Jane Austen tragically died at the young age of 41 on 18 July 1817, leaving behind a grieving family and an astonishing literary legacy.
Her family was grateful that she did not suffer, or become disoriented, even at the very end of her life. Her brother Henry reported that she, “retained her faculties, her memory, her fancy, her temper, her affections, warm, clear and unimpaired, to the last. Neither her love of God, nor of her fellow creatures flagged for a moment. She made a point of receiving the sacrament before excessive bodily weakness might have rendered her perception unequal to her wished. She wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen became too laborious.”
Austen even managed to write a poem shortly before she died, verses which Henry declared to be “some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour.”
This poem, entitled Venta, was a humorous accounting of the inclement weather that occurred on St Swithun’s Day, July 15, in Winchester. Jane and her sister Cassandra were staying there at the time because Jane was under the care of a highly respected local physician, in a last ditch attempt to prolong her life. During the Roman occupation of Brition, Winchester had been known as Venta Belgarum [the Latinized form of the Brittonic words meaning City of the Belgae] and the oh-so-erudite scholars of the local college adored showing off their education by calling the city by its venerable Roman name. Jane, with the typical acerbic skewing of sociocultural absurdity you often find in her prose, simultaneously mocked both pretentious use of the name Venta for the city, as well the races that were supposedly held to celebrate St Swithun.
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of St. Swithin
And that William of Wykham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fix’d and determined
The company met & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d & ermin’d
And nobody saw any future alarming.
But when the old Saint was inform’d of these doings
He made but one spring from his shrine to the roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And thus he address’d them all standing aloof.
Oh subject rebellious, Oh Venta depraved!
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal. — By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinn’d and must suffer. — Then further he said
These races & revels & dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighbourly Plain
Let them stand — you shall meet with a curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command in July.
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers,
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers.
The poem is especially ironic and tongue-in-cheek because legend had it that whatever the weather on St Swithun’s feast day, it would continue that way for 40 days and nights, and because St Swithun was patron saint to whom one applied to end droughts. She was cheeky, was dearest Jane. No wonder her family and friends adored her so much.
Having composed her final work, Jane Austen passed away a little more than 48 hours later, taking her last breath in the pre-dawn stillness, with her head pillowed on her beloved sister Cassandra’s lap. While we all mourn the loss of such a gifted author, her loved ones were bereft for more personal reasons. Cassandra lamented that, “I have lost a treasure, such a sister, such a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.”
We have all lost such a treasure.