On July 15, 1817, three days before she died, Jane Austen wrote several lines of comic verse, dictating them to her sister Cassandra. Henry Austen refers to these verses in his biographical sketch: “The day preceding her death [though she died on July 18], she composed some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour.” [Biographical Notice]
[Written at Winchester on Tuesday the 15th of July 1817]
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.
[text from Minor Works, ed. Chapman, Oxford, 1988 [revised edition]
St. Swithin [sometimes written as Swithun] was the Bishop of Winchester in the 9th century. Legend has it that Swithin requested upon his death to be buried in the churchyard, but his remains were later brought into the church on July 15, 971. The Saint’s obvious displeasure with this move resulted in a hard rain for forty days and he was thus removed again to the outside [the location of this grave was at the Old Minster, now covered by Winchester Cathedral - there is some authority for the belief that Swithin's body parts may be buried in various places...] – but these mysterious rain happenings gave England the still-held weather prediction that:
St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain na mair *
The Winchester horse races were run on July 15th at “the neighboring plain” of Worthy Down. Austen in a light-hearted moment composed these lines to “Venta” [ Venta was the name given to Winchester during Roman Britain, "Venta Belgarum", which means market or meeting place - it is also the name of the University of Winchester's Alumni Magazine] – she was pointing out the incongruity of the races taking place on a Saint’s Day and his punishment for the “revels & dissolute measures.”
The appearance of these verses is an interesting side story in the history of publishing Austen’s works. After Henry’s reference to them in his Biographical Notice, his comment was deleted from the 1833 edition. James Edward Austen-Leigh in his 1870 Memoir makes no mention of them, nor in his second edition. The fifth Earl Stanhope, an early collector of Austen’s works, had tried unsuccessfully to find out what these “stanzas replete with fancy and vigour” were actually about. His efforts prompted Austen’s niece Caroline to write:
Nobody felt any curiosity about them then – but see what it is to have a growing posthumous reputation! we cannot keep anything to ourselves now it seems…. Tho’ there are no reasons ethical or orthodox against the publication of these stanzas, there are reasons of taste – I never thought there was much of a point to them – they were good enough for a passing thought, but if she had lived she would probably soon have torn them up – however, there is a much stronger objection to their being inserted in any memoir, than want of literary merit – If put in at all they must have been introduced as the latest working of her mind – Till a few hours before she died, she had been feeling much better, & there was hope of amendment at least, if not a recovery – but the joke about the dead Saint, & the Winchester races, all jumbled up together, would read badly as amongst the few details given, of the closing scene. [Le Faye, p. 89-90]
So Austen’s last words fell to the axe of Henry’s protective spirit and the later Victorian sensibilities. The poem was first published in 1906 in the Hubback’s Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. Chapman in his notes to the Minor Works, questions at first if they are hers – that is until he realizes he was overlooking the clear evidence in Henry Austen’s deleted comment and concludes “that no doubt settles the question.” [Chapman, MW, p. 451]
There are actually two manuscripts, the copy in Cassandra’s hand as dictated by Austen [owned by the Carpenter family], where the lines “When once we are buried – but behold me Immortal” are underlined, likely by Cassandra at a later date, and a second copy written out by James Edward Austen-Leigh, now in the Berg Collection at the NY Public Library, and the manuscript used in Chapman’s edition. There were a few changes to the text, especially with the use of the word “dead”, where the manuscript reads “gone” – this does not rhyme with the “said”, and again conjecture is the Cassandra could not write what Jane actually spoke.
For me, I am heartened that in her last few days, Austen was able to rally her spirit to write yet another of her light verses, reminiscent of her juvenilia, even in the face of what she knew had to be the fast-approaching end of her life.
- Chapman, R.W. Minor Works. Oxford University Press, 1988 [c1954], pp. 450-452.
- Doody, Margaret Ann, ed. Catharine and Other Writings. Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. xxi-xxiii.
- Le Faye, Deirdre. ”Jane Austen’s Verses and Lord Stanhope’s Disappointment,” Book Collector, Vol. 37, No.1 (Spring 1988), pp. 86-91.
- Modert, Jo., ed. Jane Austen’s Manuscript Letters in Facsimile. Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. pp. xxiii- xxiv.]
- see also Joanna Waugh’s post on on St. Swithin, Jane Austen: Sleeping with the Saints
[image of St. Swithin from Wikipedia]
*[today in Vermont it is FINALLY a bright and sunny day, after what has felt like forty days of rain - so hopefully this bodes well for an end to our soggy-summer!]
Posted by Deb