Austen and the Cathedral: Was Interment a Signal Honor?

This week marks the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, who died on July 18, 1817 of an unknown disease (Addison’s leads the speculation). Tributes have been flowing through any number of activities, readings, evensongs, and events, leading to July 24, the date of her funeral. In the UK, public benches are being dedicated to Austen, and the “Rain Jane”  program will have Austen’s words appear in public places throughout Hampshire whenever there is precipitation. These are just a few of the many events scheduled throughout the year.

Winchester Cathedral, where she is interred, is the focus of many of the activities. One was the unveiling of the £10 note graced with her face (above, by headline). As she is also on the £2 coin, Austen will be the first person other than a monarch to appear on more than one form of British currency at the same time. Cathedral bells tolled 41 times to mark each of her years on this earth.

Her burial raises an interesting question: Why, when this comparatively obscure spinster died in 1817, was she buried in a cathedral which houses the bones of Saxon kings and saints? This, in fact, was the subject of a talk by Professor Michael Wheeler at the cathedral on July 21.

It seems highly unusual for an ordinary citizen to be buried in a place normally reserved for secular and religious leaders. According to Jo Bartholomew, curator and librarian at the cathedral, the mortuary chests hold such dignitaries as: Cynigils and Cenwalh, two Christian kings from the seventh century; Kings Egbert and Ethelwulf (grandfather and father of King Alfred); King Cnut (Canute) and his Queen Emma; two bishops, Alwyn and Stigand; and king William Rufus. Most had been originally buried in Old Minster, the predecessor to Winchester Cathedral, which was just to the north and partially beneath it.

Was it common for an ordinary citizen to be buried there in

King Cnut (Canute) is one of the ancient kings and bishops interred at Winchester Cathedral, along with Jane Austen.

1817, or was this an extraordinary honor? In those days, not so extraordinary after all. Indeed, Jane was the third and last person buried there that year. Austen expert Deidre Le Faye suggests that the cathedral was selling burials to raise money.

Cost, rather than rank, may have been the limiting factor for a cathedral interment, which cost the Austen family was willing to bear. Jane’s funeral expenses came to £92, a significant amount for someone of her means. Clearly, she or her family was determined to make a statement. After all, none of her brothers, including Frank, who died the highest-ranking naval officer in England, received such a burial.

Elizabeth Proudman, vice chairman of the Jane Austen Society and an expert on Jane Austen, said in a letter that the location was likely Austen’s choice: “I believe that she is buried there, because she wanted to be. It was up to the Dean in those days to decide who could and who could not be buried in the Cathedral. Usually it was enough to be respectable and ‘gentry.’ This, of course, she was as her late father and two of her brothers were in the church.” 

Jane’s father, George, had been the rector at Steventon, fourteen miles away, until he retired in 1801. He was succeeded by James, his oldest son, who still held that position in 1817. Henry, who had taken up the cloth after his bank collapsed in the recession of 1816, also had a clerical position nearby. It probably did not hurt that Jane’s brother Edward was the wealthy inheritor of the Knight estate, with extensive holdings in Steventon and Chawton, which was sixteen miles away. From his recent ordination, Henry knew the Bishop, according to biographer Claire Tomalin; and the Dean, Thomas Rennell, was a friend of the important Chute family who were relatives of the Austens.

Having lived at Chawton for nine years, where she wrote or significantly revised her oeuvre, Jane was taken to Winchester for unsuccessful medical treatment. “She had been ill in Winchester for about two months, and I think her burial must have been discussed,” Proudman says. “I like to think that her family would have talked about it with her, and that they followed her wishes. … It may be that she had no particular attachment to the village [of Chawton]. We know that she admired Winchester Cathedral, and she knew several of the clergy. When she died she had some money from her writing, and her funeral expenses were paid from her estate. It was a tiny funeral, only 3 brothers and a nephew attended, and it had to be over before the daily business of the Cathedral began at 10.00 am.” 

In fact, most funerals were relatively small in those days, and women did not attend. Cassandra, with their friend Martha Lloyd (James’ sister-in-law), “watched the little mournful procession the length of the street & when it turned from my sight I had lost her for ever.” In that letter to their niece Fanny two days after Jane’s death, Cass added: “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, such a friend as can never be 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, & it is as if I have lost a part of myself. … Never was [a] human being more sincerely mourned … than was this dear creature.”

