The year rolls round to its end once again, and once again we are celebrating the birthday of Jane Austen. It is our tradition to write about what we would give Jane Austen for her birthday, but we don’t think we could top two pretty amazing things given to her by the world.
On this melancholy day, we remember Jane Austen and present the heartrending letter from her sister, Cassandra Austen, to their niece, Fanny Knight, about Jane’s death.
My dearest Fanny,
Doubly dear to me now for her dear sake whom we have lost. She did love you most sincerely, and never shall I forget the proofs of love you gave her during her illness in writing those kind, amusing letters at a time when I know your feelings would have dictated so different a style. Take the only reward I can give you in the assurance that your benevolent purpose was answered; you did contribute to her enjoyment.
Even your last letter afforded pleasure. I merely cut the seal and gave it to her; she opened it and read it herself, afterwards she gave it me to read, and then talked to me a little and not uncheerfully of its contents, but there was then a languor about her which prevented her taking the same interest in anything she had been used to do.
Since Tuesday evening, when her complaint returned, there was a visible change, she slept more and much more comfortably; indeed, during the last eight-and-forty hours she was more asleep than awake. Her looks altered and she fell away, but I perceived no material diminution of strength, and, though I was then hopeless of a recovery, I had no suspicion how rapidly my loss was approaching.
I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself. I loved her only too well—not better than she deserved, but I am conscious that my affection for her made me sometimes unjust to and negligent of others; and I can acknowledge, more than as a general principle, the justice of the Hand which has struck this blow.
You know me too well to be at all afraid that I should suffer materially from my feelings; I am perfectly conscious of the extent of my irreparable loss, but I am not at all overpowered and very little indisposed, nothing but what a short time, with rest and change of air, will remove. I thank God that I was enabled to attend her to the last, and amongst my many causes of self-reproach I have not to add any wilful neglect of her comfort.
She felt herself to be dying about half-an-hour before she became tranquil and apparently unconscious. During that half-hour was her struggle, poor soul! She said she could not tell us what she suffered, though she complained of little fixed pain. When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death, and some of her words were: ‘O God grant me patience, pray for me, oh, pray for me!’ Her voice was affected, but as long as she spoke she was intelligible.
I hope I do not break your heart, my dearest Fanny, by these particulars; I mean to afford you gratification whilst I am relieving my own feelings. I could not write so to anybody else; indeed you are the only person I have written to at all, excepting your grandmamma—it was to her, not your Uncle Charles, I wrote on Friday.
Immediately after dinner on Thursday I went into the town to do an errand which your dear aunt was anxious about. I returned about a quarter before six and found her recovering from faintness and oppression; she got so well as to be able to give me a minute account of her seizure, and when the clock struck six she was talking quietly to me.
I cannot say how soon afterwards she was seized again with the same faintness, which was followed by the sufferings she could not describe; but Mr. Lyford had been sent for, had applied something to give her ease, and she was in a state of quiet insensibility by seven o’clock at the latest. From that time till half-past four, when she ceased to breathe, she scarcely moved a limb, so that we have every reason to think, with gratitude to the Almighty, that her sufferings were over. A slight motion of the head with every breath remained till almost the last. I sat close to her with a pillow in my lap to assist in supporting her head, which was almost off the bed, for six hours; fatigue made me then resign my place to Mrs. J. A. for two hours and a-half, when I took it again, and in about an hour more she breathed her last.
I was able to close her eyes myself, and it was a great gratification to me to render her those last services. There was nothing convulsed which gave the idea of pain in her look; on the contrary, but for the continual motion of the head she gave one the idea of a beautiful statue, and even now, in her coffin, there is such a sweet, serene air over her countenance as is quite pleasant to contemplate.
This day, my dearest Fanny, you have had the melancholy intelligence, and I know you suffer severely, but I likewise know that you will apply to the fountain-head for consolation, and that our merciful God is never deaf to such prayers as you will offer.
