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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Letters 40-42: The Death of Reverend Austen, As Described by Jane to Frank (Austen)

In this post, I comment on Jane Austen's Letters 40-42 (all written to Frank Austen upon the sudden death of Revd Austen) as a unit, because #41 is a rewrite of #40, and #42 is akin to a p.s. to the earlier letter. This is a unique opportunity to see how JA's mind worked as she rewrote a letter one day after sending it.

Letter 40: 1/21/05 Letter 41: 1/22/05 Letter 42: 1/29/05

I've broken #40 & #41 into sections, one after the other, to see the changes more clearly. My overall comment, is first that it’s interesting to compare Letter 40/41 to Letter 8, the condolence letter JA wrote to cousin Phylly Walter after the death of Phylly’s father (who was Revd. Austen’s elder half brother). In both, we see JA struggling (as we all struggle) to find the right words to write in such a moment. And second, it’s interesting to compare #40 to #41, as we see JA, the author who automatically kicks into writer mode, and edits and refines upon rewriting.


#40: I have melancholy news to relate, & sincerely feel for your feelings under the shock of it.-I wish I could better prepare you for it. But having said so much, your mind will already forestall the sort of event which I have to communicate.-

#41: I wrote to you yesterday; but your letter to Cassandra this morning, by which we learn the probability of your being by this time at Portsmouth, obliges me to write to you again, having unfortunately a communication as necessary as painful to make to you.-Your affectionate heart will be greatly wounded, & I wish the shock could have been lessen'd by a better preparation;-but the Event has been sudden, & so must be the information of it.

My comment: Note that she edits to talk about Frank’s heart instead of his mind.


40: Our dear Father has closed his virtuous & happy life, in a death almost as free from suffering as his Children could have wished.

41: We have lost an Excellent Father.

My comment: Less is definitely more in change from #40 to #41.


40: -He was taken ill on Saturday morning, exactly in the same way as heretofore, an oppression in the head, with fever, violent tremulousness, & the greatest degree of Feebleness. The same remedy of Cupping, which had before been so successful, was immediately applied to-but without such happy effects. The attack was more violent, & at first he seemed scarcely at all releived by the operation.

41 -An illness of only eight & forty hours carried him off yesterday morning between ten & eleven. He was seized on saturday with a return of the feverish complaint, which he had been subject to for the three last years; evidently a more violent attack from the first, as the applications which had before produced almost immediate releif, seemed for some time to afford him scarcely any.

My comment: I detect no significance in the change in wording. What I am most struck by is imagining living in a world with such primitive medical knowledge!


40: -Towards the Evening however he got better, had a tolerable night, & yesterday morning was so greatly amended as to get up & join us at breakfast as usual, & walk about with only the help of a stick, & every symptom was then so favourable that when Bowen saw him at one, he felt sure of his doing perfectly well.-But as the day advanced, all these comfortable appearances gradually changed; the fever grew stronger than ever, & when Bowen saw him at ten at night, he pronounc'd his situation to be most alarming.-At nine this morning he came again-& by his desire a Physician was called in;-Dr. Gibbs-But it was then absolutely a lost case-. Dr. Gibbs said that nothing but a Miracle could save him, and about
twenty minutes after Ten he drew his last gasp.

41 -On Sunday however he was much better, so much so as to make Bowen quite easy, & give us every hope of his being well again in a few days.-But these hopes gradually gave way as the day advanced, & when Bowen saw him at ten that night he was greatly alarmed.-A Physician was called in yesterday morning, but he was at that time past all possibility of cure-& Dr. Gibbs and Mr. Bowen had scarcely left his room before he sunk into a Sleep from which he never woke.- Everything I trust & beleive was done for him that was possible!-It has been very sudden!-within twenty four hours of his death he was walking with only the help of a stick, was even reading!-

My comment: Again, I detect no significance in the change in wording. I also note that Bowen (who was, I guess, an apothecary) was the first to be called, and only when things really went south, was the physician called.


40: -Heavy as is the blow, we can already feel that a thousand comforts remain to us to soften it. Next to that of the consciousness of his worth & constant preparation for another World, is the remembrance of his having suffered, comparatively speaking, nothing. Being quite insensible of his own state, he was spared all the pain of separation, & he went off almost in his Sleep.-

41 We had however some hours of preparation, & when we understood his recovery to be hopeless, most fervently did we pray for the speedy release which ensued. To have seen him languishing long, struggling for Hours, would have been dreadful! & thank God! we were all spared from it. Except the restlessness & confusion of high Fever, he did not suffer-& he was mercifully spared from knowing that he was about to quit the Objects so beloved, so fondly cherished as his wife & Children ever were.-His tenderness as a Father, who can do justice to?-

My comment: #41 dramatized and “showed” the last hours whereas #40 merely “told” what happened.


#40: My Mother bears the Shock as well as possible; she was quite prepared for it, & feels all the blessing of his being spared a long Illness. My Uncle & Aunt have been with us, & shew us every imaginable kindness. And to-morrow we shall I dare say have the comfort of James's presence, as an express has been sent to him.-We write also of course to Godmersham & Brompton. Adieu my dearest Frank. The loss of such a Parent must be felt, or we should be Brutes-. I wish I could have given you better
preparation-but it has been impossible.

#41 My Mother is tolerably well; she bears up with great fortitude, but I fear her health must suffer under such a shock.-An express was sent for James, & he arrived here this morning before eight o'clock.-The funeral is to be on Saturday, at Walcot Church.-The Serenity of the Corpse is most delightful!-It preserves the sweet, benevolent smile which always distinguished him.-They kindly press my Mother to remove to Steventon as soon as it is all over, but I do not beleive she will leave Bath at present. We must have this house for three months longer, & here we shall probably stay till the end of that time.-We all unite in Love,

My comment: #41 clearly has up to the minute news lacking in #40 written a day earlier, including the appearance of the corpse--but #41 does not mention Aunt and Uncle being there, an interesting oversight.


“My Mother has found among our dear Father's little personal property, a small astronomical Instrument which she hopes you will accept for his sake. It is, I beleive a Compass & Sun-Dial, & is in a Black chagreen Case. Would you have it sent to you now, & with what direction?-There is also a pair of scissars for you.-We hope these are articles that may be useful to you, but we are sure they will be valuable.-I have not time for more.

My comment: It might seem at first that Mrs. Austen has determined that Frank, even though the next to youngest son, is the elder of the sailor sons, and therefore could very well have some special feeling for his father's telescope, compass & sun dial. However, when we add to this mix the discovery I made 5 years ago, which is that Frank Austen was a _Freemason_, therefore a compass & sun-dial would have _extra_ significance for Frank for that special reason.

Cheers, ARNIE

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