Edward, Francis, and Henry were the brothers who attended. Charles was too far away to come. James was ill (he died two years later), but his nineteen-year-old son, James Edward, rode from Steventon to Winchester for the service. Thomas Watkins, the Precentor (a member of a church who facilitates worship), read the service. Jane was interred in a brick-lined vault on the north side of the nave.

While Jane is interred at a grand cathedral, her mother (left) and sister are buried in the churchyard at Chawton, close to the cottage where all three women lived.

Tomalin believes it was Henry who “surely sought permission for their sister to be buried in the cathedral; splendid as it is, she might have preferred the open churchyard at Steventon or Chawton.” One suspects it was Henry who pushed for the cathedral, and Jane would have been happy to be at rest anywhere. Yet, modest as she was in many ways, she understood the worth of her writing. She may have made the decision with a view to posterity. In any event, Cassandra was pleased with the decision. “It is a satisfaction to me,” she said, that Jane’s remains were “to lie in a building she admired so much. … her precious soul I presume to hope reposes in a far superior mansion.” 

Henry arranged for a plaque to be installed in the cathedral to commemorate Jane’s benevolence, sweetness, and intellect, but curiously enough, not her writing. As the popularity of her novels grew over time, officials were baffled by the pilgrims coming to visit the crypt of a woman the church knew not as a brilliant novelist but only as the daughter of a rural clergyman.

 

Austen in Australia

I spent the week in Australia, giving presentations on the history and work of Jane Austen. The lectures took me to Sydney, where I spoke at the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, and at a local library; and at the Austen societies in Newcastle and Brisbane.

As in America as well as England, many people here are Austen aficionados, if not fanatics. All manner of readers speak of “their Jane” or “my Jane.” The author’s stories resonate on every continent.

Subjects included the Napoleonic Wars and how they affected Jane Austen’s family and her novels; the general history of the period 1775-1820 and how the major issues of the broader world are subtly weaved into the life of Austen’s country villages; and the battle over slavery, a contentious issue that spanned Austen’s life. Her handling of the topic—or not—in her books is the subject of much debate.

I had given the talks in the U.S. and England, but to more general audiences. I was a little nervous about whether well-studied Janeites would find the information compelling—or old hat. Because I generally cover material outside Austen’s immediate context, though, the topics held their attention and led to good questions afterward.

At the Sydney talk about the war, one person suggested that I add the fact that the income tax was instituted in 1799 to help pay for it. She was probably right, but I was able to say I would cover that point in the broader talk I was doing two days hence. The war cost England the staggering sum of 1.68 billion pounds. Despite this and taxes on goods such as carriages and hair powder, half that amount remained as debt at war’s end.

Australians were interested to hear how Austen weaves naval references into her novels

The next lecture was at the Ashfield library in a Sydney suburb, located in a mall close by Woolworth’s—completely separate from the U.S. five-and-dime that went out of business decades ago. We were upstairs from the library proper, in a large meeting room where the area council meets to conduct local government business.

Questions here were more about her writing and the writing of other authors of the same period. One person asked what kind of novel I thought Austen would have written had she been a man. This enabled me to say with a smile, “These over here!” Appreciative laughter as I pointed to my trilogy, “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen.” The gentleman was kind enough to buy a copy.

The people in Newcastle were lovely; the town is also lovely—an old steel town that is now being rejuvenated, though a lot of its business remains shipping coal to China and elsewhere. My hosts and the group leader were, well, … lovely. One easily falls into the habit of describing the people and locales as “lovely,” because that’s the one short word that best describes them all.

This venue was more intimate, which either unnerves the speaker or relaxes him. I found myself enjoying the close encounter.

Susannah Fullerton, Austen expert, shows a path in Sydney, built in the early 1800s by convicts sent to Australia from England

At the Brisbane talk on slavery, for time and relevance, I did not discuss Mrs. Smith and her financial troubles in the West Indies in “Persuasion.” This reference strongly implies her business is related to the sugar plantations. To me, this is a plot device rather than a comment on slavery. This minor character needs help on a financial matter distant and complicated enough that she cannot resolve it on her own, and the purpose of her predicament is to demonstrate the relative trustworthiness of Mr. Eliot and Capt. Wentworth. The question, though, shows how closely Janeites peruse the works.

