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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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”
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 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.In 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:
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!
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?