Persuasions #5, 1983 Pages 10-11
LITTLE ADO ABOUT DATING JANE AUSTEN
Berry College, Mount Berry, Georgia 30149
“I am sincerely rejoiced however that I ever was born, since it has been the means of procuring him a dish of Tea.”1 So wrote Jane to Cassandra at Godmersham responding to her little nephew George’s celebration of her birthday in absentia. But historians, whether “partial, prejudiced and ignorant,” in rejoicing also over the life of England’s greatest novelist, undoubtedly will procure the wrath of St. Swithun for their inaccurate recording of the dates of her life.
A plethora of information based on Austen eyewitnesses exists to verify that she was born the seventh of eight children to the Reverend George and Cassandra Austen on December 16, 1775, and died forty-one years and two hundred fifteen days later at 4:30 a.m., Friday, July 18, 1817. Despite the multitudinous evidence, Robert Nye wrote in the February 19, 1976 of The Christian Science Monitor: “Jane Austen was born 200 years ago.” Fortunate for him that he declined a local museum’s invitation to open an exhibition in her honour. Understandable is the confusion over just where among the Austen’s lively offsprings she is numbered, given the obscurity, until this century, of her second brother George’s existence. Yet in 1980 in the York Notes on Northanger Abbey Ian Milligan wrote: “She was born in 1775, the third of a family of eight children ....”
More surprising is the misdating of the sad day on which she departed this earth. The Winchester Burial Registry has the distinction of being at the top of this list for its record of her death on July 16, 1817, for which there appears no explanation. In 1969 in Jane Austen In Her Time (!) W. A. Craik opened an otherwise excellent study: “Jane Austen’s England is the England of the years in which she wrote her novels; that is from the 1790’s to her death in 1816.” Eleven years later In the Meantime’s author Susan Morgan perpetuated the misdating: “Jane Austen died in 1816 .....” And in the same year Ian Milligan committed further mischief when he crop’t two years off her already intolerably brief life in writing that “she spent the last six years of her life in a small house on his (Edward Knight’s) estate,” disregarding Jane’s own epistolary evidence that she was in Chawton Cottage by July 1809.
Less scrupulous than Jane herself in regard to dates, Douglas Bush, in getting the details otherwise correct, wrote: “She died at Winchester on July 18, 1817, just beyond the middle of her forty-second year,” making her thereby a year older! Alas! that it were so. But Anne-Marie Edwards following in Jane’s footsteps lop’t over seven months from her life when she wrote: “Jane died peacefully in Cassandra’s arms. She was just forty-one.” Were this so, Jane would have been denied time to compose the first twelve chapters of a robustly comic fragment, posthumously titled Sanditon, as she did, according to her biographer-nephew, from January 27 to March 17. An extra day is gained if Elizabeth Jenkins’ dating of March 18 is allowed.
Jane Austen was a great observer of birthdays. The very first sentence of the first extant letter opens: “In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer” (p. 1), a happy birthday wish to Cassandra, who was born on January 9, 1773. Some hint as to why Jane’s chroniclers have been remiss in dating her private life might lie in another birthday expression of hers. When she wished “ … my Brother joy of completing his 30th year,” on Friday, October 7, 1808, Edward, born in 1768, would have been, not thirty, but forty years old. Perhaps she is teasing this brother who had everything save good health and who may have had more than the traditional dread of approaching this decade, or perhaps it is possible that even in family matters she was capable of making a rare slip. Let the historians find just cause where they may. But owing our knowledge of her as we do to J. E. Austen-Leigh’s 1870 Memoir, beginning as it does the narrative of her life, Jane would not have had generosity dictated to her had she known that in 1977 Brian Wilks would identify that beloved, manly, eighteen-year-old nephew as “the boy of nine at Jane Austen’s funeral.”
1 References are to R. W. Chapman’s Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).