Today is the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. She died on the 18th July 1817 in a rented house, Number 8 College Street, Winchester, where she had gone from Chawton in order to seek better medical attention.
Mr Curtis, the apothecary in Alton, the small town near to Chawton, who had treated Jane Austen, had admitted he no longer knew how to deal with her illness. She therefore moved to Winchester on 24th May, and there she was attended by Mr Giles King Lyford. He was the Surgeon-in-Ordinary at the Country Hospital in the city. At first his ministrations seemed to be effecting a little improvement in her condition. She wrote to her nephew, James Edward Austen on the 27th May,1817:
Mr Lydford says he will cure me & if he fails I shall draw up a Memorial & lay it before the Dean and Chapter & have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned & Disinterested Body.
Sadly, Mr Lydford did not cure her, and this plaque marks the spot where she died:
She was -as she almost foresaw in her ironic remark to James Edward- buried in Winchester Cathedral: College Street was(and still is) just outside the walls of the Cathedral close.
She was buried in the North Aisle. But there are not one, but three memorials to her in this part of the cathedral, an extraordinary situation, and it is interesting to discover how and why these memorials proliferated.
For years this sombre gravestone, below, was the only memorial to her, and it failed, quite spectacularly, to mention her genius or her works:
The words on the gravestone were composed by Jane Austen’s brother, Henry Austen. No one knows why he failed to mention her genius here, for he certainly mentioned it in the obituary notice of her which he is thought to have written and which appeared in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal of the 28th July 1817:
On Friday the 18th inst., died in this city, Miss Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Rev.George Austen, Rector of Steventon, in this county, and the Authoress of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Sensibility. Her manners were most gentle, her affections ardent, her candour was not to be suppressed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian.
Eventually a second memorial was erected in the cathedral to her memory. The profits from James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt, published in 1870, paid for a brass memorial tablet to be created and installed near to Jane Austen’s Grave in the north aisle:
The brass plate was designed by James Wyatt,and finally made a small mention of her writings. But this was still not enough, it seems, to fittingly commemorate her. In 1898 a request for donations by way of public subscription, with an individual limit of 5 guineas, was made in a letter to The Times, and it was signed by the Earl of Selborne, Lord Northbrook, W.W B Beach and Montague G. Knight of Chawton, in order that a memorial window could be erected in Jane Austen’s memory in addition to the two existing memorials. This window was designed by Charles Eager Kempe, and was installed in the north wall directly above Jane Austen’s memorial tablet:
The imagery in the window is astounding, and I should imagine, for many visitors to the Cathedral, difficult to interpret today. At the head of the window is a figure of St. Augustine, whose name in its abbreviated form is St Austin. It is therefore a visual pun on Jane Austen’s surname. The central figure in the top row of the window is King David playing his harp. Directly under him is St John, who displays his Gospel, opened at the first words: “In the beginning was the Word…” A latin inscription to Jane Austen is also included, and this can be translated as follows:
Remember in the Lord Jane Austen who died July 18th A.D. 1817.
The figures in the four remaining lights are the sons of Korah who each carry a scroll upon which are inscribed sentences in Latin which allude to the religious nature of Jane Austen’s character. How interesting that even in this window the references to her genius are oblique by today’s standards. And I do often wonder how many visitors to her grave notice the window, for there is only a small notice to the side of the brass tablet which explains it significance. How fascinating to see how, as her fame rose, the memorials to her got greater in size, but were not necessarily plain acknowledgments of her genius.
I suppose, however, that her true memorials are her works, and her words, for which I give daily thanks.