Look down and see what death is doing — Paulina of the dead Hermione, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, Act III
Jane Austen’s tomb and ledger at Winchester Cathedrale
Dear friends and readers,
Cassandra’s moving eloquent letter, what today would be called “grief-work.” Jane wrote her last work, a poem July 15th, Wednesday, and she died in the small hours between night and morning, July 18th, 1817.
The four novels she managed to publish; she left behind ms’s of sufficiently finished novels for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, as well as several unfinished or first drafts of novels, her juvenilia, poems, stray satire (“Plan of a Novel”) and two-thirds as many letters as we have now.
Cassandra (Greta Scacchi) facing Fanny Knight Austen (Imogen Poots) shortly after Jane’s death (2008 Miss Austen Regrets)
CEAl1. From Cassandra Austen to Fanny Knight. Sunday 20 July 1817 Winchester Sunday
From the opening we gather that Fanny has been doubting whether Aunt Jane really loved her — Fanny has picked up the distanced stance Austen shows in some of her letters to Fanny and probably has also discussed some of what happened when the Fanny and Jane were together at Godmersham and Henry’s lodgings/houses in London. Cassandra is concerned to persuade Fanny otherwise; Cassandra also asserts that Fanny’s “benevolent” purpose was useful: Aunt Jane enjoyed Fanny’s letters. I am drawn by the attempt not to say untruths: Jane Austen is described as reacting “not unchearfully.” That does not mean cheerfully.
She was fatally ill and those dying often begin to cut themselves off from life and the living, whether to preserve their strength or what nature does as the active body and mind begin to lose their energy to react and to perceive. So she did not show the interest in the final letters Cassandra claims she was roused by earlier.
Jane died Friday, the 18th and it was on Tuesday “her complaint” returned — whatever was the central core pain; she slept much of the last days. Again that is said to be common. The dying sleep more and more.
Then the famous passage — how much Jane meant to Cassandra, precisely what she meant to her. It is less often pointed out that the sentence ends with one of these comments I find outrageous if it is literally meant and I fear it is.
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, & 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 & negligent of others, & I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the hand which has struck this blow.
Cassandra conceives there is a supernatural being who has inflicted on Jane Austen, another person from herself, an early death in hideous pain, the humiliation of her twisted and weakened body to teach Cassandra a moral lesson. Were that so, were there such a malevolent irrational unjust creature; if people could, they ought to hunt it from the universe (much as we are encouraged to envision heroes and heroines in Dracula stories hunt out the vampire). There are some ideas it is our duty not to defer to — I refer to the way such ideas function socially, they distract from action to do something about whatever it is that has killed the person if this is possible. Psychoanalytically one might understand such trains of thought as strongly narcissistic or therapeutically masochistic, the person finds comfort in imagining there is some meaning here focused on her, feels guilty she is still alive, does not want to believe the death is natural and meaningless and determines she is punished this way. That Cassandra could write such a sentence, shows the difference between her mind and her sister’s. No where in Austen’s writings does she avail herself of this kind of literal nonsense.
I find it interesting as a revelation that Cassandra says she will not suffer materially from her feelings. Is that so? She is presented as stoic by Austen much earlier too — when Tom Fowles died. Perhaps a stance of self-control, or maybe she was inclined not to give way to feelings psychosomatically. It is also said that sometimes the person deeply involved with the beloved is so stunned as to experience a kind of “novacaine” effect: they are in a state of near hysteria, PTSD, so as to be at a distance from the death, not realize it cognitively fully until weeks or months later when this first state wears off.
We then have a depiction of the dying itself — which I would be inclined to believe unqualifiedly in except that we do have that poem on Winchester races — so it was not all piety, gratitude and acceptance. The poem was apparently composed or dictated on the 15th so perhaps the writing and mood occurred before the “complaint” came back so forcefuly and Austen went into her last phase. I’m told (and have seen) that sometimes before the onset of death moves into the very worst of the ordeal, there is a suddenly very good day (insofar as strength, consciousness, being there and alive are concerned).
