On 18 July 1817, the world lost one of its great literary geniuses – at the time of Jane Austen’s unexpected death at the age of 41 from an undiagnosed illness, the world perhaps was not aware that it was losing a literary genius.
Jane and her sister had caught typhus in their youth and Jane had nearly died, so it is possible she suffered organ weakness as a result – or had contracted endemic typhus, which can lie dormant for years. Today, it is thought she may have died from the cancer Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Jane Austen, like many writers, faced challenges in her career – but the six novels she published, including and Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), were so observant of the social manners of their age and humanity in general that they have been forged into the social consciousness of a nation as an accurate reflection of society at the time: the obsession with keeping up appearances, the nervous anxiety about wealth and inheritance, the fallback of having to rely on family members to bail out finances when the going got tough – and the urgent need for women to find a husband (Jane never did find a worthy suitor); set against the backdrop of a constant social round in town and country (balls, taking tea, leaving one’s calling card, the unexpected guest – hopefully male and in a carriage, accompanied by a suitable suitor for a younger sister).
In today’s society – where we connect socially online and marriage is a personal choice, not a necessity (so we are told) – Jane Austen’s world seems like a giddy procession of endless necessities, of making ends meet, of hopes that Mr Right will not disappoint; as well as the social obligations and niceties that she invites us to share and explains with biting accuracy and a large degree of censure and wry humour.
Born in Hampshire, her family also spent time living in one of the great Roman cities, Bath – it is thought not to be one of the happiest times in her life and eventually the family had to move to less desirable quarters, after Jane’s father died.
I like to imagine her in Bath, not in her room in Winchester, where she eventually slipped away – but alive and living life to the full, even if not writing as much as before, perhaps just collecting material. I hope she was busy socialising and enjoying life and not depressed, as some commentators suggest. In Bath, I also have a special interest in who she visited and socialised with.
In a letter to her sister Cassandra, she mentions the Busby family. William Busby originated from Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire and moved his family to Bath, where Jane visited them. William Busby is also my several times great grandfather. I cannot help but imagine Jane gossiping with his daughters and perhaps casting a critical eye over his sons – and maybe even the family china. Certainly the Busby family seems to have made an impression, although perhaps not quite the one desired.
“Mrs. B. and two young women were of the same party, except when Mrs. B. thought herself obliged to leave them to run round the room after her drunken husband. His avoidance, and her pursuit, with the probable intoxication of both, was an amusing scene.”
An image of Jane Austen will be printed on a polymer £10 note by the Bank of England in September 2017, after much fuss, a degree of acrimony – and even criminal activity, when supporters of the move were targeted online and threatened by trolls. What would Jane Austen have made of it all? I am sure she would have summed things up far better than any of us ever could:
“It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” (Sense and Sensibility)
Featured image: Ceci Kierk blog (reproduced under Creative Commons licence)
Read more of Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra – including news of the social whirl in Bath.