As some of you know, this year is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s much-too-early death, and many of the faithful are noting events leading up to the end as they pass on the calendar. Yesterday (May 24th), for example, marked the day when Jane left her home in Chawton for what would turn out to be the last time, seeking medical help in Winchester, where she later died.
Jane loved her Chawton Cottage home (which she shared with her mother, sister Cassandra, and friend Martha), and it must have been very painful indeed to leave it, knowing she might never see it again.
Many were the tears shed by them in their last adieus to a place so much beloved. ‘Dear, dear Norland!’ said Marianne, as she wandered alone before the house on the last evening of their being there. ‘When shall I cease to regret you, when learn to feel a home elsewhere? Oh, happy house! Could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from whence perhaps I may view you no more!’ (Sense and Sensibility, chapter 5)
Reading the recent posts about Jane’s move to Winchester (such as this one at the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation) brought back to my mind when I had researched this time in her life for The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen. I took the known facts, filled in from imagination what it must have been like for Jane to leave her home, and then wrote the scene. It seemed appropriate to share it with you today.
So here is most of chapter 31 from The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen, strategically edited to avoid spoilers (since my version of events in this book departs from the historical record in surprising but happily plausible ways!). Jane Austen tells the story in her own words:
I woke feeling far more tired than when I had gone to sleep, and I was so weak that I could not get out of bed. Within days, the dark blotches, which I could never have feigned, obligingly re-appeared on my skin. The only conscious effort I had to make to advance my objective was to no longer hide what I was feeling. Now, when my back ached, I groaned aloud instead of stifling myself. Now, I did not bother to deny that I was very ill indeed.
My family was genuinely concerned at this most frightening turn, as indeed was I. And, when the limited talents of the local medical man yielded no appreciable result, Mama’s mind was made up for Winchester without my even having to suggest it.
Although the course of action required was decided quickly enough, it could not be enacted without considerable exertion. Letters had to be written – one to Mr. Lyford to warn him of my coming, and another to James to secure the loan of his carriage to take me thither. Winchester lodgings had also to be found. Then there was the packing together of all that Cassandra and I might need for a stay from home of undetermined duration, and the funds necessary to support us through it.
All these arrangements I observed and yet was powerless to assist in. Mama, Martha, Cassandra, and Henry: they all buzzed and fussed about me, fulfilling my every need and providing every tender comfort within their reach. And the others rallied round as well, visiting and contributing what they could.
It is a humbling thing to find oneself utterly helpless, and yet it can be a gift as well. One who is too proud to admit a weakness will never experience the compassionate care of others. It is only when that person is brought low, dropped to the bottom of a deep pit, that he or she will look up for relief and find it.
Such a one was I, although I did not know it before then. I had privately taken satisfaction in my own abilities and often thought myself a cut above my company – not perhaps by society’s standards, but by my own. Now where were my grounds for boasting? What benefit to me was my intellect in this situation? Could I think myself well again? When I was unable to even raise my head from the pillow, could I by my own efforts expect to add one minute to the length of my life?
Only God could do that. He would ultimately decide the length and course of my days. In the meantime, He had already sent his ministering angels round me, I perceived, in the form of my friends. I had never known such tenderness and love as they showed me through my illness. Or perhaps it had been there all along, and I had failed to properly appreciate it. In any case, I understood as never be-fore that I was blessed. And there were moments when I felt as if I might wish for nothing better than to die there, peacefully, at home, and cradled in the bosom of such a family.
But we are not made that way. We are made to cling to life so long as there is hope. And I still had the hope of getting well and the hope of seeing Captain Devereaux again. These things compelled me to continue forward, to not give in just yet.
So, I said goodbye to my mother, knowing it would be, in all likelihood, the last time I would see her on this side of heaven, and I allowed myself to be carried off to Winchester. Cassandra travelled with me in my brother James’s carriage, with Henry and my nephew William riding escort alongside.
“They will surely be soaked clean through,” I said as I watched the rain running down the windows, heard it pattering on the roof of the coach. I was reclined on the makeshift bed that had been arranged for me, bridging across from one set of seats to the opposite. Poor Cassandra was crushed into the little space leftover. “If I were not such a wretched invalid, we could all have ridden inside where is it dry. What a bother I am.”
“Don’t be silly, Jane,” she replied, straight faced. “If you were not an invalid, we would hardly be going to Winchester in the first place.”
She meant it in jest, I knew, and I laughed at her joke – one more proof that she really is the witty one. “Of course, you are right,” I agreed. “It would seem that even my mind is failing me now. More evidence of what I was saying, Cass. I am become a dreadful burden, especially to you.”
“Let us have no more of this kind of talk. It is for me to decide if I am overburdened, not you. And I can always call on Mary to help with the nursing if it becomes more than I can manage.”
I sighed. “I think we can hardly stop her coming. She sounded so determined in her letter,” said I, referring to the note that had arrived from Steventon parsonage along with the carriage, wherein my sister-in-law had volunteered her services.
“Now, Jane, although Mary is not a favourite with you, you ought to be grateful for her kind offer.”
“I know you are right, and I am grateful, but I fear she will become a complication we can ill afford…”
…We jostled along several minutes in relative silence, with only hoof beats, the jingle of harness, and the creaking of the carriage timbers to fill our ears…
…I felt excitement building in my chest as we neared our destination. I began thinking less of difficulties and of what I had left behind, and more for what lay ahead. It would be an adventure either way. I had always liked Winchester for its own sake – the beautiful cathedral especially. Now it was where my fate would be decided. In Winchester, God willing, I would see Captain Devereaux again. Perhaps he was in town already. That thought set my heart to fluttering despite my weariness.
We stopped at Mr. Lyford’s house in Parchment Street only long enough for Henry to go to the door and announce our arrival.
“Lyford said he would come to you tomorrow morning,” Henry reported upon his return to the carriage.
We drove on to College Street, where we had arranged to rent rooms, but attaining those rooms was no easy task. In my dependent state, I had to nearly be carried up the narrow flight of stairs. I was especially glad for young William’s presence then, for it was an awkward business and I doubt as to Henry’s being able to have managed it on his own. Once more I apologised for my helplessness, and once more I was assured that my friends considered it a privilege to be of service to me.
The best feature of our apartment was the neat little drawing room, which boasted a bow window with a view to the street, the old city wall, and Dr. Gabell’s garden. It was a pleasant room, but as I looked about myself I could not help wondering if I would ever leave that place again. Were those four walls, with the faded paisley paper peeling at the seams, the last sight my eyes would behold before closing forever? If so, the glories of heaven were sure to be the more impressive for the dramatic contrast.
I had no complaints, however. My surroundings did not signify… I was content in knowing that I would have a secure place to rest my head and the care of my friends.
If you think this is all too sad to bear, I agree with you. That’s the main reason I wrote The Persuasion of Miss Jane Austen in the first place. It’s dedicated to every fan who has wished Jane Austen herself might have enjoyed the romance and happy ending she so carefully crafted for all of her heroines. I have endeavored to grant that wish!