Over the course of this year and a half we have enough evidence to visualize a radical deterioration of Austen’s body and looks, especially towards the end. Around the time of the famous phrase about her mother having the couch and she three chairs propped with pillows (not in Cassandra’s selection but from either the Austen papers or RA Austen-Leigh’s book) we can see she is so weak she cannot sit up. Imagine what that looks like. The last half year and more there is a nephew around to carry her. She tells us she is every wrong color. Beyond the ordeal of severe intolerable pain (opium doesn’t get rid of that, and makes you drugged; it’s cocaine that does the trick and that does not come in until the later 19th century — and is today forbidden medicine, a great cruelty I’ll mention here as part of the endlessly stupid and counterproductive so-called war on drugs) – beyond that ordeal it’s humiliating to have your body look the way it does. That’s why Austen does not refer to it.
Imagine too how exhausted she would have been. Go back to the picture that Cassandra drew of her when she was in health. The dark eyes, the intensity, the lack of sleep — she suffered bad headaches and troubles with her eyes when in health.
Cassandra says she has nothing to reproach herself with insofar as these last hours are concerned, she did not willfully shirk any thing she could do for her sister. That means sometimes she too was too exhausted and had to rely on Mary Lloyd Austen and Martha Lloyd. There is no mention of Martha in this letter (ever discreet Cassandra), but in Jane’s last letters there are ambiguous references to Martha, one of which suggests she was with Jane and Cassandra in May. Whether Martha was still there the last week we cannot know. Edward visited, James, Henry was in and out and there on Friday.
Jane was begging for death just before, saying she could hardly have patience, was near beyond endurance. Had they had anesthesia she would have been begging for it — but that mercy was not available to her either. Only oblivion and in those last hours she is recorded as saying that”s what she craved — death.
On the Thursday Austen had been anxious about some errand that Cassandra did — one wonders what it was that bothered her as she lays dying. Fanny is under the impression that Cassandra wrote Charles that day, no it was Mrs Austen, the mother. After that Austen lost it altogether from pain and Lyford came with opium, enough to make her insensible. The concluding ordeal. Cassandra sat with Jane’s body and head in her lap — Jane she could not hold up her head.
Didn’t they have pillows? Could not they have made a sort of bolster? If so, if they had, apparently her head could not be stable enough to satisfy them. It rolled and so Cassandra did 6 hours, Mary Lloyd Austen 2 and Cassandra until Jane died. Cassandra was gratified to be the one who closed her eyes. There is no mention of when Austen’s heart stopped beating — that’s death.
And then we get this image of “a beautiful statue” — which is how Cassandra wants to see it and maybe did. A sweet serene air quite pleasant to contemplate. But the dead do not look like Madame Tussaud’s wax figurines. They look like corpses and it’s creepy. Remains of real people who lived and whatever happened to them. A lot of people can’t bear to see the corpse when rigor mortis sets in and it does so pretty quickly. Some people go ston-y, some look like mummies (the elderly) and some if it’s a gradual decrease of blood pressure and the body dies bit by bit (as apparently Alexandre d’Arblay did) some of the extremities can look like puffy wax. Cassandra does not want to articulate what she saw as she looked down to see what death was doing; she preferred to see in the oblivion, the absence at long last of the terrible pain — Jane knew no more — a serene look, which is often claimed as a sign the person went to heaven.
For a second time she addresses Fanny on the assumption that Fanny is feeling all she is, the first time to say she hopes she is not upsetting her, the second time with the usual Christian metaphors — she has forgotten what she said earlier when she uses the word “merciful.” The truth is she is not thinking about her words literally. Cassandra does not talk about sleeping or resting — she could not fool herself as she had been through it with her sister. She does earlier use the phrase “the poor suffering soul.” It has the ring of a priest’s rhetoric.
I offer Shakespeare’s tough line, who if you read him is ever accurate: In Winter’s Tale Paulina looking down at the dead Hermione: Look down and see what death is doing — in this case “and what the ravages of disease have done.”
The following Thursday would be the funeral — Maggie Lane describes it in her Jane Austen’s Family through Five Generations; she quotes part of letter by Edward, Jane’s brother, to his son, several days before where Edward reports that Jane knew her situation, that Mrs Austen was intensely grieved but nothing compares to Cassandra’s affliction; he says Jane is much altered since James-Edward has seen her last — Caroline’s Reminiscences suggests that this was so by the spring: she was allowed to come upstairs briefly and registers a shock. (The scene is the one where Jane offers a chair to the married woman as opposed to herself, unmarried.) Edward too denies there was “very severe pain.” It does seem as if Jane Austen was one who lost blood pressure gradually: “Lyford said he saw no signs of immediate dissolution but added that with such a pulse — 120 — it was impossible for any person to last long.”
