“Life could do nothing for her, beyond giving time for a better preparation for death; and that was given.” (Sense and Sensibility 235)
Many of us go to Jane Austen for comfort and distraction from life’s worries and fears. “Keep Calm and Read Jane Austen,” tote bags and T-shirts proclaim. While Austen’s novels always end with a “happily ever after” for the hero and heroine, they also address serious issues, including life-threatening illnesses and death. The current pandemic has raised such fears for people around the world. Deadly diseases were daily realities in Austen’s world. In all of Austen’s novels, at some point a main character has an epiphany: a point when their eyes are opened to their own flaws or mistakes, and they choose to move in a new direction with their lives. For Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne Dashwood, a near-death experience is what brings her to this point of self-awareness. Minor characters in Austen’s novels are also changed as they are threatened by death: Eliza Brandon, Tom Bertram, and Louisa Musgrove. Eliza is the only one who actually dies; her experience clearly points to the religious dimension of facing death. Particularly in the novels with a more serious tone—Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion—Austen’s treatment of the subject reflects her deeply moral and religious perspective.
As Laura Mooneyham White and Irene Collins have shown, Jane Austen was a devout member of the Church of England, as well as a clergyman’s daughter. Church attendance and the clergy are mentioned in all of Austen’s novels, and several of them mention prayer. She knew the Book of Common Prayer, the handbook of the Church of England, very well and must have been familiar with its services. Jane Austen, from her Anglican viewpoint, saw the nearness of death as a religious experience, providing an opportunity to examine one’s life and prepare for eternity. For those who do not die, the threat of death gives them a second chance to choose more worthwhile, less selfish, directions for their lives.
Eliza Brandon: “A better preparation for death”
In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon tells Elinor the sad story of his beloved Eliza, who was forced to marry his older brother. When her husband mistreated her, Eliza committed adultery and became pregnant. After he divorced her, she sank “‘deeper in a life of sin’” until Colonel Brandon finally found her, dying in a debtors’ prison.
“That she was, to all appearance, in the last stage of a consumption, was—yes, in such a situation it was my greatest comfort. Life could do nothing for her, beyond giving time for a better preparation for death; and that was given. I saw her placed in comfortable lodgings, and under proper attendants; I visited her every day during the rest of her short life; I was with her in her last moments.” (235)
Colonel Brandon rescues Eliza from the fate of dying alone, in isolation (a fear particularly relevant during the current pandemic). He makes her comfortable and is “with her in her last moments.” More importantly, Brandon gives Eliza “‘time for a better preparation for death.’” What would that preparation mean, in the framework of Austen’s Church of England? It meant that a clergyman would have visited Eliza, perhaps several times. Following the pattern in the prayer book, he would encourage her to repent of her sins, to turn to God for mercy, and to experience forgiveness so that she might die and go to heaven. The clergyman would pray for her, asking God to “fit and prepare her . . . against the hour of death” that she might be received into heaven, “through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ.” This service, “The Order for the Visitation of the Sick,” was clearly intended as “preparation for death.”
“The Order for the Visitation of the Sick”
In Austen’s Church of England, the clergyman of the parish visited sick people in their homes and read “The Order for the Visitation of the Sick” from the Book of Common Prayer. Austen’s readers would have assumed that a clergyman prayed the prayers set out in the service with anyone who was seriously ill. The service begins with a series of prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father which art in heaven”), and responses. For example, the clergyman says, “O Lord, save thy servant,” and someone else present in the room (at Eliza’s deathbed, perhaps Colonel Brandon) responds, “Which putteth his trust in thee.” The clergyman prays for God’s mercy and protection for the sick person. Then he exhorts the sick person to trust God, be patient, and repent of his or her sins. If the person is very ill, the clergyman may stop at this point, about five minutes into the service. More often, though, he continues through a series of further exhortations. He asks the person whether he or she believes the basic articles of Christian faith. Then the clergyman “examines” the person, reminding him or her to forgive those who have offended them and to seek forgiveness from those whom they have offended. The sick person is also encouraged to make a will, to give to the poor, to confess his or her sins, and to accept God’s forgiveness. The minister then continues to pray and read aloud passages from the Bible for another ten minutes or so.
This service was often followed by a Communion service in which the sick person and anyone else present would take the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. For Communion to be given, two or three other persons had to participate, besides the clergyman and the sick person. So even this service for the sick was intended to be a community worship experience. It would have been important that Eliza was not alone.