The last sad ceremony is to take place on Thursday morning ; her dear remains are to be deposited in the cathedral. It is a satisfaction to me to think that they are to lie in a building she admired so- much; her precious soul, I presume to hope, reposes in a far superior mansion. May mine one day be re-united to it!
Your dear papa, your Uncle Henry, and Frank and Edwd. Austen, instead of his father, will attend. I hope they will none of them suffer lastingly from their pious exertions. The ceremony must be over before ten o’clock, as the cathedral service begins at that hour, so that we shall be at home early in the day, for there will be nothing to keep us here afterwards.
Your Uncle James came to us yesterday, and is gone home to-day. Uncle H. goes to Chawton tomorrow morning ; he has given every necessary direction here, and I think his company there will do good. He returns to us again on Tuesday evening.
I did not think to have written a long letter when I began, but I have found the employment draw me on, and I hope I shall have been giving you more pleasure than pain. Remember me kindly to Mrs. J. Bridges (I am so glad she is with you now), and give my best love to Lizzie and all the others.
I am, my dearest Fanny,
Most affectionately yours,
Cass. Eliz. Austen.
I have said nothing about those at Chawton, because I am sure you hear from your papa.
We’ve discussed this a bit on social media, but felt the occasion
presented an opportunity for some snark would make a good blog post.
Alexandra Knatchbull, daughter of Lord Brabourne, great-granddaughter of Lord Mountbatten, and goddaughter of Diana, Princess of Wales, was married last weekend in what was described as “the society wedding of the year.” The wedding was covered by the press probably mostly because Her Majesty the Queen and other members of the British, Spanish, Greek and Jordanian royal families were guests.* The Prince of Wales gave away the bride as Lord Brabourne, one of the Prince’s best friends, was unable to do so due to illness, or at least that’s the official line.
None of the press coverage of the wedding seems to have picked up the most important fact for Janeites–that the bride is descended from Jane Austen’s brother Edward Austen Knight.
“You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.” – Letter to Cassandra Austen, June 15, 1808
Once again, we take pen in hand–er, place fingers to keyboard to wish Jane Austen a very happy 240th birthday. She doesn’t look a day over 35, does she? We’ve got a cake, and no doubt Dorothy will bring around a beverage to everyone’s taste, whether tea or lemonade or maybe a nice mulled wine (heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves). It’s a day for Jane Austen fans to celebrate: the birth of our favorite author.
It’s our habit on this day to think of birthday gifts we would give Jane were she here. As the temperatures both at AustenBlog World Headquarters and, we are told, in the UK right now are on the temperate side (seriously, we were out in short sleeves and no coat this past weekend), we don’t think Jane needs anything warm, but we’d love to crochet a light, ethereal shawl using laceweight yarn, perhaps LilyGo’s “Remember Me” shawl; something light, just enough to keep off the evening chill. Needlework as a hobby is something we share with Jane Austen, and, oh yeah, that writing thing as well–though of course we can only aspire to her genius.
Please take up your beverage of choice and join us in a toast to the immortal Jane Austen.
(Also, scroll down for three, count ’em, three giveaway posts in honor of the day!)
We have been struggling a bit with the whole blogging thing lately, but others have fortunately taking up the slack! (And there will be a announcement about AustenBlog coming very soon. Nothing bad, we promise!)
We are on record as having very much enjoyed Deborah Yaffe’s book Among the Janeites, and her blog is very good reading as well. In particular we enjoyed Deborah’s recent post about the Austen Project, which brought up a point that we had been wondering about but was too lazy to blog: why haven’t the last two authors been announced yet? That is, the authors who will write updated versions of Persuasion and Mansfield Park? Being the cynical tar-hearted spinster &c. that we are, we have suspected that the project has been so unsuccessful that The Powers That Be have decided to discontinue the project. However, Deborah makes a very good alternative point: perhaps no author has been willing to take on the job. Deborah also reviews Alexander McCall Smith’s recent release of an updated Emma and looks forward to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice–which has been titled Eligible, rather than simply copying the title of the original! One hopes the publishers have responded to the general hostility with which the unchanged titles have been received by Greater Janeiteland, and retitled the novel. Or perhaps Ms. Sittenfeld simply insisted. More power to her, we say. In any event, do check out the post, as well as the rest of Deborah’s excellent blog.
