A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XVI." by Isaac Taylor, Jr., of Stanford Rivers
Publication: Taylor, Isaac. The Writings of Jane Taylor, In Five Volumes: Volume I, Memoirs and Poetical Remains.. Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1832. pp. 257-274.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

CHAPTER XVI.

LAST ILLNESS, AND DEATH.

THE last two letters have anticipated the course of the Memoir, to which I now revert. On the occasion of the death of her uncle, the Rev. James Hinton, of Oxford, which occurred in the month of July, Miss Taylor was impressed with the belief that death was not to visit the family with "a single blow;" and this foreboding was not falsified, for, in the following November, another uncle–Mr. Charles Taylor (the Editor of Calmet) was removed; and in a few months more, her own death took place.

With the hope of at least recruiting her spirits, my sister, accompanied by her brother, and a [Page 258]  young friend visited Margate, once again; where she passed the month of October, tranquilly and pleasantly: on her return, she went to Bedford; and availed herself of the opportunity to visit Olney and Weston: the feelings of the moment she has expressed in the lines written on visiting Cowper's garden. Her return from Bedford took place at the time of an extraordinary inundation; and she, with the young friend who accompanied her, was exposed to considerable peril in the journey.

At this time, she was so far exempt from suffering, or any positive inconvenience from the disease that was preying upon her constitution, and her ordinary comfort was so little impaired, that she took her part in the common engagements of life, with scarcely any apparent diminution of her wonted activity and animation. In these respects she was indeed remarkably favored by the goodness of God: for, to the last, her sufferings were only those consequent upon extreme debility.–The local disease insensibly prevailed over the strength of her constitution, with little external show of its progress, and with scarcely any positive pain. This exemption from suffering was noted by herself, and her family, as calling for lively gratitude to the Father of mercies.

The event might probably have been somewhat different, had not new symptoms been induced by accidental exposure to cold. On the 21st of November my sister went to London, to take leave [Page 259]  of one of her most intimate friends, who was then preparing to leave England. This interview, it was known by both parties, must terminate a friendship of long standing, and of unusual tenderness and confidence: the meeting was therefore protracted as long as possible, so as to allow my sister to return to Ongar the same day. Being unable to procure a coach, she and her friend took boat at Lambeth, late in the afternoon; and proceeded as far as London Bridge, through a chilly rain. This exposure produced general pains, which from that time, continued to be the principal cause of her suffering, and, apparently, of the rapid decay of her strength.

Notwithstanding her extreme weakness, she still continued to attend public worship; and even to teach her class in the Sunday school. The last time of her doing so, was on the 4th of January.–She went to the meeting-house, accompanied by the friend before mentioned, whom, after teaching the children the usual time, she took to a window, overlooking the burial ground; and pointing to a spot opposite, said–"There Betsey,–that is where my grave is to be." The same afternoon a funeral sermon was preached for a highly esteemed friend–the mother of a large family, whose death had very deeply affected her. She looked at the weeping family; and deliberately realized the scene, as she believed, soon to be repeated in the same place, when her own family should be the mourners. [Page 260] 

Either by the too great excitement of her feelings on this occasion; or by her exposure to the weather, her symptoms seemed to be aggravated from this time:–her breathing became so quick and feeble, as to keep her spirits in constant agitation, and almost to prevent her joining in conversation. She still took her place in the family circle; though it had now become necessary that she should be carried from the parlor to her chamber.

Partly from the impulse of that restlessness which often attends a last illness, and with the hope of deriving at least some alleviation from medical advice, she determined, in the month of February, upon spending a week with her young friends at Newington, whose affection towards her gave her the assurance that she should find all the comforts of home in their house. Though extremely distressed by the exertion of being placed in the chaise, the journey seemed greatly to revive her:–she in some measure enjoyed the society of her friends; and returned home in amended health. She describes her feelings about this time, in the following letter to her sister:–


Ongar, March 24, 1824.

* * * "I hope the pleasant excursion to Nottingham will do you both good. Give my kind love to C— and S—, of whom I often think; but I now refrain from writing to any one, [Page 261]  unless it is absolutely necessary. I feel much obliged by Mr. —'s kind remembrance of me:–tell him so when you have an opportunity: as to writing three verses, or one, for his Album, it has been, and is, quite impossible.

"You heard from mother that I went to town for advice. I was most kindly nursed there for a week; and returned much better; nor have I since had a violent return of that tremendous heaving of my breath, which I can compare only to an inward tempest. This laborious breathing, however, though relieved, has never subsided entirely, since I first felt it, which was from the commencement of the rheumatic attack. The weather, for some weeks past, has been very unfavorable to me. I think there is still a hope that my strength and appetite may be restored, at least to what they were, when I am able to take the air; and perhaps to change it. But I more often think that a gradual decline has commenced; and if you were to see how much I am reduced, you would not wonder at my forming such an opinion. My bones indeed 'look and stare upon me;'–my strength too fails me, so that I cannot walk more than once or twice across the room at a time; and whenever I do, I feel as if all within me was hanging in heavy rags. Whenever the weather permits, I am drawn round the garden, which is a great refreshment.

