In Honor of Austen

Jane Austen died on this day in 1817, aged forty-one. She had been increasingly ill over the previous eighteen months, probably from a hormonal disorder like Addison’s disease. Austen’s devoted older sister, Cassandra, inherited all the author’s papers, and she immediately began to edit and polish. Austen’s gravestone referred to “the benevolence of her heart” and “the sweetness of her temper” — though it did not identify her as being the author of her anonymously published novels — and Cassandra began to expurgate the letters accordingly. Nonetheless, some of Austen the novelist can be found in the letters, in sentences that open with a deep curtsey and then turn sharply on their heel:

  • I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it.
  • At the bottom of Kingsdown Hill we met a gentleman in a buggy, who, on minute examination, turned out to be Dr. Hall — and Dr. Hall in such very deep mourning that either his mother, his wife, or himself must be dead.
  • I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable; I respect Mrs. Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment. Miss Langley is like any other short girl, with a broad nose and wide mouth, fashionable dress and exposed bosom. Adm. Stanhope is a gentleman-like man, but then his legs are too short and his tail too long.
  • I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.

Family and friends were always encouraging Austen to give up her fine brush and sharp scalpel for Romance. Her letters seem to have given answer — “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked” — but just in case she left behind a “Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters.” This promises an irreproachable heroine — “perfectly good, with much tenderness and sentiment, and not the least Wit” — and an unequivocal, uplifting message:

…Often carried away by the anti-hero, but rescued either by her Father or by the Hero — often reduced to support herself and her Father by her Talents and work for her Bread; continually cheated and defrauded of her hire, worn down to a Skeleton, and now and then starved to death…

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.