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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Deaths Reported in Jane Austen's Letters

At a time of large families and brief life expectancy, in her private letters to her sister Cassandra Jane Austen had to report deaths with grim regularity. You will be sorry to hear that Marianne Mapleton's disorder has ended fatally; she was beleived out of danger on Sunday, but a sudden relapse carried her off the next day. – So affectionate a family must suffer severely; & many a girl on early death has been praised into an Angel I beleive, on slighter pretensions to Beauty, Sense and Merit than Marianne (Letter 38).

Deaths often resulted from childbirth. I believe I never told you that Mrs Coulthard and Anne, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary with this news (Letter 11). Mary is their sister-in-law (née Mary Lloyd), who gave birth before Jane finished writing this letter. The child was James Edward. Seventy years later, he was to write the first biography of Jane Austen.

In 1808, at Godmersham, where Jane had so often been a welcome visitor, Elizabeth, the wife of Jane's brother Edward, died twelve days after giving birth to her eleventh child, Brook-John. (Brook-John survived and lived to the age of seventy-six.)

Jane was deeply shocked to receive the news from Cassandra, who was at Godmersham. Quickly her thoughts moved to Fanny, the eldest child who at fifteen would have to become a mother to the others. My dear, dear Fanny! – I am so thankful that she has you with her! – you will be everything to her, you will give her all the Consolation that human aid can give (Letter 58). In her next letter she can picture the sad scene, poor Edward restless in Misery going from one room to the other – & perhaps not seldom upstairs to see all that remains of his Elizabeth. – Dearest Fanny must now look upon herself as his prime source of comfort, his dearest friend. Jane was extremely fond of Fanny. A few days earlier she had written I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another Sister, and could not have supposed that a Neice would ever have been so much to me (Letter 57).

Another sister-in-law died in childbirth: in 1814 Fanny, wife of the sailor brother Charles, gave birth to a fourth daughter in August. Fanny died a week later – a 'sad event' referred to in Letter 107. The baby survived for only two more weeks. (Six years later, Charles married his wife's elder sister and had four more children - including a Jane Austen, born in 1824. Alas, she lived for only one week. )

Reports of death are so frequent, squeezed between accounts of social events, that they can seem insensitive: Sir Tho: Miller is dead. I treat you with a dead Baronet in almost every Letter (Letter 145); ... there does not seem to be a great deal to relate of Tuesday. I had hoped there might be Dancing. – Mrs Budd died on Sunday Eveng. I saw her two days before her death, & thought it must happen soon (Letter 76).

After family bereavements, the strength of Jane's love for her nephews and nieces was a great support. In later life, they remembered her with deep affection. In Southampton, she tried to cheer Edward's sons Edward and George, aged 14 and 13, after the death of their mother: We do not want amusement; bilbocatch, at which George is indefatigable, spillikins, paper ships, riddles, conundrums, and cards, and watching the flow and ebb of the river, and now and then a stroll out, keep us well employed (Letter 60). She took them on the river and allowed them to row and their questions and remarks, as well as their enjoyment, were very amusing. In the evening, she introduced them to the game of ‘speculation’ and it was so much approved that we hardly knew how to leave off.

(In Mansfield Park, written shortly after, a game of Speculation is at the centre of Volume II, Chapter 7: Lady Bertram and Fanny are taught how to play by Henry Crawford. Fanny picks up the game rapidly but her ladyship proves a dull pupil. Elsewhere in this novel, we find Fanny playing cribbage with Lady Bertram - not the easiest of games for her ladyship, one would imagine!)

The boys took the game Speculation back to Kent. Jane affected disappointment on hearing it had been dropped there in favour of a game called 'Brag'. Later, both games lost their popularity in Kent, for she enclosed the following verses for Edward (Letter 65, 17 January, 1809):

'Alas! poor Brag, thou Boastful Game! What now avails thine empty name? – 
Where now thy more distinguish'd fame? – My day is o'er, & Thine the same. – 
For thou like me art thrown aside, At Godmersham, this Christmas Tide; 
And now across the Table wide, Each Game save Brag or Spec: is tried.' 
'Such is the mild Ejaculation, Of tender hearted Speculation.'