"I need not tell you how kindly I am nursed; and how tenderly all is done that can be done for [Page 262]  my relief and comfort. I have also to be thankful for being so free from pain;–my suffering now is almost entirely from debility, and weariness, and difficulty of breathing; but what I am most of all thankful for, is, that the prospect of death is less formidable to me, owing to my having more 'peace in believing;' and an increase of this is all I want, in order to reconcile me to it entirely. I often think too, that if I am taken off by a gradual decay, I ought to rejoice, as being thereby rescued, probably, from far greater suffering: but I desire to leave it all with God.

"I hope you do not forget that this summer is your time for coming to Ongar. For a long time I have been looking forward to it as affording a hope of our meeting once more; which I am sure we should both wish. We do not like the thought of Mr. Gilbert's coming so far south without our seeing him: could you not both come on from Nottingham? Though, unless I should become rapidly worse, it would be better for you to come when the season is more advanced. Dear Ann, and Mr. Gilbert, remember me in your prayers, as I am sure you do.

Your affectionate sister,

JANE."

Neither Jane herself, nor her family, fully apprehended the now near approach of dissolution;–some degree of delusion is very frequent in such cases–and in this, the flatteries of hope were strengthened by that calmness and fortitude, [Page 263]  and reluctance to receive any assistance she could possibly dispense with, which, in great measure, concealed the progress of her decline: and also by the undiminished vigor of her mind, and the unabated interest she took in every thing with which she was wont to be concerned.

Though she had, at this time, become incapable of long continued religious exercises, yet, to the last day of her life, the stated times of retirement were observed by her. Usually in the evening, by her request, her brother read to her some portion of scripture, and a few pages of Bennett's Christian Oratory–a book she highly valued. On these occasions her conversation, though not elevated by the language of unclouded hope, frequently contained the expression of a humble and growing trust in the power and grace of the Saviour.

Happily for herself, my sister's imagination which, throughout her life, had been too much alive to ideas of terror, seemed in a great degree quelled by the langours of disease. Thus her mind was relieved from those unreal fears which, otherwise, might have possessed her thoughts, in the near prospect of death. Still, occasionally, she seemed to be contending with what she acknowledged to be horrors of the imagination only.–"Oh!" she would say, "the grave!–the grave is dark and cold!–But surely, even to the wicked there is no suffering in the grave." For some time she seemed much distressed with the [Page 264]  apprehension of her remains being disturbed after burial; but from this fear she was relieved by an explicit promise, that such precautions should be taken as should render such disturbance impossible. For the most part, however, the higher and the real interests of the future life occupied their proper place in her thoughts; and whatever other anxieties might harass her for a moment, she quickly returned to this sentiment–

"If sin be pardoned, I'm secure:
Death has no sting besides."

She had, for months past, been wishing to transcribe her will, with a view of amending it in some particulars; but had deferred doing so, in the hope of a return of strength, which might make her more equal to the task: but feeling now her powers of body rapidly declining, she roused herself by an extraordinary effort, and in a way quite characteristic of herself: for it was always some endeavor to promote the comfort or interests of those she loved, that called forth the vigor of her mind. She was therefore supported (April 5th) at her desk, and continued writing with evidently a very painful effort, more than an hour: she completed her task in the three or four following days. I may just take the occasion to say that, in the disposal of her affairs, she was guided by the most exact impartiality–acting consistently with the principle she had often warmly professed, and which is so rarely regarded–that there can be no more right to do wrong, (by indulging ca- [Page 265]  pricious preferences,) in making a will, than in any other transaction of life.

Though the least exertion had now become distressingly painful, her mind was so perfectly collected, that the transcript of her will was made without errors, and the parts in which it differed from the original, were expressed with her wonted perspicuity; she also, the same afternoon in which she completed her task, entered some payments in her accounts, as well as the daily memorandums in her pocket-book, which are complete to the Thursday before her death.

On Saturday she was visited by the medical gentleman whom she had consulted when last in London. She was then, though actually dying, so little aware of the near approach of death, that she asked his opinion of the practicability of her leaving home for change of air. After he left her, however, recollecting his expressions, and manner of replying to her inquiries, she inferred the truth; and on Sunday plainly indicated to her family that she did so.

Her last Sabbath was passed tranquilly:–several times in the course of it she exerted her utmost strength to converse with her mother, into whose mind she endeavored to pour that consolation which she knew would be much needed. In the evening she conversed separately with her father and brother; and to them, as before to her mother, she professed her settled hope of heaven; [Page 266]  to the latter she said–"I am now quite happy–as happy as my poor frame will bear."

