The Jane Austen exhibition at Winchester Cathedral
During her final bout of illness, Jane had moved to Winchester to be closer to her physician. She died there on July 18, 1817, attended to the last by her sister Cassandra and sister-in-law Mary. The nature of her illness, whether Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s lymphoma or tuberculosis, remains disputed. She was only 41 years old. Cassandra Austen wrote of her departed sister Jane: “Her dear remains are to be deposited in the cathedral – it is a satisfaction to me to think they are to lie in a building she admired so much.”
The press release for the exhibition informs us that “Hampshire offers Jane Austen admirers a wonderful window into her life, at her birthplace of Steventon, where she lived at Chawton and in Winchester, her final resting place. The Cathedral provides the perfect space to bring together each element of Jane’s life through the public exhibition and to give prominence to her ledgerstone, which lies quietly in the north nave aisle and often goes unnoticed. Our focus will be on Jane Austen the person, her life, family and friends. So much of daily life during the regency period is so different to today, and we know this will reveal a totally different side to Jane Austen’s fans and followers.”
I visited the Cathedral, Jane’s tomb and the exhibition itself. I expected to spend an hour or two there, before heading for the Hampshire Archives to delve into the Austen fund. How wrong I was! I spent the whole day at the Cathedral, with a short interruption for tea in the afternoon.
Where to start? Maybe with my first surprise. As I walked to the current Cathedral, I passed a sign indicating the location of the Old Minster of Saint Swithun, or Swithin, and began to read about the ancient pilgrimage around the tomb of this 9th century Bishop of Winchester. And lo and behold, I learned that it had been the burial place of many Saxons Kings and Queens, including Emma of Normandy!
I have long been fascinated by Emma, an extraordinary character in an era that saw so many women of power. The daughter of Richard Sans Peur, the Fearless, Duc of Normandy, and his concubine Gunnar, she married two successive Kings of England, was the mother of two more. Also it is through her that her grand-nephew William of Normandy would, a few years after her death, claim and conquer at the battle of Hastings the English crown. She was at the epicenter of international politics between Normandy, England and Flanders in the first half of the 11th century
In my mind Emma of Normandy had long been associated with the more modest queen of Highbury, Emma Woodhouse. How fitting that the latter’s creator be buried in the same place at the great medieval Queen. But, as we Janeites know, there are no coincidences in Austen’s world.
Then I entered the Cathedral itself, built at the beginning of William’s reign in the Normand style and later adorned with lavish wood and stone carvings in the 14th century. The Cathedral is, simply put, a jewel of medieval art and architecture and a testament to English history.
Back to Jane Austen. Next to her sober black tombstone, the exhibition itself consists in one case, and a few watercolour displays briefly evoking the stages of Jane’s life: Steventon, Bath, Chawton Cottage. Those reflect the generally accepted rural, idyllic version of Jane’s life. They are pleasant, but will not bring new information to anyone familiar with Jane’s biography. The contents of the case, however, were of the utmost interest. It contains highly personal items: the manuscript of the poem she wrote on her 33rd birthday, which was also the fourth anniversary of the untimely death of her dearest Mrs. Lefroy:
The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions in my mind arise!
Beloved Friend; four years have passed away
Since thou wert snatched for ever from our eyes.
The day commemorative of my birth,
Bestowing life, and light, and hope to me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on earth.
O! bitter pang of torturing memory!
Fain would I feel an union with thy fate:
Fain would I seek to draw an omen fair
From this connection in our earthly date.
Indulge the harmless weakness. Reason, spare.
On the other side of the display and in a completely different mood, rests a charade, also written by Jane, and unfortunately placed in such a way as to be illegible to the visitor. This too is reminiscent of Emma, and of the lively, stimulating atmosphere at Steventon Rectory. Also a manuscript of a poem by her eldest brother James composed upon her death, and the original draft by her other brother Henry for her ledger stone.
Why didn’t Henry, who also acted as Jane’s literary agent, mention any of her novels? She was already a published author, and had garnered some succès d’estime, and the recognition of the Prince Regent himself, though tragically not the widespread acclaim she knew she had earned. Oh what a Henry! she had once written wryly.
Speaking of books, I admired first editions of Emma (yes, always Emma) and of Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, the latter a posthumous edition in blue sugar paper binding, the cheapest then available, the equivalent of our modern mass-market paperbacks.