My sponsor for this trip was Susannah Fullerton, long-term president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, a highly respected author of several books on the English writer, speaker on numerous literary topics, and leader of worldwide literary tours.

I have been corresponding with Susannah for three years on many matters related to Austen. She’s a terrific person, very generous with her time and thoughts. Her kindness to me on this trip, and her thoughtful advice on literary projects, were beyond anything I might have expected. Arriving as a distant colleague, I was treated as a close friend. 

Did Austen Speak Posh?

In our last blog, we heard how Shakespeare’s English much more resembled the accents of the provinces than the “proper” English favored today by actors and newscasters, the latter being an accent called “Received Pronunciation” or “RP.”

Jane Austen had knowledge of and appreciation for Shakespeare. There are parallels between her social comedies and his, Willoughby reads “Hamlet” in “Sense and Sensibility,” and Edmund Bertram discusses Shakespeare in “Mansfield Park.”

Austen has other passing references to the Bard, one of which, Sonnet 116, is given prominence in Emma Thompson’s screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility,” as explained  here (with some additional theorizing).

Seeing that Austen, like Shakespeare, is considered one of the masters of impeccable English, the question naturally arises as to whether the speaking language in her sitting rooms was closer to RP or to the “Original Pronunciation” or “OP”–a rich, earthy, older dialect similar to Scottish, Irish, and American English.

Austen’s novels are set in different counties in south England. Each dialect would have varied somewhat, but there would have been many similarities. To pick one county to stand for all, let’s use Hampshire, Austen’s home for most of her life.

Tony Grant, a scholar from Hampshire, says the county’s sound “is a warm, gentle sort of accent with a soft burr to it … You could not mistake somebody speaking with a Hampshire accent … as coming from anywhere else but Hampshire.”

According to Grant, the famous first proposal by Darcy to Liz in “Pride and Prejudice” would have sounded much different if rendered in the Hampshire speech that Austen herself likely used. First, here is Austen’s graceful prose:

“In an unhurried manner he immediately began an inquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. … He came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began: ‘In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’ ”

Once she overcomes her astonishment, Liz responds:

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. … If I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. … ”

Darcy’s plea and Liz’s response is transformed thus:

“Ize a bin struggling wi meslf, Lizzie. It won’t do nay more. Me feelins will not be [reprezz’d] nay mar. Yee mussle allowz me t’ tell yee ’ow, wi some power’ul emotion me admires and loves ee.”

“In sich as this, it is ’stablished thing t’express a sense a obligati’n fer the sen’imen’s avowed, ’owever unequalz they be. … If ay could feel grat’tude, I’d now thank ee. But ay can’t – I’ve ne’r wannered yer good thoughts like, and yee’ve cert’nly bin unwillin’ aven’t ee.”

Grant admits that this accent is exaggerated; he says he mixes in other accents from farther west. In addition to changing the pronunciation he also modifies much of Austen’s formal language to Hampshire colloquialisms. Even so, the dialog should make it clear that Liz would have spoken much differently than most of us assume. If she were to break into that dialect in a BBC episode, we would likely be as astonished as Liz was at Darcy’s unexpected proposal.

It does not appear that anyone has done a recording of Austen’s work in a Hampshire dialect. For comparison, though, here is a recording of a local Hampshire man born in 1898. The Austen accent, from eighty to a hundred years earlier, would have been at least as thick and likely thicker (one might say, “richer”).

Here is another one from the county, a woman born in 1920. In just one generation, the accent has become less distinct, but it’s still noticeable. To an untrained American ear, the woman’s accent sounds like the maid Rose from the series “Upstairs Downstairs” rather than from one of the gentry upstairs.

It would be fascinating to hear how the use of Austen’s native tongue might change the speed, rhythm, and emphasis of the dialogue. There is a very noticeable difference in Shakespeare plays, as comparison. The original accent is faster, spoken from the belly rather than the vocal cords, and brings out more puns in the text.

The International Dialects of English Archive includes accents from other locales in which Austen set her scenes. None of the accents resembles the posh English of today’s Shakespeare plays and Austen movies.