The casket seems to have been carried by Edward, Henry and Frank and James-Edward. Charles not there. He is often not there, the one further away in all Jane’s letters. James was too ill to come again, but wrote a poem entitled “Venta! within thy sacred fane” (which suggests he had read his sister’s last poem); he does convey awareness and envy that his sister’s gifts were fulfilled (a woman’s) and not his (as others have said), but also love and appreciation of her, a deep sense that to have had her around was a kind of gift. Like Henry, he is also concerned that everyone should know her satiric bent (which people must have known about) never “hurt the feelings of a friend:”
In her (rare union) were combined
A fair form and a fairer mind
Hers, Fancy quick, and clear good sense
And wit which never gave offence:
A Heart as warm as ever beat,
A Temper even calm and sweet:
Though quick and keen her mental eye
Poor natures foibles to descry
And seemed for ever on the watch
Some traits of ridicule to catch.
Yet not a word she ever pen’d
Which hurt the feelings of a friend
And not a line she ever wrote
“Which dying she would wish to blot,”
But to her family alone
Her real & genuine worth was known:
Yes! They whose lot it was to prove
Her Sisterly, her Filial love,
They saw her ready still to share
The labours of domestic care
As if their prejudice to shame;
Who jealous of fair female fame
Maintain, that literary taste
In womans mind is much displaced;
Inflames their vanity and pride,
And draws from useful work aside.
Such wert Thou, Sister! whilst below
In this mixt scene of joy and woe,
To have thee with us it was given
A special kind behest of Heaven …
The usual custom was followed and only the men were at the burial. Perhaps Mary Lloyd and Cassandra washed the corpse and dressed it, covered it with sheets.
To us it may seem somehow unusual that someone should be buried in the cathedral (we think how crowded it could get) but apparently in this era not so. Austen was related to clergy, her mother had relatives in academia and the aristocracy, Henry was now a curate. He was back and forth, had been there by the Friday. Henry is still there, will go to Chawton Monday and be back with Cassandra on Tuesday.
She says she didn’t mean to write at length but the subject compelled her. I am mot sure which Mrs Bridges (Fanny’s mother’s family) is to be “remembered kindly to Cassandra,” who is with Fanny. As usual LeFaye does not tell us. One has to wade through a family history in the appendix and guess the woman as Jane Hales from the J.
Again Diane Reynolds was the only person on the list to write about the letter as a whole: I thank her for keeping up the reading and discussion with me until the end.
JA has died two days before, on a Friday. Cassandra is still in the first shock after the death, what we might call a liminal state, and means only to write a short note amid all the business at hand. However, she ends up writing a longer epistle, one that she says gives her comfort or “draws her on” — the words will pour out.
Ellen has covered this quite well. I can’t, however, help but repeat a few points and perhaps add a bit, for this is a long letter. I canthink of few more sincere — or better — expressions of a lifetime of a loving relationship than this: “I have lost a treasure, a Sister, a friend such as never can be surpassed,–She was the sun of my life, the gilder of any pleasure, the soother of every sorrow, I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part ofmyself.” If Jane Austen had never written a word, such an ability to enter into a long-lasting loving relationship with another gave her life dignity and worth. Any one who has lost a dearly loved other — or who dearly loves another — can only respond with a yes to Cassandra’s words. We see too that the sisters found in each other the kind of relationship one usually finds in a spouse — and we see in this the kind of emotional support, the buttress against loneliness, that allowed each to stay single, especially Jane when faced with Bigg Wither.
Yet we see too CA’s sang froid – -or at least stoicism — or attempt at it: “You know me too well to be at all afraid I should suffer materially from my feelings …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 cannot but think of Elinor Dashwood and to think that the genesis of her character (and Marianne’s) came from the discussions CA and JA must have had about histrionic people. Of course, CA will suffer deeply — how could she not — but it is true often in the first relief of a loved one in pain dying and amid all the immediate concerns, we think we will get over it easily. It is impossible to feel a loss until the person has been really gone for a time. Or perhaps CA knows all this and simply wants to comfort Fanny.I also read in this C’s desire not to be pitied, certainly not by this niece.