On Monday she came down to the parlor at the usual hour, and was calm in spirit; seeming distressed only by increased debility. During the morning she conversed for some time with her brother, who received her dying wishes and injunctions: and an emphatic expression of affection, which will ever sound fresh in his recollection, as if heard but yesterday. In the afternoon she resolved to make a last effort to finish a letter to her young friends at Newington. For this purpose her brother supported her in his arms;–for she was now utterly unable to sustain herself: her affectionate earnestness to express to them her deep concern for their highest interests, cost her an effort that seemed as if it must have hastened her dissolution; it is as follows:–


Ongar, April 11, 1824.

My very dear Friends,

I must no longer wait till I am more able to write, as every day I become weaker:–though I know it will give you pain, yet I must tell you that I should not be surprised if these few lines are the last I shall ever be able to send you. I am very ill:–Mr. — came yesterday to see me; and I assure you he thinks me so. It is possible, he thinks, that a change in the weather may revive me; but I am now so weak that I think there is as much to fear as to hope from the warm weather. However, that I leave:–I will take care that you shall be informed as often as needful, how I go on, to the last; and I shall hope to hear from you; for though I cannot write, I can read a letter. I thank dear E. for her last. I am now indeed too ill to accept your kind invitation.

Monday.

I fear I cannot finish.–Oh, my dear friends, if you knew what thoughts I have now, you would see, as I do, that the whole business of life is preparation for death! let it be so with you. If I have ever written or spoken any thing you deem good advice, be assured I would, if I could, repeat it now with tenfold force. Think of this when I am gone. Tell J. I hope he will read Williams's Dairy, and study to become such a character, as a man of business, and a Christian. I wish you all to read it. My love and best wishes to John.

May God bless you all:–farewell! farewell! dear S. dear E., dear P. dear J. farewell! Yours till death, and after that, I hope,

JANE TAYLOR.

In the evening a minister called, with whom she conversed a short time, in a tone of cheerful and confirmed faith. Afterwards with her mother, in terms of intermingled affection, consolation and hope.

When carried up stairs on Monday night, she [Page 268]  for the first time, allowed her sister to do every thing for her. She passed the night quietly; but in the morning felt herself unable to rise as usual:–about ten o'clock her brother read a Psalm, and prayed with her. Soon afterwards she was placed in an easy chair by the bed-side. About the same time one of her brothers arrived from London; to him she spoke with the most emphatic earnestness, professing, very distinctly, the ground of her own hope, and the deep sense she then had of the reality and importance of eternal things. Her voice was now deep and hollow–her eye glazed, and the dews of death were on her features; but her recollection was perfect, and her soul full of feeling. While thus sitting up, and surrounded by her family, in a loud, but interrupted voice, she said–"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

Soon afterwards she repeated, with the same emphasis, the verse of Dr. Watts–

"Jesus, to thy dear faithful hand
  My naked soul I trust;
And my flesh waits for thy command,
  To drop into the dust."
repeating with intense fervor the words–
"Jesus to thee–my naked soul–
  My naked soul I trust."

Being then placed in bed, all withdrew but [Page 269]  her sister, with whom she conversed some time, giving her several particular directions, with great clearness. She then requested that every thing in the room might be put in the most exact order; after this she lay tranquilly an hour or two, seeming to suffer only from the laborious heaving of the chest; and in reply to a question to that effect, said she was "quite comfortable."

In the afternoon she observed her brother to be writing a letter: she inquired to whom; being told it was to Mrs. Gilbert (who, with Mr. Gilbert, was then on her way to Ongar) she gave her opinion as to the best way of ensuring her sister's meeting the letter, so as, if possible, to hasten her arrival. She had just before said–"Well, I don't think now I shall see Ann again; I feel I am dying fast."

From this time she did not again speak so as to be understood; but seemed sensible, till about five o'clock, when a change took place; her breathing became interrupted: still she was tranquil, and her features perfectly placid. At half-past five she underwent a momentary struggle, and ceased to breathe.


THE interment took place in the burial-ground of the meeting-house at Ongar, where a simple monument has been erected to mark the spot.

The profile prefixed to this volume was taken some years ago: it has been deemed correct, and characteristic of the original. Yet I have to re- [Page 270]  gret my inability to give, in place of it, a portrait; but no likeness of my sister exists which would be thought satisfactory by those who knew her. In truth, the expression of her face was of that kind which is the most difficult to be seized by the pencil; for it was the expression of the finest feelings, habitually veiled from observation. Her features were delicately formed, and regular:–her stature below the middle size; every movement bespoke the activity of her mind; and a peculiar archness and sprightliness of manner gave significance and grace to all she did.

