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Monday, 19 June 2017

Jane Austen's Last Illness

The Austens' donkey carriage at Jane Austen's House Museum.
Early in 1816 Jane Austen began suffering from a mysterious, recurrent illness. It may have been Addison’s disease or possibly Hodgkin's lymphoma (despite recent suggestions that she may have been poisoned by arsenic). Typically, Jane made light of her situation when writing to her family. On 23 March 1817, she wrote to her niece Fanny Knight: ‘I must not depend on being ever very blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous indulgence at my time of life’.

Jane was an indefatigable walker, and it must have been immensely frustrating for her when she became so weak that she had to use a donkey carriage to get out and about at Chawton.  However, Jane disliked driving the carriage, and later a saddle was bought so that she could ride the donkey instead. She told Fanny: ‘I have taken one ride on the Donkey and like it very much...and found the exercise and everything very pleasant’.
The house in College St where Jane and Cassandra stayed.

Despite her intermittent illness, Jane revised her novel Persuasion, and early in 1817 she also began work on a new novel, Sanditon. In March 1817 Jane told Fanny Knight that she had ‘something ready for publication’: Persuasion.

But perhaps she knew that she was running out of time, because at the end of the month Jane made her will. She left her estate to her sister Cassandra, subject to a legacy of £50 to her brother Henry, and £50 to her friend Madame Bigeon.

By May Austen had become so unwell that her family persuaded her to move from Chawton to Winchester, so she could have the benefit of the best medical care available. (I wonder if Jane took a great deal of persuading, especially if she guessed she might never return home again). Jane and Cassandra took lodgings in College Street, near Winchester Cathedral.

However, Jane wrote cheerfully (27 May 1817) to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh: ‘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 the other’.

Mr Lyford, the local surgeon, had a very good reputation, and Jane joked bravely to James Edward: ‘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’. Sadly, although Mr Lyford effected a temporary improvement in her condition, he soon admitted that Jane’s case was desperate. But even now, Jane could not put down her pen, and she wrote a comic poem on Winchester. 
Winchester Cathedral. 

Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817. On the morning of 24 July, she was laid to rest at Winchester Cathedral, the ‘building she admired so much’. Her brothers Edward, Henry and Frank, and nephew James Edward, accompanied Jane to her last resting place.

Cassandra ‘watched the little mournful procession the length of the street; and when it turned from my sight...I had lost her for ever’.

Although Jane was gone, she is not forgotten. You can visit her memorials in the Cathedral; but surely her novels are her greatest monument.

Photos © Sue Wilkes.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Jane Austen Exhibition at The Weston Library, Oxford

This sounds like a real 'must-see' for Jane Austen fans! The Weston Library, Oxford, will host an exhibition on Austen's life and works from 23 June-29 October.

Some of the highlights include: the unfinished manuscript of Sanditon (Jane's last work), a copy of Volume The First (Jane's juvenilia), her writing desk, some letters, and her brother Frank Austen's logbook when he was Post-Captain of HMS Canopus.

The new Weston Library is just a short walk from St John's College, where Jane's father George Austen, and her brothers James and Henry, studied. The College Library holds six letters written by, or concerning, Jane Austen.
St John's College - Charles I.
St John's College, Oxford, from the gardens. 

Images copyright Sue Wilkes:
First editions of Austen's novels in a 2010 exhibition at the Bodleian.
St John's College: a rear view, and a statue of Charles I.

Monday, 8 May 2017

An Apology and A Grumble

Whenever anyone takes the time to comment on my blogs, I'm extremely grateful. So it's extremely annoying that whenever I try to make a reply, it disappears into the ether. I have tried fiddling with the Blogger settings but no joy. (Weirdly, my comments do appear to work intermittently on my Sue Wilkes history blog). I suspect it's something to do with the pop-up blocker but who knows? So I do apologise if I appear to be ignoring you - there's some kind of technical fault and I've no idea how to fix it.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Stand and Deliver!

Although England’s most infamous highwaymen, like Dick Turpin, ended their careers on the ‘fatal tree’ at Tyburn long before Jane Austen was born, their lurid exploits were still legendary.  Highwaymen were no longer numerous but were still a force to be reckoned with. Mail-coachmen were armed with blunderbusses, and gentlemen travellers carried pistols with them when crossing areas infested by these mounted robbers.

In 1793 a highwayman was on the prowl not far from Jane Austen’s Steventon home. That same year Mrs Bramston, a friend of the Austens, was very upset after being robbed and threatened by a footpad at gunpoint at Overton, not far from Steventon. Footpads were renowned for their viciousness because they sometimes killed their victims so they could not testify against them later.  A few years later the Revd. Charles Powlett, who was well known to the Austens, fell victim to a Surrey highwayman and lost a valuable watch and money.

