Your kind Letter my dearest Anne found me in bed, for in spite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you I have since been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me within a few days afterwards – the most severe I ever had – & coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low. I have kept my bed since 13. of April, with only removals to a Sopha. Now, I am getting well again, & indeed have been gradually tho’ slowly recovering my strength for the last three weeks. I can sit up in my bed & employ myself, as I am proving to you at this present moment, & really am equal to being out of bed, but that the posture is thought good for me. How to do justice to the kindness of all my family during this illness, is quite beyond me!…… I have so many alleviations & comforts to bless the Almighty for! – My head was always clear, & I had scarcely any pain; my cheif sufferings were from feverish nights, weakness and Languor…as our Alton Apothy did not pretend to be able to cope with it, better advice was called in. Our nearest very good, is at Winchester, where there is a Hospital & capital Surgeons, & one of them attended me, & his applications gradually removed the Evil.– The consequence is, that instead of going to Town to put myself into the hands of some Physician as I should otherwise have done, I am going to Winchester instead, for some weeks to see what Mr Lyford can do further towards re-establishing my in tolerable health In short, if I live to be an old Woman I must expect to wish I has died now, blessed in the tenderness of such a Family, & before I had survived either them or their affection, – You would have held the memory of your friend Jane too in tender regret I am sure. – But the Providence of God has restored me – & may I be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned, than I sh’d have been now! – Sick or Well, beleive me ever your attached friend. J. Austen
Jane Austen to Anne Sharp
May 22, 1817
It is known that Jane Austen spent her final weeks of life in the college town of Winchester, seeking the aid of a Doctor Giles Lyford. During her time there, she lived in a few rooms of a modest brick home, nearby the Cathedral where she would soon be buried, “A building that she admired so much.” Much of what we know about her final days has been gleaned from the few letters the survive from this time, including one to her dear friend Anne Sharp (previously quoted) and another to her young nephew, James Edward Austen (the same nephew who would later write her first biography)
I know no better way, my dearest Edward, of thanking you for your most affectionate concern for me during my illness than by telling you myself, as soon as possible, that I continue to get better. I will not boast of my handwriting; neither that nor my face have yet recovered their proper beauty, but in other respects I am gaining strength very fast. I am now out of bed from 9 in the morning to 10 at night: upon the sopha, ’tis true, but I eat my meals with aunt Cass in a rational way, and can employ myself, and walk from one room to another. Mr. Lyford says he will cure me, and if he fails, I shall draw up a memorial and lay it before the Dean and Chapter, and have no doubt of redress from that pious, learned, and disinterested body. Our lodgings are very comfortable. We have a neat little drawing-room with a bow window overlooking Dr. Gabell’s garden. Thanks to the kindness of your father and mother in sending me their carriage, my journey hither on Saturday was performed with very little fatigue, and had it been a fine day, I think I should have felt none; but it distressed me to see uncle Henry and Wm. Knight, who kindly attended us on horseback, riding in the rain almost all the way. We expect a visit from them to-morrow, and hope they will stay the night; and on Thursday, which is Confirmation and a holiday, we are to get Charles out to breakfast. We have had but one visit yet from him, poor fellow, as he is in sick-room, but he hopes to be out to-night. We see Mrs. Heathcote every day, and William is to call upon us soon. God bless you, my dear Edward. If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been. May the same blessed alleviations of anxious, sympathising friends be yours: and may you possess, as I dare say you will, the greatest blessing of all in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their love. I could not feel this.
Your very affecte Aunt,
(May 27, 1817)
The following excerpts are quoted from a small booklet, Jane Austen in Winchester, written by Frederick Bussby and published by the Friends of Winchester Cathedral in 1969.
Jane Austen in Winchester
One of the vergers in Winchester Cathedral in the middle of the nineteenth century was very puzzled why so many people enquired for the grave of Jane Austen. Was there, he asked, “anything particular about the lady?” If we read the inscription on her tomb in the eighth bay of the north aisle of the nave we read much about her virtues and her good qualities, but we learn nothing about the creative genius which has made her known throughout the world, and which has held captive innumerable admirers. Today probably more people seek the tomb of Jane Austen in the Cathedral than that of any person associated with Winchester. Then, it was one monument among many which extolled the merits of the departed; today it is the goal of many a pilgrimage for lovers of English literature. The inscription on her grave reads as follows:
In Memory of
youngest daughter of the late
Revd GEORGE AUSTEN
formerly Rector of Steventon in this County
She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817,
aged 41, after a long illness supported with
the patience and the hopes of a Christian.