The service includes optional prayers for those unlikely to recover, for those “at the point of departure” (about to die), and for “persons troubled in mind, or in conscience.” All these would have applied to Eliza. The clergyman asks for God’s mercy, comfort, and peace for the sick person. Illness is referred to as God’s “fatherly correction.” In one of the prayers, the minister prays for the ill or dying person:
that the sense of his weakness may add strength to his faith, and seriousness to his repentance: That if it shall be thy good pleasure to restore him to his former health, he may lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory: or else give him grace so to take thy visitation, that after this painful life ended, he may dwell with thee in life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In this prayer, all masculine pronouns are italicized so that they can be replaced by feminine ones when appropriate.
According to this teaching of Austen’s Church of England, illness is an opportunity for faith to be strengthened and for repentance from sins. If by God’s grace Eliza gets better, she may live a better life. If she does not get better, God may take her to heaven. The service continues in this vein, saying that the purpose of illness may be to test the person’s patience, providing an example for others and glorifying God. Illness might also help the person “correct” and “amend” whatever sins he or she is committing against God. The service, including the Bible passages it quotes, offers hope even to the most troubled person, like Eliza. The minister promises that her repentance, patience, submission to God’s will, and trust in God’s mercy through Christ will lead her forward in “the way that leadeth unto everlasting life”—that is, to heaven.
Marianne Dashwood: “Time for atonement”
Later in Sense and Sensibility, after Willoughby rejects her, Marianne Dashwood also faces approaching death and has a religious experience. Her illness is at first not considered life-threatening, and the worst part of it is brief, so there is no indication that a clergyman is called (though it is quite possible). After she recovers, Marianne says, “‘My illness has made me think—It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection’” (391). In this context, “serious” means religious, and “recollection” likely means prayer (Tave 112). As I have explained elsewhere, Marianne’s near-death brings her, in religious terms, to repentance and a second chance to live a better life (Cox). When Marianne recovers, she says that she brought her illness on herself “‘by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died,—it would have been self-destruction’” (391). Marianne is saying here that her death would have been suicide, a terrible sin according to Austen’s religious beliefs. Those who committed suicide could not receive Christian burial. (The Book of Common Prayer says that the funeral service “is not to be used for any that . . . have laid violent hands upon themselves.” That standard would not actually have applied to Marianne, as she would have died of her illness rather than “violence.”) In any case, Marianne clearly recognizes that she might have caused her own death, and this recognition leads her to examine her life and make changes.
Marianne is thankful that she has “‘time for atonement to [her] God’” (391). She evaluates her life: she enumerates the many ways she has neglected her (religious) duties and indulged her failings, acknowledging that she lived in “‘fretful selfishness’” (391). Because of her near-death experience, she determines to change. Instead of living selfishly, absorbed in her own feelings, she says, “‘I shall now live solely for my family’” (393). Even her memories of Willoughby will be kept under control “‘by religion, by reason, by constant employment’” (393). Marianne plans to live her life very differently than she has before. When she marries Colonel Brandon, “Marianne found her own happiness in forming his” (430). She is no longer living for herself but finds love and joy in her marriage. Austen uses Marianne’s near-death experience to show readers that a woman living selfishly, considering only her own feelings and not the needs of those around her, can repent and change. Marianne becomes more like Elinor, her foil in the novel, considerate of the people around her, putting their needs and feelings ahead of her own.
Tom Bertram: “He became what he ought to be”
In Mansfield Park, a similar transformation happens to selfish Tom Bertram when he faces death. When Fanny hears of Tom’s serious illness, she is very concerned for him spiritually. Because of the “purity of her [religious] principles,” Fanny feels Tom is not ready to die: “she considered how little useful, how little self-denying his life had (apparently) been” (496). She does not think that Tom is spiritually prepared for death and for God’s judgment, or that his life has been used well. She fears, in fact, that he will not go to heaven (MP n. 729).
Tom’s family’s prayers are answered, and he recovers. His near-death experience has changed him:
There was comfort also in Tom, who gradually regained his health, without regaining the thoughtlessness and selfishness of his previous habits. He was the better for ever for his illness. He had suffered, and he had learnt to think, two advantages that he had never known before; and the self-reproach arising from the deplorable event in Wimpole Street, to which he felt himself accessory by all the dangerous intimacy of his unjustifiable theatre, made an impression on his mind which . . . was durable in its happy effects. He became what he ought to be, useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself. (534).
Sobered by the fear of death, Tom recognizes his failures: thoughtlessness, selfishness, and the endangerment of his family through the theatricals that he promoted. Like Marianne, his suffering and the approach of death lead him to think seriously about his past failures and determine to live differently.
