By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
There are many questions that remain about Jane Austen’s last years of life and the cause of death. What we do know is that she was certainly ill and acknowledged being so. In fact, Austen and many of her family members struggled with their health and illnesses through their lives. But these very struggles and challenges may have shaped her insights into hearts, minds, and bodies.
What Was the Cause of Austen’s Death?
Jane Austen was the first of the Austen siblings to die, after a long illness. Many have tried to diagnose the cause of her death.
In 1964, a physician named Sir Zachary Cope offered his theory that she’d died of a rare condition, which was later given the name Addison’s Disease, a disease of adrenal insufficiency, in which the adrenal glands produce too little of the hormone cortisol or aldosterone. Addison’s disease may also be called hypocortisolism. It’s characterized by fatigue, nausea, darkened skin, dizziness, and low blood pressure. It’s by no means an established fact, however.
Another possible diagnosis for Austen’s fatal last illness is cancer, perhaps Hodgkin’s disease or lymphoma. The scholar Annette Upfal, who has researched Austen’s last years and medical treatment, prefers a diagnosis of lymphoma. But, as she points out, both Addison’s Disease and lymphoma were “unidentified and untreatable in Austen’s lifetime”. The outcome, as she puts it, was “always fatal”.
Until her last few months, Jane’s case was thought to have been treatable. It was believed she would recover.
No Evidences to Ascertain
We don’t know as much as we’d like to know about Austen’s last years, before her death. That’s because, after her death, a large number of her letters are believed to have been destroyed by her sister Cassandra. One theory that’s advanced for that destruction is that it was done out of a sense of delicacy over issues of the body.
Perhaps Jane’s letters described too closely for Cassandra’s comfort her own embodied challenges. It’s also possible that Cassandra was carrying out her sister’s wishes by destroying her correspondence. Countless books and novels have been written trying to make sense of this set of circumstances.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A Timeline of Austen’s Illness
Many biographers suggest that Austen’s final illness—the one that would prove fatal—first took hold at the beginning of 1816, a year and a half before she died.
A few others, including Upfal, revise that date of illness back even further. It’s possible that Austen’s health problems emerged as early as 1813, when she began to have trouble with conjunctivitis, an eye problem, better known today as pink eye. Upfal also conjectures that Austen had lifelong immune problems. All of this is conjecture based on letters from Austen and others.
By spring 1817, Austen’s condition, whatever it was, was worsening. She writes in May of an “attack of [her] sad complaint” seizing her. She describes having fever, weakness, and languor. She was being kept in bed, with removals only to a sofa. Soon, the local apothecary was not able to cope with her case.
“Better advice was called in,” as Jane puts it in a letter to her niece. She said the nearest very good advice about her case was to be found in Winchester, the next largest town to Chawton. It was also said to be home to a hospital and capital surgeons. A Winchester surgeon treated her, at least partially successful.
Move to Winchester and Final Days
So at this time, it was decided that Jane Austen would not go to London, in order, as she says, to “put myself into the hands of some Physician as I should otherwise have done”. Because of the current surgeon’s successes in treating her, she writes, “I am going to Winchester instead.” Austen humorously described herself as a genteel, portable sort of invalid.
She moved into a home on 8 College Street, Winchester, to be treated there by the surgeon, Mr. Lyford. But her symptoms didn’t go away. Fevers continued, as did weakness.
As her brother James wrote to his son, “Mr. Lyford has candidly told us that her case is desperate.” Her concerned brother calls Jane his “poor invalid” but says one consolation is that she is not in severe pain. He notes Jane, “She is well aware of her situation.”
Her surgeon declared that, in her condition, it was “impossible for any person to last long”. She said her goodbyes to her family in mid-June, thinking it was her last day, but managed to hang on to life until mid-July.
Austen’s Cheerful Demeanor
Family members recorded her cheerfulness and sweetness of temper during her final days. However, it’s important to recognize that everyone thought it was imperative to die a “good death” then, in order to show oneself to be ready and willing to enter a heavenly afterlife.
It seems unlikely that at every moment Jane’s condition was calm, cheerful, and pain-free. It is true, however, that before she died, she was well enough to write a short, comic poem about St. Swithin’s Day, which falls on July 15th.
Austen’s Death and Commemoration
It’s incredible that Austen wrote comic verse, as if by a saint from the heavens, as her final act as an author. She died on July 18, 1817, and was buried shortly after in Winchester Cathedral.
There were monuments to her writing, and pilgrims to her grave, beginning in the 19th century, and they continue to this day. Visitors treat her a little like a saint. Her novels, filled with wisdom and humor, and insights about health and illness, continue to speak to us, and, for some, to offer comfort and healing, two centuries on.
Common Questions about The Final Years of Jane Austen and Her Death
Jane Austen bid her final goodbye on July 18, 1817, and was buried shortly after in Winchester Cathedral.
Jane Austen died after a long illness. Possible diagnoses for Austen’s fatal last illness include Addison’s disease and cancer, perhaps Hodgkin’s disease or lymphoma.
Family members recorded Austen‘s cheerfulness and sweetness of temper during her final days. In fact, before she died, she was well enough to write a short, comic poem about St. Swithin’s Day.