A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XXIII." by Constance Hill
From: Jane Austen: Her Homes & Her Friends (John Lane The Bodley Head, 1923) by Constance Hill.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 253] 



"A Christian's wit is inoffensive light,              
A beam that aids, but never grieves the sight."

IN the month of May (1817) Miss Austen was persuaded by her family to remove to Winchester in order to be under the care of a medical man of repute in the county - a member of the Lyford family. She and her sister Cassandra took lodgings in College Street.

Writing to her nephew Edward on May 27 she says: "Thanks to the kindness of your father and mother in sending me their carriage, my journey hither on Saturday was performed with very little fatigue, and had it been a fine day I think I should have felt none; but it distressed me to see Uncle Henry and Wm. Knight, who kindly attended us on horseback, riding in the rain almost the whole way . . . . Our lodgings are very comfortable. We have a neat little drawing-room with a bow window overlooking Dr. Gabell's garden." [Page 254] 

We have followed Miss Austen to Winchester, and have visited the house in College Street where she passed the last weeks of her life. College Street is a narrow picturesque lane, with small old-fashioned houses on one side, terminating in the ancient stone buildings of the College. The garden ground on the opposite side of the street belonged, and still belongs, to the head master. We have entered the "neat little drawing-room with a bow window" which remains unchanged. It is a pretty quaint parlour, with a low ceiling and a narrow doorway. Its white muslin curtains and pots of gay flowers on the window sill lent a cheerful air to the room. We almost fancied we could see Miss Austen seated in the window writing to her nephew, glancing from time to time across the high-walled garden, with its waving trees, to the old red roofs of the Close, with the great grey Cathedral towering above them.

"On Thursday, which is a confirmation and a holiday," Jane writes, "we are to get Charles out to breakfast. We have had but one visit from him, poor fellow, as he is in the sick-room, but he hopes to be out to-night. We see Mrs. Heathcote every day." Mrs. Heathcote and her sister Miss Bigg (of Manydown) were residing in the Close.

She writes again later on: "I live chiefly on [Page 255]

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[Page 257]  the sofa, but am allowed to walk from one room to the other. I have been out once in a sedan-chair, and am to repeat it and be promoted to a wheeled chair as the weather serves." And speaking of her illness she remarks, "On this subject I will only say further that my dearest sister, my tender watchful, indefatigable nurse has not been made ill by her exertions. As to what I owe to her, and to the anxious affection of all my beloved family on this occasion, I can only cry over it, and pray to God to bless them more and more."[1]

We are told by her brother Henry that "she supported, during two months, all the varying pain, irksomeness, and tedium," attendant on her decline "with more than resignation, with a truly elastic cheerfulness." "She retained," he says, "her faculties, her memory, her fancy, her temper, and her affections, warm, clear, and unimpaired, to the last . . . . She expired on Friday, July 18 (1817), in the arms of her sister."

On the 24th of that month she was buried in Winchester Cathedral. She lies in the north aisle, near to the old black marble font, and almost opposite to the beautiful chantry of William of Wykeham.

Cassandra writes to a niece on the day of the funeral, "I watched the little mournful procession [Page 258]  the length of the street; and when it turned from my sight and I had lost her for ever, even then I was not overpowered, nor so much agitated as I am now in writing of it. Never was human being more sincerely mourned by those who attended her remains, than was this dear creature. May the sorrow with which she is parted with on earth be a prognostic of the joy with which she is hailed in heaven."[1]

*        *        *        *       *

The last picture we have of the Chawton home is of Cassandra living there alone after the death of both her mother and sister. "The small house and pretty garden," writes her niece, "must have been full of memories of them. She read the same books (that they had read) and kept in the little dining-room the same old piano on which her dear sister had played, and though gentle and cheerful and fond of her nephews and nieces . . . I am sure never thought any one of them to be compared in beauty and sweetness and goodness to her beloved Jane." "I remember," she continues, "when my mother and I were staying with her when I was about seventeen, being greatly struck and impressed by the way in which she spoke of her sister, there was such an accent of living love in her voice."[2] [Page 259]

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[Page 261]  A short memoir of Jane Austen appeared early in 1818 written by her brother Henry and prefixed to the first edition of "Northanger Abbey and Persuasion." After speaking of the novels he goes on to say that "In the bosom of her own family their authoress talked of them freely, thankful for praise, open to remark, and submissive to criticism. But in public she turned away from any allusion to the character of an authoress . . . . No accumulation of fame would have induced her, had she lived, to affix her name to any productions of her pen . . . . It was with extreme difficulty that her friends, whose partiality she suspected, could prevail on her to publish her first work. Nay, so persuaded was she that its sale would not repay the expense of publication, that she actually made a reserve from her very moderate income to meet the expected loss. She could scarcely believe what she termed her 'great good fortune,' when 'Sense and Sensibility' produced a clear profit of about £150 . . . She regarded the above sum as a prodigious recompense for that which had cost her nothing." "Her power of inventing characters," he remarks, "seems to have been intuitive, and almost unlimited. She drew from nature; but whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals . . . . She read aloud with very great taste and effect. [Page 262]  Her own works, probably, were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth."

