Winchester, Jane Austen, Rifles and Rain

Winchester cathedral

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On a recent visit to Winchester — which, to my shame, I hadn’t visited before, even though I lived in Hampshire for 20 years — I felt duty-bound to pay homage at Jane Austen’s grave in the cathedral.

Jane Austen’s Gravestone

It’s a plain black stone, set into the northern aisle of Winchester cathedral, among dozens of others. If you weren’t looking for it, it would be easy to walk over and past it. The cathedral, though, knows it’s a tourist draw so they’ve made quite a display of it, with several stands that tell visitors about Austen’s life, and about her early death in 1817.

Jane Austen's gravestone, Winchester Cathedral

The gravestone makes no mention of Jane Austen’s writing. Women at that time (and later) were usually described by their virtues and by their relationships with men; as daughters, wives, mothers, aunts. So it was with Jane. The inscription (composed by Jane’s brother, James) reads:

In Memory of Jane Austen
youngest daughter of the late Revd George Austen
formerly Rector of Steventon in this County.
She departed this life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41,
after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian.
The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her
and the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Their grief is in proportion to their affection, they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope
that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable
in the sight of her REDEEMER.

Women’s unacknowledged talents?

Women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rarely had agency over their lives. They often weren’t allowed to follow their talents, even when those talents were enormous, because a woman’s role in life was seen to be marriage and motherhood. And for those who didn’t marry, like Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, life could mean the bottom of the social pile.

Think of Fanny Mendelssohn, born in 1805, many of whose compositions were attributed to her brother, Felix (conveniently also F. Mendelssohn on the scores). She did marry.

Fanny Hensel nee Mendelssohn 1842

Fanny [Hensel] in 1842

Fanny Mendelssohn 1828

Fanny Mendelssohn 1828


But Fanny’s father epitomised the prevailing view when he wrote to her in 1820:

Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.


Clara Schumann, 1878, by Lenbach

The celebrated pianist and composer Clara Schumann (born Clara Wieck in 1819) was an exception to the rule, a child prodigy brought up by her divorced father.

Even after her marriage to Robert Schumann she was always the main breadwinner of the family. And she was widowed young (with eight children). So she had little choice but to keep earning her own living.

Clara Schumann accompanies Joachim 1854

The painting (left) seems to me to show the face of a woman who’s had a hard life.

She’s shown right in a drawing from 1854 (when her husband was already confined in the asylum where he died in 1856).

Austen acknowledged…eventually

If Jane Austen had married, would she have become a published author?
How many of her masterpieces might she not have written?
I leave that for you to decide.

Winchester Cathedral, plaque to Jane Austen

At the time of her death, Jane Austen was not acknowledged as the author of the novels, but her name was included in a biographical note in the 1818 published set of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. In the cathedral, though, there was no mention of her writing until her nephew Edward erected this brass plaque on the wall by her grave, in 1870. (He paid for the plaque with the proceeds of his book about his aunt.) It says:

Jane Austen
Known to many by her writings, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character and ennobled by her Christian faith and piety was born at Steventon in the County of Hants, December 16 1775 and buried in the Cathedral July 18 1817.
“She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness”

Jane Austen window, Winchester cathedralLight from Jane Austen window, Wincester cathedralJane’s popularity increased over the nineteenth century. It shows.

Above the brass plaque, there is now a memorial window by C E Kempe, paid for by public subscription and erected in 1900. The head of the window features St Augustine (thought to be a pun on the name Austen).

The central light in the upper row shows David with his harp and bears the legend (in Latin) Remember in the Lord, Jane Austen together with her date of death.

Rifles and rain in Winchester

Winchester cathedral altar

Winchester cathedral is full of memorials, many of them to dead soldiers from The Royal Hampshires, The Kings Royal Rifle Corps and The Rifle Brigade. You find yourself treading on them in the aisles. And their rolls of honour are there to be consulted, in modern digital form:

Winchester is also the spiritual home of St Swithun who was buried (and reburied) in the cathedral but whose remains were swept away during the Reformation. This is his current memorial.Winchester cathedral, St Swithun memorial and iconostasisIn the background, you can see the nine icons painted in the 1990s by the Russian iconographer, Sergei Fyodorof. St Swithun’s icon is at the extreme right (partly obscured in this image by the canopy over his memorial).

It wasn’t raining during my visit. But there’s a nod to rain in the embroidered inscription on the edge of the canopy. It’s one that many of us learned at our mother’s knee:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain • for forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair • for forty days ’twill rain nae mareWinchester cathedral, St Swithun memorial

Being a history nut, I was happy to look at memorials to real riflemen. But for fans of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books — and of the irresistible green Rifle Brigade uniforms — I’m pasting in some Sean Bean eye candy that wasn’t available in the cathedral. Enjoy!


Joanna Maitland, authorJoanna

PS There was also a fantastic exhibition in Winchester cathedral: Kings and Scribes: the Birth of a Nation. Definitely worth a visit. Sadly, photography wasn’t allowed so it’s difficult for me to blog about it. However the link above includes official stills and video. Maybe worth a look?

14 thoughts on “Winchester, Jane Austen, Rifles and Rain

    1. Joanna Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Barb. I spent hours there, especially with the Winchester Bible (which I couldn’t blog about because cameras not allowed).

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Interesting about Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann but unsurprising. I am sure there were many more female talents unsung at the time, who have sunk without trace.

    1. Joanna Post author

      There are definitely more, Liz. Interestingly, BBC Radio 3 had become much better at including female composers in the last couple of years and I’ve heard some great music from women I’d never heard of. And the Composer of the Week slot (midday, weekdays) recently did Clara Schumann which is probably available on iPlayer.

  2. lesley2cats

    Love this. And then, of course, there was George Sand. What a woman! Wore male attire in Paris without a permit, had quite a few affairs, and spent the winters in Majorca with Chopin, where I first came across her. Now, if only I had a tame chauffeur I could go and visit Winchester… Thanks for this.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’d forgotten George Sand, Lesley. Slapped wrist. I just included the first 2 that came to mind. Of course, Austen couldn’t put her name to her novels while she was alive. And then there are the ACE Bell Brontës and George Elliot, who felt they had to write under male names.

  3. Sophie

    Oh, this is the very best sort of tourism – makes you think, makes you laugh, makes you appreciate the – hmm – scrumptious things of life. Thank you, Joanna!

  4. Gail Mallin

    Thanks for the post, Joanna. I spent a happy long weekend in Winchester years ago and enjoyed going round the Cathedral and the Green Jackets Museum. Sharpe was on the TV (first time round) at the time and they had an exhibition on featuring various props etc from the show. as well as genuine Peninsular War exhibits. Great fun for history buff…and Sean bean fan!

  5. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I really enjoyed this, Joanna. It was interesting to see the increasingly elaborate memorials to Jane throughout the 19th century. The Rifle Brigade connection interest me, too. Harry Smith (those of you who have read Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Spanish Bride’ will remember his and Juana’s story) was in the Rifle Brigade, famed for being the most up to date regiment as regards weapons in the British Army.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Elizabeth. I think the Sharpe books and films show the point well, about the up-to-date weapons. I’ve always meant to read Harry Smith’s autobiography but I’ve never yet done so. Juana seems to have been an amazing woman.

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