Dr Syntax attacked by footpads. 

It was customary to hang up executed malefactors’ bodies in chains. These gruesome remnants of humanity were a familiar sight for travellers, and Jane Austen could hardly have avoided seeing them on her journeys.

For example, one frosty winter’s night in January 1796, teenage post-boy John Stanton was carrying the Warrington mail when he was stopped by two men on horseback near Helsby in Cheshire. The men tied him to a tree and said he was being watched: if he tried to escape they would slice off his arm.
Highwayman Higgins' house at Knutsford. Copyright Sue Wilkes.

Stanton eventually escaped, and highwaymen Thomas Brown (twenty-six) and James Price (nineteen) were caught.  A few weeks later they were ‘launched into eternity in the presence of an immense multitude’ at Chester (Chester Chronicle, 6 May 1796). Their corpses were hung in chains on Trafford Green, and their bones rattled in the wind for over twenty years.

But the age of the highwayman was waning. The last recorded attack by a robber on horseback in England was near Taunton (Somerset) in 1831.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review of Gone to the Continent: The British in Calais 1760–1860

‘Dessein’s’ hotel in Calais was immortalized by Laurence Sterne’s novel, A Sentimental Journey, first published in 1768. The hotel was run by Pierre Dessin and his family.  
In Gone to the Continent, Martin Brayne gives us a series of snapshots of British travellers’ experiences at this romantic destination.

Fans of Georgian and early Victorian social history will find much to enjoy in this engaging exploration of the L’Hotel d’Angleterre’s visitors. Calais was the start and end point for thousands of Brits journeying on the Continent, whether for business or pleasure.

Visitors included young barristers like Harry Peckham; the poet William Wordsworth, with his sister Dorothy and wife Mary; and novelist Fanny Burney (Mme D’Arblay).  Using original sources and contemporary letters and diaries, Brayne relates the perils of the Channel crossing; seasickness; the battles with petty officialdom; food and drink; and theatrical performances in the hotel. Famous debtors like Beau Brummel, Emma Hamilton and Charles James Apperley (Nimrod) also stayed in the hotel after fleeing their creditors in England.

I enjoyed the book immensely. I was particularly interested by the story of the Nottinghamshire lace-makers who settled in France and set up factories there, in an attempt to escape the post-Waterloo economic slump at home. (Nottingham was home to Luddite attacks on machinery during this period). Later, during the 1848 revolution in France, many of these English families returned home. However, there are still lace-makers in Calais today, some descended from these English migrants.

The book has several charming contemporary illustrations (some plates are in colour), and contains detailed references, a bibliography, and appendices.

As Brayne says, ‘The Calais of Sterne and Mrs Thrale, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Beau Brummell and Harriette Wilson, Thackeray and Dickens has long since disappeared but thanks to what is written by and of them, they can still be seen dining at Dessein’s, sauntering about the Place d’Armes or strolling on the sands.
Old Calais lives on’.

Monday, 6 March 2017

No Dreaming Spires for Jane!

My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine discusses the limited education available for girls and women in late Georgian times. Jane and her sister Cassandra could not go to university like their father George, and brothers James and Henry, who went to St John’s College, Oxford.
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford. 

Girls’ education was designed to prepare them for the marriage ‘market’ and their future lives as wives and mothers. Authors like Mary Wollstonecraft and Catherine Macaulay argued passionately that girls should have as good an education as boys - but no higher education colleges were open to women until over three decades after Jane Austen's death.
Cartoon: ‘Farmer Giles & his wife shewing off their daughter Betty to their neighbours, on her return from school. Gillray, 1809. Courtesy Library of Congress LC-USZC2-3803.

Update 7 March: For some reason none of my replies to comments are showing online - so many thanks to Tony for all the informative comments!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey, 1833.
One of the odd things about Austen's novels, letters and diaries is that she seemingly never mentions Bath Abbey, even though she must have walked past it many times, and perhaps even attended divine service there.
Visitors today don't see the Abbey as Jane would have known it; the building was re-modelled by George Manners in the 1830s, and restored in the 1860s and 1870s by that serial 'improver' of ancient churches, George Gilbert Scott.
The Abbey, also known as the church of St Peter and St Paul, may have been founded as early as 675; there's a
timeline here on the Abbey website. 
The Abbey in the 1890s. 

During Jane Austen's day, services were held daily at 11am; the tower had a peal of ten bells. In 1785 (when Jane was ten years old), several Sunday Schools were set up in Bath; one was attached to the Abbey Church. Within a few years, over 500 children attended the schools (they had to be recommended by a subscriber to be able to attend).