The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Their grief is in proportion to their affection,
they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in their deepest affliction they are consoled
by a firm though humble hope that her charity,
devotion, faith and purity have rendered
her soul acceptable in the sight of her
Jane Austen’s Final Days in Winchester
The question naturally arises, “Why is it that she has come to be so closely associated with Winchster, especially as she lived almost the whole of her life elsewhere?” Born in 1775, she grew up to enjoy ill health, like many of her contemporaries. Like them, she tried the benefits that might be derived from a visit to Bath. But in 1817, she resolved to put herself under the a Winchester doctor, Giles King Lyford, then surgeon in ordinary at the County Hospital , situated in Parchment Street in the centre of the city. She therefore left Chawton for the last time one wet Saturday at the end of May. Edward Knight placed his carriage at her disposal. Travelling with her in the carriage was her sister, Cassandra, and accompanying them on horseback was her brother Henry and her nephew William Knight. With the help of the Heathcote family she had fixed up to stay at Mrs David’s in College Street. The house, now belonging to Winchester College, is marked by an oval plaque in grey slate with white lettering, proved by the generosity of Mrs. Jack Read in 1956. The Inscription runs as follows:
Memorials to the David family used to be visible in the churchyard of the Cathedral opposite the east end of the Morely College, but these have now disappeared. The commemorated Matthew David, who died on August 13, 1833, aged 71; and Mary David, aged 85, who died on October 28, 1813. Was this Matthew David the husband of Jane’s new landlady? In her new home she had a “neat little drawing room with a bow window” Here Mr. Lyford attended her and here she spent most of the time on a sofa, only occasionally being able to move round her new home and only once being able to go out in a sedan chair. Her hopes of an excursion in a wheel chair were never fulfilled. But although she had great confidence in Mr. Lyford, she also consulted that “learned and pious body, the Dean and Chapter”, about a grave in the cathedral, a building which, as we know from her sister Cassandra, she greatly admired. The precise nature of this fatal illness has been the study of Sir Zachary Cope, who has studied the observations in Jane’s letters and concludes that she suffered from Addison’s disease. Those with medical interests can find the full details in the Journal of the British Medical Association for July 18, 1964.
We are also curious as to whether during Jane Austen’s final days in Winchester, was she still able to continue her writing. We know that she was deriving interest from money received from her previous novels. Thus from Hoare’s the Bankers on July 9 she received 15, interest on the “600 Navy per cents”. But she seems not to have written any more fiction. She did, however, very shortly before she died, write a poem to mark St Swithun’s Day, July 15, a day still observed in Winchester. She gave her poem the title Venta, the old name for Winchester and she composed it on July 15, the actual St Swithun’s Day, three days before she died.
Written in Winchester on Tuesday the 15th of July 1817
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of St. Swithin
And that William of Wykham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fix’d and determined
The company met & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d & ermin’d
And nobody saw any future alarming.
But when the old Saint was inform’d of these doings
He made but one spring from his shrine to the roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And thus he address’d them all standing aloof.
Oh subject rebellious, Oh Venta depraved!
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal. — By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinn’d and must suffer. — Then further he said
These races & revels & dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighbourly Plain
Let them stand — you shall meet with a curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command in July.
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers,
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers.
The events of the last two days of her life we can piece together from the letter and short biography left by Cassandra and Henry Austen. Says Henry: “She retained her faculties, her memory, her fancy, her temper, her affections, warm, clear and unimpaired, to the last. Neither her love of God, nor of her fellow creatures flagged for a moment. She made a point of receiving the sacrament before excessive bodily weakness might have rendered her perception unequal to her wished. She wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen became too laborious. The day before her death she composed some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour (Venta, already quoted). Her last voluntary speech conveyed thanks to her medical attendant; and to the final question asked of her, purporting to know her wants, she replied, “I want nothing but death.”
Cassandra’s account of Jane’s last hours corroborates the more reserved account of her brother. Writing only three days after Jane’s death, she is naturally emotionally involved in the events she describes. She tells of her gratitude that she could be with her sister to the last. She gives poignant details of how she nursed her. She tells of some of her last words, “God grant me patience, Pray for me, oh Pray for me.” She describes that long last night as her dying sister rested her head on the pillow in her lap. And so she breathed her last, and on her face a “sweet serene air”. With overflowing sisterly love she writes: “I have lost such 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.”
On the following Thursday, July 24, the funeral took place in the Cathedral. The service was taken by the Reverend Thomas Watkins, Precentor of the Cathedral and Chaplain of Winchester College, where he had probably come to know members of the Austen family. The service took place in the morning of that day before Morning Prayer.
Commenting on the occasion, Jane’s brother observed that “in the whole catalogue of the mighty dead (the Cathedral) does not contain the ashes of a brighter genius or sincerer Christian”. Looking back on her life, he adds that “one trait only remains to be touched on. It makes all others unimportant. She was thoroughly religious and devout; fearful of giving offence to God and incapable of feeling it towards any fellow creature. On serious subjects she was well-instructed, both by reading and meditation, and her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.”
