Thursday, 12 May 2016

Jane Austen's Final Illness, Her Death and Her Will

In 1817, at the age of only 41, Jane Austen began to sink under the weight of an illness that was incurable at the time. Possibly it was leukaemia, or possibly Addison's disease or possibly the consequence of a lymphoma.

Though seriously ill, she made light of her suffering and remained a spirited letter-writer for as long as she could hold a pen. In the middle of a lively letter to Fanny, dated 21 February 1817, she claims: I am almost entirely cured of my rheumatism; just a little pain in my knee now & then, to make me remember what it was, & keep on flannel. – Aunt Cassandra nursed me so beautifully! (Letter 151). Three weeks later, she claimed to be tolerably well ... quite equal to walking about & enjoying the Air; & by sitting down & resting a good while between my Walks, I get exercise enough. – I have a scheme however for accomplishing more, as the weather grows springlike. I mean to take to riding the Donkey (Letter 153). She did ride and reported: 'I took my 1st ride yesterday & liked it very much. I went up Mounters Lane, & round by where the new cottages are to be, & found the exercise & everything very pleasant, & had the advantage of agreable companions, as At Cass: & Edward walked by my side (Letter 155).

Six months before her death, she wrote to her eight-year-old niece Cassandra Esten Austen a letter to delight any child, since every word is spelled backwards, as in I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey (Letter 148).

Four months before her death, she told Fanny: I certainly have not been well for many weeks ... but am considerably better now, & recovering my Looks a little, which have been bad enough, black & white & every wrong colour. I must not depend upon being ever very blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of Life (Letter 155).

In April, Jane wrote her will, leaving virtually everything to her sister Cassandra. She bequeathed £50 to her financially-ruined brother Henry and £50 to a Madame Bigeon who had suffered in the collapse of Henry's bank.

Who was Madame Bigeon? I am indebted to post-graduate research student Simon Kirkpatrick for the following information (sent to me in April 2013): Madame de Bigeon was, apparently, first and foremost a nurse. Madame de Bigeon and her daughter had nursed Hastings Austen prior to his death in 1801. Madame de Bigeon nursed Eliza Austen (Henry Austen's wife) up to her death in 1813 and following that acted as housekeeper to Henry. When Henry's bank collapsed it was reported that some Austen servants had lost money. Simon states that, 'Whilst accepting that Madame de Bigeon and her daughter, Madame Perigord, were long-standing servants of Henry Austen and his deceased wife Eliza (Henry's first cousin), I have not yet seen any specific reference to the fact that Madame de Bigeon was a registered account holder at Henry's bank.'

By 22 May, Jane Austen wrote to her old friend Anne Sharpe (a former governess at Godmersham), I have since been very ill indeed. An attack of my sad complaint seized me – the most severe I ever had – & coming upon me after weeks of indisposition, it reduced me very low. In the letter, Jane praises her family for their loving attention. She says she is being taken on May 24 to Winchester for further treatment, for she is really a very genteel, portable sort of Invalid (Letter 159).

Three days after Jane's arrival in Winchester, she wrote to tell her nephew James-Edward she was sorry that her brother Henry and nephew William, who had ridden alongside her carriage, endured rain almost all the way. She believes she is gaining strength but admits her face and her handwriting have not yet recovered their proper beauty. She says the physician, Mr. Lyford, has promised to cure her, & if he fails I shall draw up a Memorial & lay it before the Dean & Chapter, & have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned & disinterested Body (Letter 160)! 'God bless you my dear Edward. If you are ever ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been, may the same Blessed alleviations of anxious, simpathising friends be Yours, & may you possess – as I dare say you will – the greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their Love. – I could not feel this. – Your very affec: Aunt, J.A..

Jane spent her final days at 8 College Street, Winchester, dying there on 18 July 1817. She was buried in the Cathedral. The gravestone makes no reference to her having been a writer. It reminds us of her modesty and reticence in opting for anonymity by omitting not only autobiography from her novels but also her name from their title pages.

It is not possible to identify her with any of her heroines. There is not even a novel written in the first person.

Incidentally, Jane’s will may be read at:


Jane’s letters are apparently available in facsimile form, though I have never seen the following volume:-

Jane Austen's Manuscript Letters in Facsimile: reproductions of every known extant letter, fragment, and autograph copy, with an annotated list of all known letters. Edited by Jo Modert. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1990.