Monday, 11 July 2016

Jane Austen's Move to Bath; and the Death of Her Father There

Jane Austen grew up in Steventon, Hampshire, where her father was the vicar. The family's move to Bath, on her father's retirement in 1801, is generally thought to have been a blow to Jane.
However, with her cheerful disposition, she accepted it fairly quickly. In January (Letter 29) she writes to her sister Cassandra: I get more and more reconciled to the idea of our removal. We have lived long enough in this Neighbourhood, the Basingstoke Balls are certainly in the decline, there is something interesting in the bustle of going away, & the prospect of spending future summers by the Sea or in Wales is very delightful

Jane took pride in her robust health. She enjoyed walking and, when in Lyme Regis, went sea-bathing. She writes to Cassandra from Lyme on September 14, 1804 (Letter 39): It was absolutely necessary that I should have the little fever and indisposition, which I had; – it has been all the fashion this week in Lyme ... The Bathing was so delightful this morning & Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long ....

The death in Bath four months later of Jane's father on Monday, January 21, 1805, was sudden and a terrible shock. She wrote the same day to her brother Captain Francis Austen, whom she believed to be at Dungeness. Hearing the following day that he had sailed round to Portsmouth, she had to send the same news again. Both letters have survived and are in the British Library. They are tender and heartfelt, naturally sombre, seeking comfort in the fact that her father did not endure a long period of suffering. Jane describes how the Revd. Austen developed a fever on Saturday, seemed better on Sunday, even talking and reading, and then relapsed. He died at nine on Monday morning: Heavy as is the blow, we can already feel that a thousand comforts remain to us to soften it. Next to that of the consciousness of his worth & constant preparation for another World, is the remembrance of his having suffered, comparatively speaking, nothing. – Being quite insensible of his own state, he was spared all the pain of separation, & he went off almost in his Sleep (Letter 40).

After the death of her father in Bath, Jane's tone mellows. Her letters become less scrappy and the flippancy fades. However, Jane always sought to entertain in her letters to Cassandra. Their shared sense of fun was important to her.

When the occasion demanded, she had to adopt a more serious tone. There were sad occasions, such as the letter of condolence to Philadelphia Walter in Sevenoaks on the loss of her father. It is formal but altogether kindly and appropriate: the very circumstance which at present enhances your loss, must gradually reconcile you to it the better; – the Goodness which made him valuable on Earth, will make him Blessed in Heaven (Letter 8).