The Cathedral Burial Register records her death [and burial as July 16, however] it will be noted that there is a discrepancy in the Register over the date of burial. The entry seems to have been made by two different hands. The name, abode and July are in one hand and the remaining details in a second hand. Perhaps the Clerk wrote the first three items and that the Precentor wrote the remainder, perhaps some weeks after the funeral when precise dates had slipped from his memory. But whatever the explanation, the discrepancy is certainly there.
It was not until many years later that a full-dress biography of Jane Austen appeared. It was written by the Rev. J. E. Austen-Leigh. One result was that from the profits of his book a memorial brass tablet was placed on the north wall of the nave, near her grave, in 1872. It was the work of the well-known architect Wyatt, who had been employed by Austen-Leigh because of his work in his own parish church of Bray. By this time, the “something special” about Jane Austen was well known and the mural table records this as follows:
known to many by her
writings, endeared to
her family by the
varied charms of her
Character and ennobled
by Christian faith
and piety, was born
at Steventon in the
County of Hands Dec.
xvi mdcclxxv, and buried
in this Cathedral
July xxiv mdcccxvii
“She openeth her
mouth in wisdom
and in her tongue is
the law of kindness.”
Prov xxxi. v. xxvi
Over the table is a memorial window bidding us, in Latin, to remember in the Lord, Jane Austen who died on July 18, 1817. It was erected in 1900 by public subscription and was designed by C.E. Kempe. It consists of two rows of three figures. In the head of the window is Saint Augustine whose name, in its abbreviated form, is Austin. The top central figure is David playing his harp.
The central figure in the bottom row is St. John holding a book displaying on an open page the first words of his Gospel, again in Latin. The other two figures in the window represent the sons of Korah mentioned in 2 Chronicles 20:19. Korah and his sons are traditionally associated with Psalms 42 to 49, Psalms 84, 85, 87 and 88. The figures carry scrolls on which are quotations form these psalms indicated the religious side of Jane’s character.
Additional details from Cassandra’s letters to her niece, Fanny Austen-Knight, serve to fill out the final details of Jane’s final days and hours.
Winchester, Sunday, July 20, 1817
My Dearest Fanny,
Doubly dear to me now for her dear sake whom we have lost. She did love you most sincerely, and never shall I forget the proofs of love you gave her during her illness in writing those kind, amusing letters at a time when I know your feelings would have dictated so different a style. Take the only reward I can give you in the assurance that your benevolent purpose was answered; you did contribute to her enjoyment.
Even your last letter afforded pleasure. I merely cut the seal and gave it to her; she opened it and read it herself, afterwards she gave it to me to read, and then talked to me a little and not uncheerfully of its contents, but there was then a languor about her which prevented her taking the same interest in anything she had been used to do.
Since Tuesday evening, when her complaint returned, there was a visible change, she slept more and much more comfortably; indeed, during the last eight-and-forty hours she was more asleep than awake. Her looks altered and she fell away, but I perceived no material diminution of strength, and, though I was then hopeless of a recovery, I had no suspicion how rapidly my loss was approaching.
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, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well — not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.
You know me too well to be at all afraid that I should suffer materially from my feelings; I am perfectly conscious of the extent of my irreparable loss, but I am not at all overpowered and very little indisposed, nothing but what a short time, with rest and change of air, will remove. I thank God that I was enabled to attend her to the last, and amongst my many causes of self-reproach I have not to add any wilful neglect of her comfort.
She felt herself to be dying about half-an-hour before she became tranquil and apparently unconscious. During that half-hour was her struggle, poor soul! She said she could not tell us what she suffered, though she complained of little fixed pain. When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death, and some of her words were: “God grant me patience, pray for me, oh, pray for me!” Her voice was affected, but as long as she spoke she was intelligible.
I hope I do not break your heart, my dearest Fanny, by these particulars; I mean to afford you gratification whilst I am relieving my own feelings. I could not write so to anybody else; indeed you are the only person I have written to at all, excepting your grandmamma — it was to her, not your Uncle Charles, I wrote on Friday.
Immediately after dinner on Thursday I went into the town to do an errand which your dear aunt was anxious about. I returned about a quarter before six and found her recovering from faintness and oppression; she got so well as to be able to give me a minute account of her seizure, and when the clock struck six she was talking quietly to me.