The clergyman’s prayers in “The Order for the Visitation of the Sick” were probably said for him several times during his long, dangerous illness. Edmund himself, now ordained and “trying to bury his own feelings in exertions for the relief of his brother’s” (519), may have prayed these prayers for him and listened to his confession. Tom probably also received Communion for the Sick, which, like the prayers in the Visitation, requires those present to “search and examine [their] own consciences” and “examine [their] lives and conversations by the rule of God’s commandments.” Tom apparently performs this self-examination and begins thinking more about eternity and God’s judgment. As a result, he chooses to live a better life, being useful and helping others rather than living for himself, just as Fanny has hoped.
Henry Crawford: “A juster appointment hereafter”
Henry Crawford stands in contrast to Tom Bertram. At the beginning of the novel, both are frivolous and selfish. Tom’s extravagance robs his brother Edmund of “‘more than half the income which ought to be his’” (27), while Henry’s self-centered flirtation steals Maria’s and Julia’s hearts. While Tom changes radically because of his illness, Henry only seems to change, because of his love for Fanny, but then his selfishness reasserts itself and he seduces Maria Rushworth. Austen hints at possible hope for Henry—or possible judgment.
Mansfield Park is Austen’s most serious, noticeably religious novel, addressing both sin and judgment. Fanny and the clergyman Edmund label Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth’s adultery as “sin” (510, 529). That sin, in Austen’s novel, leads to serious consequences. Henry will eventually face death, and Austen and her contemporaries fully expected judgment to follow. As the “Visitation of the Sick” says, “after this life there is an account to be given unto the righteous Judge, by whom all must be judged without respect of persons”; in other words, the same judgment will apply to rich or poor, male or female. Austen refers to this statement in Mansfield Park. After Maria elopes with Henry, Maria is shut up in a remote and private establishment, suffering her punishment with Mrs. Norris. Henry’s punishment is less severe.
That punishment, the public punishment of disgrace, should in a just measure attend his share of the offence, is, we know, not one of the barriers, which society gives to virtue. In this world, the penalty is less equal than could be wished; but without presuming to look forward to a juster appointment hereafter, we may fairly consider a man of sense like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret. (542, italics added to second sentence)
Henry will suffer in some ways here on earth, “in this world.” But Austen expects “a juster appointment hereafter”—God’s judgment after death will fall on both men and women equally, as the Book of Common Prayer states. (Maggie Lane points out that, though some commentators think Austen is referring to a future, more just society, the “correct reading” is a reference to God’s final judgment .) “The Order for the Visitation of the Sick” adds that each person should consider God’s judgment and examine himself, “accusing and condemning” himself so that he will “find mercy at our heavenly Father’s hands for Christ’s sake, and not be accused and condemned in that fearful judgment.” Austen’s original readers might have hoped that Henry’s regrets will, like Tom Bertram’s regrets, cause him to think and to change his lifestyle before he dies and faces God’s judgment.
Of course, not all of Austen’s characters get a second chance. At the end of Mansfield Park, an actual death occurs: “Dr. Grant had brought on apoplexy and death, by three great institutionary dinners in one week” (543). We see no indication that Dr. Grant’s sudden death includes any repentance or change in his heart. His death instead provides poetic justice, with the added benefit of another church living for Edmund. Death by overeating is a fitting end for a man whose gluttony and ill-temper have at least partly caused Mary Crawford to look down on all the clergy. Dr. Grant’s death is an implied critique of wealthy clergymen of the time, who obtained high church positions with few responsibilities and indulged themselves rather than caring for others.
Louisa Musgrove: “To the end of her life”
One more Austen character, like Marianne and Tom, nearly dies and is transformed by the experience. In Persuasion, the near-death of Louisa Musgrove gives both Louisa and Captain Wentworth a second chance. When Louisa nearly dies from her fall on the Cobb, her near-death experience changes her radically. Readers are not told whether Louisa looks into her own heart and makes intentional changes, as Tom and Marianne do. But we are told that her experience “might influence her health, her nerves, her courage, her character to the end of her life” (182). Probably, at the very least, Louisa will be less stubborn and heedless due to her experience.
Interestingly, Austen uses Louisa’s near-death experience to wake up a main character, Captain Wentworth, to his own errors. Because of Louisa’s accident and illness, Wentworth discovers that he has been wrong in paying too much attention to Louisa and raising expectations of marriage, as well as in failing to see that Anne’s character is superior to Louisa’s. Anne, he realizes, has “steadiness of principle” (meaning religious principle) rather than “the obstinacy of self-will” (263). Louisa’s accident highlights both Louisa’s weaknesses and Anne’s strengths. Fortunately, it is not too late for Wentworth to change direction and pursue Anne; Louisa’s near-death and her resulting engagement give him a second chance.