These words recall to our mind the incident of Jane's reading aloud the manuscript of "Mansfield Park" to this same brother, as they were travelling together in a post-chaise on their way to London.

After alluding to the popularity of some of the more sensational novels of the day, her brother continues: "The works of Jane Austen, however, may live as long as those which have burst on the world with more éclat. But the public has not been unjust, and our authoress was far from thinking it so."

Miss Austen's fame has been of slow growth, but it has steadily increased with the increase of culture. Even in her own day the best minds recognised her power, but now her works are enjoyed by thousands of readers who owe to her some of the happiest hours of their lives. Her critics too seem, each one, to find in her just those special qualities which he himself looks for in a favourite writer. One learned reviewer extols her adherence to the great principles of the literary art as acted upon by Homer and enforced by Aristotle, another praises her for her essentially feminine qualities, while a third is struck by her masculine vigour.

The American critic whom we have already [Page 263]

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[Page 265]  quoted remarks, "for the perfection of artifice which conceals itself, and seems nothing but the simplicity of nature and the necessary course of events, there is no story-teller that we know of that surpasses Jane Austen. Her stories never tire, and are as fresh in interest on the fiftieth reading as on the first, and her characters are as much actual entities to us as our own acquaintances, and much more so than most personages in history." Another critic dwells on what he calls her "dramatic ventriloquism," which makes us, "amid our tears of laughter and exasperation at folly, feel it almost impossible that she did not hear those very people utter those very words," so that "we are almost made actors, as well as spectators, of the little drama." Her "conversations," wrote Archbishop Whately, in 1821, "are conducted with a regard to character hardly exceeded by Shakespeare himself. Like him she shows as admirable a discrimination in the characters of fools as of people of sense." "Some persons," he tells us, "have declared that they have found her fools too true to nature, and consequently tiresome"; but of such persons he remarks that "whatever deference they may outwardly pay to received opinions," he is sure "they must find the 'Merry Wives of Windsor' and 'Twelfth Night' very tiresome."

A fourth critic remarks: "To have caused us [Page 266]  an uninterrupted amusement without ever descending to the grotesque, to have been comic without being vulgar, and to have avoided extremes of every kind, without ever being dull or commonplace, is the praise of which Jane Austen is almost entitled to a monopoly." While another observes: "Even in Captain Price's case she did what Pope pronounced to be impossible, reconciled the 'tarpauline phrase' with the requirements of art and civility. Out of these bounds her language never strays. She is neat, epigrammatic, but always a lady."

Her power of what has been termed "describing without description" seems to us to be another monopoly of Miss Austen's. By a mere hint, dropped here and there, a whole character is placed before us. Who does not know Mrs. Rushworth by her "stately simper"? Or Mrs. Palmer by her spending her time in the London shops "in raptures and indecision"? Or Mr. John Knightley, who, when out of humour, was accustomed to have the sedative of "'very true, my love' administered to him" by his wife? And who does not exactly comprehend the kind of intercourse between Mrs. Norris and Dr. Grant which "had begun in dilapidations"?

Her descriptions of nature, which are terse indeed compared with the elaborate "word-painting" of some of our writers, are reserved, [Page 267]  like those of Shakespeare, to increase the dramatic effect of the situation. Take, for example, the stormy wet July evening towards the end of "Emma," which emphasises with its gloom Emma's dismal forebodings. Or, take again Anne Elliot's reflections during the walk to Winthrop on that late autumnal day, upon declining happiness and the declining year, when the sight of the ploughs busily at work on the uplands brings a ray of hope showing that the farmers, at any rate, "were meaning to have spring again."

In her description of places our authoress is equally reticent, and yet with what consummate power she places them before our eyes! One of her critics writes: "It is impossible to conceive a more perfect piece of village geography, a scene more absolutely real" than "Highbury, with Ford's shop in the High Street, and Miss Bates's rooms opposite . . . . Nothing could be more easy than to make a map of it, with indications where the London road strikes off, and by which turning Frank Churchill, on his tired horse, will come from Richmond. We know it as well as if we had lived there all our lives and visited Miss Bates every other day."[1]

In an article which appeared some years ago, the writer concludes with the following remarks upon Jane Austen: "Her fame, we think, must [Page 268]  endure. Such art as hers can never grow old, never be superseded. But, after all, miniatures are not frescoes, and her works are miniatures. Her place is among the Immortals, but the pedestal is erected in a quiet niche of the great temple."

But we would remind this writer that "grandeur depends upon proportion, not size." A recent critic who maintains that Miss Austen's genius, in spite of apparently narrow limitations, had really ample scope, observes: "Ordinary life was seen by her not dimly and partially as we see it, but in all its actual vastness, and it was in this huge field that she worked with such supreme success. If the 'little bit of ivory' were only 'two inches wide' those inches were not of mortal measure.

No! for Ben Jonson has told us that -

"In small proportions we just beauties see,
And in short measures life may perfect be."



[Page 257]
1 "Memoir," by Henry Austen.

[Page 258]
1 "Letters," Lord Brabourne,

2 Family MSS.

[Page 267]
1 Blackwood, March 1870.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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