Lisa Pliscou, author of the new Austen biography Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer, also has a blog with some interesting entries about Jane Austen. This post, about the books read and loved by famous authors, mentions several authors who love Jane Austen’s work, which is all perfectly delightful. (We are currently reading Bring Up the Bodies, the second in Hilary Mantel’s series about Thomas Cromwell, and were startled and amused to find “Tilney Abbey” mentioned–we’re pretty sure such an abbey never actually existed but you KNOW where she got it from.) Emma Thompson is quoted, mentioning whom she would invite to a dinner party, as saying, “I’d have gone for Jane Austen if I weren’t convinced she’d just have a soft-boiled egg and leave early.” Lisa protests against this, as did several Janeites (including the Editrix) on Twitter.
I’m a little late in the day with my remembrances, but they are nonetheless heartfelt.
For these birthday posts, I usually post a quotation that has directly to do with Jane herself. This year, I had a hard time thinking of something that felt satisfactory. I’ve long felt (and perhaps this is projection) that Jane, as an author, would consider her work her best remembrance. Thus, I’m sharing the passage that turned me from a casual Jane Austen reader to a lifelong fan. It’s not hyperbole to say that it changed my life. From Persuasion, Vol. II, Ch. XI:
Mrs. Croft left them, and Captain Wentworth, having sealed his letter with great rapidity, was indeed ready, and had even a hurried, agitated air, which shewed impatience to be gone. Anne know not how to understand it. She had the kindest “Good morning, God bless you!” from Captain Harville, but from him not a word, nor a look! He had passed out of the room without a look!
She had only time, however, to move closer to the table where he had been writing, when footsteps were heard returning; the door opened, it was himself. He begged their pardon, but he had forgotten his gloves, and instantly crossing the room to the writing table, he drew out a letter from under the scattered paper, placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her for a time, and hastily collecting his gloves, was again out of the room, almost before Mrs. Musgrove was aware of his being in it: the work of an instant!
The revolution which one instant had made in Anne, was almost beyond expression. The letter, with a direction hardly legible, to “Miss A. E.–,” was evidently the one which he had been folding so hastily. While supposed to be writing only to Captain Benwick, he had been also addressing her! On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her. Anything was possible, anything might be defied rather than suspense. Mrs. Musgrove had little arrangements of her own at her own table; to their protection she must trust, and sinking into the chair which he had occupied, succeeding to the very spot where he had leaned and written, her eyes devoured the following words:
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
“I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”
Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from.
It’s been some twenty years since I read it, and I haven’t recovered from it yet. Thanks, Jane. I hope all the love from Janeites all over the world today reached you beyond the ether.
I can have no hesitation in assuring you that it was most gratifying to me to receive such a testimonial to the merits of my late sister’s works, and thereby to learn that their celebrity had reached across the Atlantic.
[. . .]
Of the liveliness of her imagination and playfulness of her fancy, as also of the truthfulness of her description of character and deep knowledge of the human mind, there are sufficient evidence in her works; and it has been a matter of surprise to those who knew her best, how she could at a very early age and with apparently limited means of observation, have been capable of nicely discriminating and pourtraying such varieties of the human character as are introduced in her works.—In her temper she was chearful and not easily irritated, and tho’ rather reserved to strangers so as to have been by some accused of haughtiness and manner, yet in the company of those she loved the native benevolence of her heart and kindliness of her disposition were forcibly displayed. On such occasions she was a most agreable companion and by the lively sallies of her wit and good-humoured drollery seldom failed of exciting the mirth and hilarity of the party. She was fond of children and a favorite with them. Her Nephews and Nieces of whom there were many could not have a greater treat than crouding around and listening to Aunt Jane’s stories.
I think for this year’s gift, I will tat Jane some pretty snowflakes. Not especially useful, perhaps, but pretty! What gift do you have for Jane Austen, Gentle Reader?