As is so often the case in death, it is the living who must be attended to and comforted, including Fanny, who must be reassured that Jane did love her. That reassurance is first and foremost on Cassandra’s mind and she addresses it in detail, going over the pleasure FK’s letters brought JA, and I note, along with Ellen, the
moments of faint praise–JA responded “not unchearfully” to Fanny’s last letter and was in a “languor” that dampened her enthusiasm. Fanny was not stupid, and she noted JA’s irritation with her. I can’t help but wonder if a worried letter from FK had recently arrived that C here addresses and later burnt.
As she goes on to write, Cassandra says she hopes her recounting of JA’s last moments don’t “break your heart my dearest Fanny.” In some ways, Fanny is an intimate Cassandra can confide in — but in some ways a person who perhaps can be dumped on–perhaps Cassandra feels a bit of guilt that might indeed be saying what could break Fanny’s heart — or perhaps the hearts of people FK might share the letter with. Perhaps, however, she wants others beyond FK to read all this.
I am surprised that the funeral/burial will not be held until six days after the death — the body will be decomposing and smelling unpleasant unless some sort of embalming has been done. Were people embalmed at that time? We get the image of JA in her coffin with ” a sweet serene air over her countenance” — I can only imagine the open coffin in the rooms where they were/are staying. I know for a long time it was considered important that people die with a serene expression rather than in struggle — as people did and do — as it gave reassurance that the person had gone to heaven and was not fighting demons dragging them to hell. Cassandra repeats those conventionalized hopes, and with a note of sincerity, hopes to meet with Jane in the afterlife. She really can’t bear the thought of never seeing her again. I agree with Ellen that Cassandra must not be thinking entirely straight when she opines that JA’s death is a punishment or correction to CA for loving her too much and at the expense of others. She is distracted, trying to cope with her grief. Today, she might write in Buddhist terms of letting go of attachment — in either case, we can hardly in our better moments regret having loved deeply or feel that a loving God would punish that.
I thought that beyond Austen’s head moving back and forth, that the caretakers, especially Cassandra, took some comfort in being able to lay Jane’s head on their laps, though I also think it means Jane was tossing about a bit more than C lets on. To me, it bespeaks some struggle — I imagine it was more than “a slight motion,” but that she possibly was struggling through the opium to say something or struggling against death–that it was not an entirely serene passage. Anyway, it is impossible to know. Even if it gave them some comfort, I don’t think they would have rested her head on their laps for so long without some feeling of need. But again, this is speculation.
I too wonder what errand Jane was so anxious about on her deathbed that C had to run out and do it. I would love to know.
CA comes across to me as intelligent and canny, her chief conventionalities written to forestall any trouble from Fanny, as in, don’t worry if I have given you too many details, for “you will apply to the fountainhead for consolation … our merciful God is never deaf to such prayers as you will offer.” (Is this a bit of acid flattery, worthy of her sister–or is it sincere? There’s certainly a bit of flattery in assuring Fanny she is the first to be written to after Mrs. Austen.) I do read a bit of defiance in the assertion that Jane’s soul lies “in a far superior mansion” to Winchester Cathedral, and find it telling that her burial there “satisfies” because JA admired the building so much rather than out of religious sentiment about being closer to God in a sanctuary. I also read a bit of acid in her hopes that none of her brothers “suffer lastingly from their pious exertions” in attending the funeral. It would, at the very least, be human to wonder why Jane and not them?
The funeral will be early, so as not to interfere with church services, and CA will head back to Chawton right afterwards, having no reason to stay in Winchester. Henry will soon be at Chawton — CA thinks that will help. I am imagining the mother at Chawton. It seems as if she is not to attend the funeral? That seems hard to believe but perhaps it was too much for her.
I am glad we have this letter.
Extract from the diary of Mary Austen, nee Lloyd, (1771-1843)
17 July 1817 “Jane Austen was taken for death about ½ past 5 in the Evening”
18 July 1817 Jane breathed her last ½ after four in the morn; only Cass[andra] and I were with her. Henry came, Austen & Ed came, the latter returned home”
Hampshire Record Office ref 23M93/62/1/8
I too am glad we have this letter. Sex is apparently no longer a forbidden subject — I say apparently because much about sex is still not truly discussed at all or distorted. But we still have a number of verboten ones: money, especially among friends and at work (that helps the employer enormously); particulars about religions and death — these two are everywhere in Cassandra’s letter and the whole text becomes a source of anxiety as well as controversy if we deconstruct its layers.