Both Austen and her characters would have been immediately recognized as being from the country when they went up to London, which then as now has its own distinct sound. Locals would not necessarily assume they were bumpkins; the country had too many regional accents to allow discrimination by sound; one could tell the “right sort” of people by their wealth and manners.

It was, however, during this time that the speech of the well-to-do in and around London began to assume its modern form. A major change was the loss of ‘rhoticity’—the ‘r’ sound after a vowel, so that “park” became “pahk.” There’s a chance that Londoners—and perhaps Darcy—would have begun to pick up the distinct RP accent that the modern listener associates with upper-crust England.

That accent is relatively easy to learn, according to a young woman who promises to teach us how to speak like Hermione from “Harry Potter.”

But what is posh is a matter of fashion rather than linguistics. At least one young London woman considers “RP”—as spoken by Dowager Countess Grantham in “Downton Abbey”—to be an accent that can be used credibly only by old people. She distinguishes between old-fashioned RP and modern “standard,” in which people are allowed to maintain their natural accents.

Under this definition, Jane Austen’s Hampshire accent would be perfectly acceptable because she always wrote proper English, no matter how she spoke it.

Note and tip of the hat: I came to the article about Austen’s accent through a long interest in Shakespeare’s tongue, which led to the previous blog post here. As I was working on both of these blogs, Vic at Jane Austen’s World published the blog by Tony Grant, which I cite here. I independently came upon several other links included in that blog. Jane Austen’s World is a lovely website, and I encourage everyone to visit it.

 

From High Tech to Jane Austen

Blame it on Dr. Eaves.

He’s the answer to the question, why would a 21st Century man, who has spent most of his career in computers, business, and aviation, explore the “what ifs” in the life of a literary woman from two hundred years earlier?

Dr. Duncan Eaves was my cherubic 18th Century literature instructor, who could joyfully recite long stretches of Pope’s heroic couplets or convince his students, by good humor alone, that it was worth the effort to finish Samuel Richardson’s tedious novel Pamela.

Dr. Eaves was a world expert in 18th Century literature, and Jane Austen was the bookend of his course. He and another wonderful instructor at my school, Dr. Ben Kimpel, wrote the definitive biography of Richardson, usually considered the first English novelist, and Dr. Eaves edited an edition of Pamela.

Dr. Eaves eschewed the usual Jane Austen reads, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, for Emma, which he considered much the superior work.

At this same time, in a class on modern poetry, I read a poem—by Anne Sexton or Maxine Kumin, I believe—that described what life would have been like for Romeo and Juliet had they not “escaped” with a romantic death: squalling babies, money hassles, etc. I had just gotten married and had a child, was struggling financially, and knew, even at 21, that courtship and marriage were radically different things.

The situation led to animated exchanges with Dr. Eaves about Austen. My view was that she was a brilliant but superficial writer—almost by definition—because courtship did not lend itself to investigation of the deepest feelings of the heart or the substance of life. Her books, I told Dr. Eaves, ended where they should have begun: with marriage.

Dr. Eaves told me to come back and read Austen every ten years or so. As I gained experience, he said, I would see more of life woven into the fabric of her work and less of the comedy of manners. Over time, his prediction came true. Austen pushed the bounds of convention, and likely her own sense of propriety, by addressing substantive issues obliquely—premarital sex and the slave trade, to mention two.

Even the delightful Emma, with its breezily misguided protagonist, manages to provide “perfect happiness” for a scandalous situation, which is the fact of Harriet’s illegitimacy. Interestingly enough, her being a “natural” daughter turns out not to be nearly as important as whether her father was a gentleman, as Emma supposes, or a tradesman, as turns out to be the case.

Novels in Austen’s day often addressed the question of a lady’s virtue before marriage but never seriously addressed other matters of consequence, before or after the wedding. Austen’s secondary characters are the ones involved in dubious—thus consequential—activities, and she often leaves open the question of future happiness for them. The main characters, however, skip off gaily into the future.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen is my solution to the questions that began decades ago at university. I wanted to bring the more serious issues of her day out of the background and into the light, as part of the protagonist’s own experiences.

I also wanted to see how a woman of Austen’s intelligence, passion, and independence would respond when she must directly address those issues. The answer was to throw the female lead into the exciting, chaotic maelstrom that was the Georgian-Regency era.