But the truest image of the writer's character, is found in the foregoing Extracts from her Correspondence: for her letters were ever the genuine expression of her feelings. Not one of the many of which I have had the perusal, betrays any attempt to write "a clever letter:"–she corresponded with none but friends, and her intercourse with those she loved was inspired only by warm and generous affection. This may indeed be named as the prominent feature of her character–for to love, and to be loved, was the happiness she sought.

Once and again, these letters afford acknowledgements of the constitutional irritability of her temper. This irritability was, however, more often excited by excessive concern for the interests of those whom she loved, than by any other cause–I may say never by the thwarting of mere selfishness. Her abhorrence of every kind of [Page 271]  pretension–of fraud, and of injustice, was indeed, strong; and this feeling, added to her piercing discernment of the secret motives of those with whom she had to do, often occasioned to her much fruitless uneasiness, and might sometimes give to her manner an air of constraint; for, to seem to accept as genuine, either actions or words, which she suspected to be spurious, required a degree of self-command of which she was hardly capable.

In her letters my sister frequently complains, also, of the languor and inertness of her mind; but these expressions might, without explanation, convey a false idea to the reader. It is indeed true that the delicacy of her constitution, especially after it was impaired by mental labors, and by sickness, rendered her liable to much languor; but her disposition, and her habits, were those of activity and diligence. In whatever she undertook, she was assiduous, persevering, and exact; and all her exertions were directed by the love of utility. She was fond of the labors of the needle, and of every domestic engagement. Indeed, so strong were her tastes of this kind–so completely feminine was her character, and so free was she from that ambition which often accompanies intellectual superiority, that had she, early in life, been placed in a sphere of home duties, her talents would probably never have been elicited.

The leisure she enjoyed in the latter years of her life, and the influence of some of her friendships, as well as her own tastes, might have led [Page 272]  my sister to pursue the elegancies of literature; but her domestic habits, and the strong sense she had of the relative importance of different objects, alike prevented her from often seeking amusement amid the luxuries of intellect. To the character of a literary lady she had, in fact, a decided dislike; both on account of the affectation from which it is seldom exempt, and of the false importance commonly attached by such persons to the most trivial pursuits.

The combination of humor and pensiveness, in the same character, seems to result from some standing law of human nature;–at least, several remarkable instances of the kind might be named. This conjunction of opposite tastes belonged, in a peculiar degree, to my sister's mind, and gave a grace and an interest to the productions of her pen. Without this union and counteraction, humor is apt to become broad and offensive, and pensiveness to sink into sentimentality or dulness. But where it exists, even when both do not actually appear, the one will operate, by a latent influence, to give point and vividness to the most sombre sentiment; while the other serves, at once, to enrich, and to chastise the sports of fancy. To these qualities of my sister's mind were added a fine sense of the beautiful and sublime in nature, and a nice perception of the characteristic points of every object she observed.

In spontaneous conversation, especially on some [Page 273]  matters of opinion, she might seem much influenced by peculiar predilections; but whenever she felt herself responsible for the opinion she gave, and especially when she wrote for the press, her judgment was acute and sound, and happily directed by intuitive good sense. Of this excellence, I think, her correspondence with her friends, and the papers contributed to the Youth's Magazine, will furnish frequent and striking instances.

The Poetical Remains exhibit a considerable versatility of talent. My sister first wrote simply to express the overflowing emotions of her heart:–these pieces breathe tenderness; and, relieved as they are by an elegant playfulness, give the truest image of the writer's mind. It was under the guidance of a peculiarly nice ear for the language of nature, that she accommodated these talents to the difficult task of writing verse for children: her compositions of this kind are, for the most part, distinguished by a perfect simplicity and transparency of diction–by brief, exact, and lively descriptions of scenery–by frequent and exquisite touches, both of humor and of pathos, and by a pervading purity and correctness of moral principle.

But her earlier compositions gave little promise of that energy of thought, elevation of sentiment, and force of diction, which appear in the Essays in Rhyme, and in some of the pieces now first published. This long latent vigor of intellect was soon quelled by the languors of sickness: had it [Page 274]  been sustained a few years, she would probably have attempted some projects with which her mind was teeming at the time when she found it necessary to abstain from literary occupations. Yet perhaps her delicate frame, even if it had not been shaken by disease and sorrow, could never have sustained the effort necessary to command the thoughts with which, often, her imagination labored.

But whether or not there may be reason to suppose that, under more propitious circumstances, she might have moved, as a writer, in a higher sphere; it is enough to know that her talent has been most beneficially occupied. For, setting aside those of her works which display the most genius, she has, in an unpretending walk of literature, widely scattered the seeds of virtue and piety. Nor can it be doubted that the good fruits of her labors shall endure, and increase, long after those who now cherish a fond remembrance of her virtues in private life, shall have passed away.

[Next]

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom