This year, 2017, is the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death in July 1817. It is also the bicentenary of her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which were published posthumously in December 1817 – some 42 years after she was born.
Death at Winchester
Jane Austen was born in the Hampshire village of Steventon on 16th December 1775, and she lived in various places, such as Southampton and Steventon in Hampshire and Bath in Somerset. When she became seriously ill in April 1817, a physician from Winchester in Hampshire was consulted after the local doctor admitted defeat. On 24th May she travelled from her home at nearby Chawton to Winchester and took lodgings in a house in College Street, but her new physician was also unable to alleviate her symptoms. She died at her lodgings on 18th July 1817 and was buried in Winchester Cathedral six days later. The illness that caused her death is still debated.
At first, her grave in the cathedral was rather inconspicuous. The memorial slab in the floor of the north aisle has an inscription that describes her as the ‘youngest daughter of the late Revd George Austen, formerly Rector of Steventon’, and the only hint of her talent is the acknowledgement of the ‘extraordinary endowments of her mind’. Her career as a novelist is not mentioned. It was only later, as her novels achieved greater fame, that her nephew put a brass memorial on the wall of the cathedral, close to her grave. That was in 1870, but three decades later, in 1900, her work was so well known and loved that a public subscription was raised to pay for a memorial window.
A memorial to Jane Austen in Steventon Church, installed in 1936
Northanger Abbey is regarded as one of Jane Austen’s earlier novels, because she started it in 1798 – with the title Susan. In 1803 her brother Henry sold it to a publisher, and so she must have felt huge disappointment when they sat on the manuscript and did nothing with it. In 1816 Henry bought it back from the publisher, but by then Jane was working on another novel called The Elliots, which would become Persuasion.
When Northanger Abbey was finally published in 1817, it carried an ‘Advertisement by the Authoress’, in which it was stated that the novel was ‘finished in the year 1803’ but ‘the public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books and opinions have undergone considerable changes’. Readers today would perhaps not notice much difference between a novel of 1803 and another of 1817, but at the time changes in society were all too apparent. Apart from their merits as novels, the books of Jane Austen therefore have a historical value, precisely because she was writing contemporary books and not historical fiction. The ‘Advertisement’ shows the care that she took to ensure her work was immediately relevant to her readers.
Northanger Abbey was a satire on the romantic gothic novels that had become fashionable at the end of the 18th century, but Persuasion was quite different both in its content and publication history. Begun in 1815, that novel was the last one to be completed by Jane Austen before her death. It is also one of her two ‘naval’ novels, the other being Mansfield Park. In Persuasion, a naval officer, Captain Frederick Wentworth, is a central figure, and the heroine, Anne Elliot, eventually marries him. The main themes of Persuasion are status and prize-money.
Jane Austen in Kent
We were very pleased to be able to attend the summer event of the Kent branch of the Jane Austen Society. On a glorious summer day, we were entertained in the morning by two superb talks. The Austen family has many Kentish connections, and Heather Dyke gave a wonderful account of her research into the links between Court Lodge (a Georgian manor house), her family (the Morlands) who have lived there since 1733 and the Austens. The next talk was by Martin Renshaw, who is a singer, organist and much more. He not only talked about Jane Austen, John Marsh and the piano, but also sang and played the piano and organ – against the beautiful sound of bells from the nearby church. This was a real treat. After a picnic lunch on the terrace, overlooking the gardens (see the picture below), it was our turn to do a talk called ‘All at Sea in the Time of the Austens’, showing how the Royal Navy was so important to Jane Austen, how it was woven into Mansfield Park and Persuasion, and what life was like in the navy.
Court Lodge gardens, Lamberhurst
Jane Austen’s legacy
Although she did not travel very much outside southern England and never abroad, there are now memorials to Jane Austen in almost every place she visited. The city of Bath, where she lived from 1801 to 1806, has strong associations and features in both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. It now boasts the Jane Austen Centre and an annual Jane Austen Festival among its attractions.
The Georgian City of Bath
Despite the many memorials and places associated with her, Jane Austen’s real legacy is her novels, which display her remarkable talent for storytelling and insight into human nature. In weaving the threads of her narratives, she used accurate observations of everyday life at that time – as well as being excellent novels, they are a chronicle of Georgian England. For further information about life in England at that time, see our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (or Jane Austen’s England in north America).