Mrs. Selby, and displayed before the wondering eyes of her mistress. It consisted of a very full short petticoat, the fabric of which it was composed being very rich satin, but the colour of that dark, sombre tint of which the homely duffle garments of the west-country peasants were generally made, before the high-pressure cotton-mills had caused all local peculiarities of costume to give place to their patterned calicos. The upper part of the dress was of very delicate cambric, and bore a picturesque approximation to the short-sleeved under-garment of the females of all lands.
But the most remarkable feature of the dress was a small red cloak, such as little Red Riding-Hood has made immortal throughout the world of Romance, but which has the more solemn stamp of historical renown accorded to it in the Duchy of Cornwall. The head-dress was a somewhat fantastical little black hat, fastened under the chin by a blue ribbon, while the dainty and diminutive black shoes, though the material was black satin, had buckles high up on the instep, and heels that marked a very remote period in the art of shoe-making, lint the whole dress, such as it was, would decidedly have required an interpreter, had it not been made familiar to the London world by a very popular picture recently exhibited, which bore in the catalogue the title of—”The Cornish Heroine.”
Mrs. Cuthbert certainly contemplated this dress with more surprise than satisfaction. She was by no means ignorant of the tradition which attributed the safety of the Cornish coast, at a moment of threatened invasion, to the imposing appearance of a multitude of red cloaks, so arranged as to make the wearers mistaken for cohorts of the stouter sex; but she could trace no connection between this old story, and her present position as the honoured mistress of a mansion favoured by the presence of the Sovereign.
-The days of the Regency, George the fourth; or, Town and country
By Frances Trollope, 1857