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Thursday, 10 November 2016

Jane Austen's Final Years at Chawton

Jane Austen's final years - spent at Chawton in the house that is now the Jane Austen Museum - were the great productive years of her writing career.

So how did Jane Austen spend those final 411 weeks of her life when her home was the cottage at Chawton? Many early mornings, she 'loosened up' by playing the piano for a short while. Then she spent several hours in concentrated effort on her writing. Cassandra, Martha Lloyd, her mother and the couple of household servants must have been tremendously supportive in making sure Jane was never burdened with too much in the way of domestic duties and in protecting her from visitors 'from Porlock'. She must have needed (and we know she took) the occasional break - the walk to the shops in Alton, a call on such neighbours as Miss Papillon or Miss Benn (both of them clergymen's sisters). She also went for extended visits to her brothers (taking her writing with her). 

For most of the time during those 411 weeks - until, she became too ill - she must have been wrapped up in the development of her private worlds. I doubt whether there was much else to get excited about in Chawton, with no television, no internet, and living in a village consisting of only forty houses and a population of 347, most of whom (according to the census returns) were various kinds of labourers.

From the small number of Jane’s surviving scraps of manuscripts, much can be inferred about her writing technique. Paper was precious and, although she wrote very neatly, she folded it into booklet-like sheets and crammed them with words. She appears to have written first drafts quite fast and at a later date to have revised, making amendments with numerous crossings-out and insertions. These show how determined she was to achieve maximum precision and sentences that flowed easily when read aloud. Sometimes, when a bigger correction was needed, she would pin a carefully-cut piece of paper over the original passage. What a shame it is that she did not live long enough to complete and revise such novels as The Watsons and Sanditon.

Her niece Marianne (born in 1801) commented on Jane's stay at Godmersham in 1813: 'Aunt Jane would sit very quietly at work, then suddenly burst out laughing, jump up, cross the room to a distant table with papers lying on it, write something down, returning presently and sitting down quietly to her work'.

Jane was an excellent mentor, entertainer and unofficial stepmother to her nephews and nieces, several of whom were still young when they lost their mothers.

In 1812, Jane completed Pride and Prejudice (it was published in 1813) and started Mansfield Park. She hoped it would bring her £150.

Although Jane published her novels anonymously, her proud brother Henry revealed her identity. Before she died, there were a couple of years when she received some praise from the discerning and from the great and the good. In 1815, the Prince Regent let her know he would be willing to have her next book dedicated to him. Though she was no fan of his, she obliged – with Emma.

Jane Austen was hardly touched by criticism or praise (as her resistance to the suggestions made by the Revd. James Stanier Clarke - the Prince Regent's Librarian - well illustrates).

Towards the end of 1816, the illness of which Jane had recently become aware began to worsen. With her own form of Christian stoicism, she continued to write cheerful letters. The front she turned to society was all gaiety and fun. In January 1817, she began writing Sanditon but had to abandon it after only two months. By then she was too weak even to go for a walk.

On May 24, she was taken to Winchester to be treated; but she died there on July 18, at the age of just forty-one. Hardly in keeping with her modest character, Jane Austen is buried in the north aisle of the longest nave in Europe, in Winchester Cathedral. The inscription identifies her only as a daughter of the late Revd. George Austen, praises her bravery, sweetness and 'extraordinary endowments of her mind' but fails to mention that she was one of England's greatest writers.

Three days before she died, in her sick-room in Winchester, Jane composed a comic poem called When Winchester Races. Her sister wrote it down at Jane's dictation. There had been a long spell of rain so the poem is about the Winchester races being washed out by an annoyed St. Swithin. It is pleasant to picture the two sisters having a final laugh together. The sheet of paper is now in the New York Public Library. In the poem come the lines:

When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!

There are two touching points about these lines. First, the word 'gone' seems to have been substituted for 'dead', which would have been correct (to rhyme with 'said'). Perhaps Cassandra could not bring herself to write 'dead'. Secondly, these two lines – and only these two – are underlined. Cassandra must have done this as a tribute to her sister when she died shortly afterwards.

So, after a peaceful childhood, followed by some unsettled years, and never marrying, Jane Austen did not begin to be known as a novelist until she was 35, when Sense and Sensibility was printed at her own expense; and only six years later, sinking under her incurable illness (possibly leukaemia, possibly Addison's disease, possibly the consequence of a lymphoma), she died.

During her lifetime, only four of her principal novels were published. After Jane's death, her brother Henry supervised the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.