Dick Musgrove and Mrs. Churchill: “A clearer of ill-fame”
In more humorous examples in Persuasion and Emma, death and the approach of death change the reputation of characters but not their lives. Austen somewhat apologetically ridicules Mrs. Musgrove for “her large fat sighings” over her dead son Dick Musgrove, “whom alive nobody had cared for” (73). “[T]hick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove” (54) was apparently useless, as Tom Bertram had been. But Dick has become more precious after his death—especially long after his death—than he had been during life. Death has rehabilitated his reputation as well as his name (now he’s “‘poor Richard’” ), though as far as we know the approach of death did not change his character.
Similarly in Emma, Austen wryly shows death as a great rehabilitator, “a clearer of ill-fame” (422). Mrs. Churchill is presented as a very selfish woman, complaining of illness whenever she wishes to keep Frank Churchill close to her. Not surprisingly, his friends think these illnesses are imaginary until Mrs. Churchill dies and their perception of her changes completely:
Mrs. Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness, and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints. (422)
Even though she dies from a “sudden seizure of a different nature from any thing foreboded by her general state” (421), she now is credited with being truly ill all along. The approach of death does not change Mrs. Churchill, as far as we know, but her death does make her appear less selfish. For Dick Musgrove and for Mrs. Churchill, death only changes the way people think about them.
Jane Austen’s Death: “May I be more fit to appear before him”
Jane Austen’s beliefs about death are reflected in her characters’ experiences. We can also see those beliefs in her own experiences. In her letters, she sometimes mentions people who died well. For example, when she wrote to her brother Francis on January 21, 1805, she described their father’s death.
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.
A primary comfort for the Reverend Austen’s family was that he had prepared well for death and heaven.
Austen herself prepared well for her own death. When she was dying, her nephew tells us, “Two of her brothers, who were clergymen, lived near enough to Winchester to be in frequent attendance, and to administer the services suitable for a Christian’s death-bed” (Austen-Leigh 175). The clergyman-brothers were James and Henry Austen. They must have administered the “Order for the Visitation of the Sick” and “The Communion of the Sick” to their sister.
Jane Austen probably experienced these two services earlier, when she nearly died before moving to Winchester. She wrote to her friend Anne Sharp that she could almost wish to have died surrounded by the love of her family, “But the Providence of God has restored me—& may I be more fit to appear before him when I am summoned, than I shd have been now!” (22 May 1817). She expected this extra time to enable her to better prepare her soul for death.
Austen wrote on May 27, 1817, that she felt “unworthy” of her family’s love; perhaps she was examining herself, as the service recommends. Cassandra, though, in her letter to Fanny Knight on July 20, wrote, “I loved her only too well, not better than she deserved.” She described Jane’s final hours: “When I asked her if there was any thing she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death & some of her words were ‘God grant me patience, Pray for me Oh pray for me.’” As the “Visitation of the Sick” exhorts, “bear your sickness patiently, trusting in God’s mercy, for his dear Son Jesus Christ’s sake.” It seems that Austen felt prepared to die.
What comforted her family after her death? Cassandra believed that prayer would comfort Fanny Knight. She wrote to Fanny, “I know you suffer severely, but I likewise know that you will apply to the fountain-head for consolation & that our merciful God is never deaf to such prayers as you will offer” (20 July 1817). To find comfort herself, Cassandra thought of her sister in heaven. She wrote, “May the sorrow with which she is parted from on earth be a prognostic of the joy with which she is hailed in Heaven! . . . God grant that I may never cease to reflect on her as inhabiting Heaven & never cease my humble endeavours (when it shall please God) to join her there” (29 July 1817). The tone of these private letters of Cassandra and the close, lifelong relationship she had with Jane indicate her sincere belief that Jane died trusting God and would be in heaven.
For Jane Austen, a potentially fatal illness could and should be a religious experience. Serious illness offered the opportunity to examine one’s life, repent of one’s selfishness and other sins, prepare for God’s judgment, and ask for God’s mercy. This belief is reflected in her development of her characters. For Eliza, the nearness of death gives her a chance to repent and make peace with God before she dies. For those who survived a serious illness, the experience offered a second chance to live for others rather than only for self. Both Marianne Dashwood and Tom Bertram take the opportunity to change and live better lives. Captain Wentworth is inspired by Louisa Musgrove’s near-death to change his own life and move in a new direction. For Dick Musgrove and Mrs. Churchill, though, death changes their reputations, not their characters, as far as we know. Jane Austen’s thoughts about her own death, as well as her treatment of death in Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, reflect her deep religious faith and her belief in church teachings about repentance, forgiveness, judgment, and heaven. For Austen, the approach of death may provide a second chance to live a better life, or an opportunity to better prepare for eternity.