On the anniversary of Jane Austen's death

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Jane Austen died two hundred years ago on 18 July 1817. Whilst the causes of her death are subject to speculation—cancer, Addison’s disease and arsenic poisoning have all been held responsible—what is more certain is that she would have had little sentimentality about her passing and even less about the glory of posthumous fame.”  

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Her writing often deals unflinchingly with death. When Mrs Musgrove in Persuasion (1817) laments the passing of her son Richard, her audible grief—what the author-narrator sharply describes as her ‘large large fat sighings’—is seen to be flabbily in excess of the reality of a ‘pathetic…family history…the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son’. Yet consideration is still paid to ‘all that was real and unabsurd in the parent’s feelings’. Austen’s famously free and indirect style here both elicits our sympathy for the grieving mother and is a corrective to incongruous memorialisation.

In one of the last letters she wrote before her death, Austen wryly notes: ‘With all the Egotism of an Invalid I write only of myself’. There is a kind of self-centredness to suffering and grief that Austen’s novels acknowledge as somewhat inescapable at the same time as they criticise it. The valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse from Emma (1815) is a brilliant study of such a phenomenon. In her final months, Austen is self-aware enough to imagine herself as seen from the outside: A sickly letter writer filling her pages with her circumscribed observances. 

Writing or speaking only of oneself is something Austen treats warily. Her most sympathetic characters are rarely the garrulous ones. But whereas her fiction melds together the perspectives of narrator and characters, letters are naturally reliant upon the first person pronoun. In her letters, Austen makes play of this authorial egotism. She ends a letter loaded with domestic detail with praise for her compositional dexterity: ‘There, I flatter myself I have constructed you a smartish Letter, considering my want of Materials’. 

For many writers of the eighteenth century, letters were a way of voicing and editing their literary legacy. The poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), for example, was the first English author to publish his letters in print in his own lifetime in a comprehensive way. Pope’s epistolary self-portrait is of a writer ‘throwing [himself] out upon paper without reserve’. Austen did not write like this and did not intend for her letters to appear in this public fashion. Indeed her sister Cassandra destroyed many of the original manuscripts. Nevertheless, in her letters Austen is conscious of her own context in a wider world. She pokes fun at the self-deception of personal utterance when she jokes to Cassandra about how she writes ‘only for fame, and without any view to pecuniary emolument’. The grandiose phrase, ‘pecuniary emolument’ (another way of saying financial gain), is meant to mock those who eschew the baser motives for writing. As one of Austen’s favourite authors Samuel Johnson pithily understood: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’. 

Austen ironically declared herself the ‘most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress’. We might read such a statement alongside a striking moment in one of Austen’s letters where she pauses to ask a question: ‘What is become of all the shyness in the world?’ Perhaps we could fruitfully think of all of Austen’s writing—her professional fiction and her personal correspondence—as concerned with authorial discretion. Austen characterises the matter of her letters as ‘important nothings’. On the bicentenary of her death the phrase’s understatement is aptly commemorative of the significance of her work’s precision and self-effacement..

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