I cannot say how soon afterwards she was seized again with the same faintness, which was followed by the sufferings she could not describe; but Mr. Lyford had been sent for, had applied something to give her ease, and she was in a state of quiet insensibility by seven o’clock at the latest. From that time till half-past four, when she ceased to breathe, she scarcely moved a limb, so that we have every reason to think, with gratitude to the Almighty, that her sufferings were over. A slight motion of the head with every breath remained till almost the last. I sat close to her with a pillow in my lap to assist in supporting her head, which was almost off the bed, for six hours; fatigue made me then resign my place to Mrs. J. A. for two hours and a-half, when I took it again, and in about an hour more she breathed her last.
I was able to close her eyes myself, and it was a great gratification to me to render her those last services. There was nothing convulsed which gave the idea of pain in her look; on the contrary, but for the continual motion of the head she gave one the idea of a beautiful statue, and even now, in her coffin, there is such a sweet, serene air over her countenance as is quite pleasant to contemplate.
This day, my dearest Fanny, you have had the melancholy intelligence, and I know you suffer severely, but I likewise know that you will apply to the fountain-head for consolation, and that our merciful God is never deaf to such prayers as you will offer.
The last sad ceremony is to take place on Thursday morning; her dear remains are to be deposited in the cathedral. It is a satisfaction to me to think that they are to lie in a building she admired so much; her precious soul, I presume to hope, reposes in a far superior mansion. May mine one day be re-united to it!
Your dear papa, your Uncle Henry, and Frank and Edwd. Austen, instead of his father, will attend. I hope they will none of them suffer lastingly from their pious exertions. The ceremony must be over before ten o’clock, as the cathedral service begins at that hour, so that we shall be at home early in the day, for there will be nothing to keep us here afterwards.
Your Uncle James came to us yesterday, and is gone home to-day. Uncle H. goes to Chawton to-morrow morning; he has given every necessary direction here, and I think his company there will do good. He returns to us again on Tuesday evening.
I did not think to have written a long letter when I began, but I have found the employment draw me on, and I hope I shall have been giving you more pleasure than pain. Remember me kindly to Mrs. J. Bridges (I am so glad she is with you now), and give my best love to Lizzie and all the others.
I am, my dearest Fanny,
Most affectionately yours,
CASS. ELIZ. AUSTEN.
Chawton: Tuesday, July 29, 1817
My Dearest Fanny,
I have just read your letter for the third time, and thank you most sincerely for every kind expression to myself, and still more warmly for your praises of her who I believe was better known to you than to any human being besides myself. Nothing of the sort could have been more gratifying to me than the manner in which you write of her, and if the dear angel is conscious of what passes here, and is not above all earthly feelings, she may perhaps receive pleasure in being so mourned. Had she been the survivor I can fancy her speaking of you in almost the same terms. There are certainly many points of strong resemblance in your characters; in your intimate acquaintance with each other, and your mutual strong affection, you were counterparts.
Thursday was not so dreadful a day to me as you imagined. There was so much necessary to be done that there was no time for additional misery. Everything was conducted with the greatest tranquillity, and but that I was determined I would see the last, and therefore was upon the listen, I should not have known when they left the house. I watched the little mournful procession the length of the street; and when it turned from my sight, and I had lost her for ever, even then I was not overpowered, nor so much agitated as I am now in writing of it. Never was human being more sincerely mourned by those who attended her remains than was this dear creature. May the sorrow with which she is parted with on earth be a prognostic of the joy with which she is hailed in heaven!
I continue very tolerably well — much better than any one could have supposed possible, because I certainly have had considerable fatigue of body as well as anguish of mind for months back; but I really am well, and I hope I am properly grateful to the Almighty for having been so supported. Your grandmamma, too, is much better than when I came home.
I did not think your dear papa appeared well, and I understand that he seemed much more comfortable after his return from Winchester than he had done before. I need not tell you that he was a great comfort to me; indeed, I can never say enough of the kindness I have received from him and from every other friend.
I get out of doors a good deal and am able to employ myself. Of course those employments suit me best which leave me most at leisure to think of her I have lost, and I do think of her in every variety of circumstance. In our happy hours of confidential intercourse, in the cheerful family party which she so ornamented, in her sick room, on her death-bed, and as (I hope) an inhabitant of heaven. Oh, if I may one day be re-united to her there! I know the time must come when my mind will be less engrossed by her idea, but I do not like to think of it. If I think of her less as on earth, God grant that I may never cease to reflect on her as inhabiting heaven, and never cease my humble endeavours (when it shall please God) to join her there.
In looking at a few of the precious papers which are now my property I have found some memorandums, amongst which she desires that one of her gold chains may be given to her god-daughter Louisa, and a lock of her hair be set for you. You can need no assurance, my dearest Fanny, that every request of your beloved aunt will be sacred with me. Be so good as to say whether you prefer a brooch or ring. God bless you, my dearest Fanny.
Believe me, most affectionately yours,
CASS. ELIZTH. AUSTEN.