Jane Austen and Death


The remembrance of Jane Austen this year, two centuries after her death at 41 on July 18, 1817, seamlessly emerges as more a celebration of her life, in part because she has proved herself immortal, and in part because as a writer she dealt with death so seldom. Surprising, don’t you think, with death ever present during her time with no antibiotic cures available for even the commonly recurrent tuberculosis that snatched so many young lives. She had little time for mortality on her written page; this in contrast to novelists who came soon after her.

Deaths in novels by three near

contemporary authors

We all know that Charles Dickens (1812-1870) had his novels strewn with deaths, near deaths, starvation, horrible ill-treatment and forlorn orphans. True, he was a commentator on the social milieu of the time in sharp contrast to Jane Austen but his novels had an overabundance of death. A much read book by me: Great Expectations has three gruesome deaths of principal characters: Joe Gargary’s wife after being attacked by Orlick, Miss Havisham who set herself on fire and the benefactor convict Magwich failing to escape back to Australia after visiting Pip. The Tale of Two Cities is about the French Revolution and the guillotine which claimed many lives.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1818-1848) once considered the best novel in the English language has it fair share of suffering and death and in addition opens with a haunting and ends with two ghosts happily moving away. As you will remember, the owner of Wuthering Heights, Earnshaw, brings an orphan to be brought up with his daughter and son. Catherine and the untamed Heathcliff hit it off immediately and roam around the moors in joyful play while the son hates him. Catherine marries Edgar Linton and dies in childbirth soon after Heathcliff returns to live in Wuthering Heights and pays her a visit which turns passionate. He mourns Catherine for life and welcomes her ghost as it appears at a window in the house. When he dies he goes to her and the story ends with the two ghosts or spirits of these two who loved each other beyond even death, united to roam the moors freely. "By the time Wuthering Heights is over, the moor is littered with the bodies of characters who have perished of mismanaged ardor, with scarcely a housekeeper left to tell the tale," and as I mentioned, spirits and ghosties cavorting at night.

The next most famous novel to be considered is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855), first titled Jane Eyre: an autobiography. In it, though death is absent other social maladies are present. Jane Eyre is brought up by an uncle, hence obviously an orphan who is bullied by her aunt and cousins. Going to work as housekeeper to the unfathomable Mr Rochester brings both sunshine and dark to her life. She falls in love with Mr Rochester but discovers he is married and here Bronte brings in another social malady common in those pre-psychiatry days: insanity. Jane returns to Rochester and Bronte proves another point in Victorian novels: the death of parents could open the door to poverty, neglect and abuse or — a happier plot point — inheritance.

Death in Austen novels 

In Sense and Sensibility there are no deaths though Marianne – the over sensitive, emotion wracked sister of the sensible Elinor pushes herself to near death grieving over the feckless Wickham who has jilted her for an endowed girl. But this serious illness of Marianne matures her and changes her completely from emotional sensibility to a woman with a fair amount of sense. She realizes how selfish and self-absorbed she has been and thus a worry to Elinor who bears with good sense her almost losing her Edward Ferrars to the scheming Lucy Steele. Marianne admits to Elinor: "My illness, I well know, had been entirely brought on by myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave." There were older people in the novel like the ever-ebullient and kind Mrs Jennings and the stingy, hard-nut Mrs Ferrars (Snr). This last named could have been killed off by her novelist creator but Jane Austen actually seems reluctant to introduce death into her first novel of so many characters.

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s third novel, ends with the felicitous union of its heroine, Fanny Price, and her cousin Edmund Bertram, and so well deserved is their happiness that they might be forgiven for achieving it over someone’s dead body: "Equally formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures, their home was the home of affection and comfort; and to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living, by the death of Dr. Grant, occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience".

How ruthlessly Austen does it, sandwiching Dr. Grant’s last breath between the merits of Fanny’s and Edmund’s life — "country pleasures," "affection and comfort," "the picture of good" — and that pesky "inconvenience" of a lesser-paying job farther away from Mansfield Park than they would like. Dr. Grant exists to be dispensed with; in the end, he is nothing to Austen and her characters but an administrative hurdle. Death may have him, and he must suffer the indignity of being killed off in an aside in the novel’s penultimate sentence to boot.

Austen introduced to her novels sufferers of chronic illness: Mrs. Smith in Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s confidante, wise and infirm before her time; the invalids of Sanditon, Austen’s final, incomplete manuscript. She excelled at hypochondriacs: Mrs. Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, with her nerves; Mr. Woodhouse, in Emma, ever vigilant against a chill. And Colonel Brandon (35) in Sense and Sensibility, in love with Marianne, the liveliest of young women in the group at Barton, laughed at for wearing a waistcoat to prevent coughs!

Nor were her characters deaf to the rumble of time’s winged chariot: Anne Elliot’s vain father, Sir Walter, entertains a theatrical horror of aging. To him, crows’ feet and sun-damaged skin spell a fate worse than death.

The real death

As the Austen scholar Fiona Stafford writes: "By 1817, she had seen the lives of two first cousins, three sisters-in-law, her sister’s fiancé and her cousin’s husband all cut short. She had lost her father and mourned the deaths of aunts and friends. Her letters are scattered with references to stillbirths and miscarriages, to mothers who died in labor and to infants who succumbed soon afterwards." Austen’s preference, in comedic mode, was to concern herself more with friendship and courtship than with last rites. There’s sunshine and the downs of Dorset to walk around, the tea gatherings and yes, the shadows too of lost love and men’s fickleness. But death seems to be studiously avoided until her death was imminent which caused the end of her writing. Jane Austen put down her pen as a novelist on 18 March 1817. She was working on a comedy which skewered a new health fad at emergent English seaside resorts – ‘taking the waters’, as it was known. The book, Sanditon, halts partway through chapter 12 with an abruptness that suggests ill health was to blame rather than any artistic misgivings. Four months later, Austen died.

In a letter just five days after she stopped working on Sanditon , Austen wrote of having been "very poorly" with an assortment of ailments including fevers. "Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of Life," she chides herself, bravely wry at age 41. Though her tombstone alludes to a "long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian", her cause of death remained a mystery, despite the sleuthing efforts of several present-day physician fans until it was agreed she suffered from Addison’s disease and Hodgkins lymphoma. She died in Winchester, Hampshire, where she was taken to for treatment by Cassandra and a brother, with her head nestled in Cassandra’s lap. She was buried in Winchester Cathedral, a place of pilgrimage to those who admired her through two hundred years.

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