Also displayed is a silhouette of “Jane Austin [sic] done by herself in 1815” according to the inscription on the back, and presented to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral in 1956 by Miss Jessie Lefroy, a descendant of James Austen. The exhibition notice indicates that its authenticity is in dispute because “stylistically” it seems to date from the end of the 19th century. On what grounds? I would have loved to know, but that remained unanswered. This silhouette reminded me of the discussion we had lately on the identification of the portraits in The History of England. If it were authentic, the resemblance between the profiles of a middle-aged Jane and her mother would be quite interesting.
But there still a more fascinating document: the burial register of the Cathedral. Since Jane was interred within it, it is normal to find her name there. But oddly enough, the burial date is noted as 16 July 1817, two days before her death, and eight days before her actual burial, on 24 July 1817. Odd… Still stranger is the fact that the register is signed by one J. Watkins, who signed other burial records. But wait! The Watkins signature on Jane’s entry is not the same as the other Watkins signatures in the same register. Who then signed this erroneous record, the last official recording of Jane’s career on earth? Another Austen mystery to add to your list. Why was Jane granted the privilege of burial in the Cathedral? It seems that this came through the intervention of Elizabeth Bigg-Wither, a close friend of Jane and a great help during the last months of her life at Winchester. Jane had once accepted her brother Harris Bigg-Wither’s offer of marriage, only to rescind her decision the next morning. Friendships can survive such trials.
One would assume Jane’s body to lie beneath her black ledger stone, but that would be far too simple. You see, central heating was installed in the Cathedral in the 1930s, and the pipes would have run straight across Jane’s tomb. A volunteer guide indicated that her coffin had been moved one yard or two to the right of the ledger stone. So now where is she, really? I felt like whispering, “Jane, is that you?”
But Jane’s remains were not the only ones to be disturbed at Winchester. During the English Civil War, soldiers shot through the Cathedral’s stained glass and tossed the mortuary chests containing the bones of Emma of Normandy and the other monarchs of the Saxon dynasty out the wide open windows. The bones were later gathered again. Pieces of stained glass were also salvaged and are integrated in a spare, almost transparent design of the West window that floods the Cathedral with light. One of the recomposed mortuary chests now sitting in the Presbytery bears the name of the great Emma, though in fact her remains may be scattered through the five other chests.
These were hardly the first indignities Winchester Cathedral had suffered in the course of its history. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, no less a luminary than Thomas Cromwell descended upon the Cathedral to destroy the shrine of St. Swithin, a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. For good measure, the statues of the stunning Great Screen were pulled down, mutilated or reused as building materials, though the structure itself was preserved. The Screen would not be restored to its former glory until the last years of the reign of Victoria. Sadly Jane never lived to see it, and we know through engravings that in her time the bare gaps where the statues had stood were partly hidden by a painting of Lazarus rising from the dead. The restored Screen, by the way, features images of both Emma of Normandy and Victoria.
Fragments of the original statues were recovered and are now on display. By some miracle, another treasure of the Cathedral, the Winchester Bible, survived the Dissolution, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Its colours are as vibrant as the day they were applied by some long forgotten monk.
As for St. Swithin, patron of the Cathedral, it is difficult to ignore the part he played in Jane’s life. Her parents were married in the Church of St. Swithin in Bath, and her father, Reverend George Austen was buried there in the crypt. And Jane’s last work, titled Venta (the Latin name for Winchester) composed as she lied dying in July 1817 in the small house on College Street, a stone throw from the Cathedral, concerns St. Swithin:
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 determin’d
The company met & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d and 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 then he address’d them all standing aloof.
Oh subjects 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 & must suffer. – Then further he said
These races & revels & dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–you shall meet with your 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.
Jane kept her sense of humour to the last, did she not? What would she have thought of the shiny bronze plaque placed next to her tomb by her nephew and first biographer James Edward Austen-Leigh, and paid from the proceeds of A Memoir of Jane Austen? Of the memorial stained glass window paid by public subscription in 1900, marking her increasing fame? Or of the central heating system that disturbed her last rest?
What matters is that her beloved Cathedral stands, more beautiful than ever, witness and survivor of the convulsions of history, and she lies somewhere in its embrace. If I may be forgiven for copying Cassandra’s words and thought, it is a satisfaction to me too. Before leaving I lit a candle in Jane’s memory, with the firm intention of returning very soon.
Until September 20 at Winchester Cathedral