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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.