Austen on St. Swithin’s Day

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]

Venta

[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]

*********************************

saint swithin 

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.

Winchester House college st

Further Reading:

  1. Chapman, R.W.  Minor Works.  Oxford University Press, 1988 [c1954], pp. 450-452.
  2. Doody, Margaret Ann, ed.  Catharine and Other Writings.  Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. xxi-xxiii. 
  3. Le Faye, Deirdre.  “Jane Austen’s Verses and Lord Stanhope’s Disappointment,” Book Collector, Vol. 37, No.1  (Spring 1988), pp. 86-91.
  4. Modert, Jo., ed.  Jane Austen’s Manuscript Letters in Facsimile.  Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. pp. xxiii- xxiv.]
  5. 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

20 thoughts on “Austen on St. Swithin’s Day

  1. Thanks Deb, an excellent essay on her last work. I am moved that the line “When once we are buried – but behold me Immortal” are underlined. Austen is writing about St. Swithin, but is she thinking of her own eminent death? No. At this time, she did not know of her impact on literature or her popularity. I still think it a mighty mystery how a simple clergyman’s daughter was buried in a Cathedral, which is usually reservered for noblemen, dignitaries and clergy.

    Like

  2. Deb,

    What a wonderful poem! Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention. Clearly St. Swithin had special meaning for Jane and her family. I’ve blogged about it as well. Her parents were married in “old” St. Swithin’s Church in Bath in 1764, and her father was buried in the churchyard of “new” St. Swithin’s in 1805. That Jane should wind up in Winchester because of medical reasons must have seemed like Providence to her family when she passed away there. No wonder they lobbied to have her buried in Winchester Cathedral.

    Like

  3. Hi all – thank you Laurel Ann and Joanna for pointing out the St. Swithin connection in Austen’s family – makes the poem even more poignant. [Joanna, I have added your post on St. Swithin as a link as well…]

    Thank you all for visiting!
    Deb

    Like

  4. Hi Deb,

    I got back Sunday evening from my trip to England, which included my participation in the Chawton Conference on ‘New Directions in Austen Studies’—perhaps not surprisingly given that the conference was held not far from Winchester during July, one of the presentations was by Janet Todd and Linda Bree, in which they gave an interpretation of Austen’s Winchester Races poem which was not far distant from yours.

    I am afraid I must disagree with your interpretation, I think it is quite the opposite of a light cheerful verse. I think that JA (who, as Isobel Grundy pointed out at the conference, was buried in the Cathedral just like St. Swithin, and his anger at being buried there was THE whole point of the legend!) was doing what she had been doing her entire writing career, i.e., saying a cheerful thing superficially, but an angry thing beneath the surface. I see her as cursing her brothers’s plans to turn a profit on her writing before she was cold in the ground, burying her in the Cathedral against her wishes, but also warning them that even though she was physically dead, her words, including specifically the words in her writing which revealed that all was far from sweetness and light in the Austen family, were immortal, and would one day bring to light the truth.

    That’s how I see it!

    Like

  5. Hi Arnie! I saw you were at the Chawton Conference – you are in a picture on Diana Birchall’s blog asking a question! [were you bringing up this same point to the speakers?]

    There is some merit in what you say, but I think you take it too far in assuming that everything that Austen wrote had anger behind it. Just like her juvenilia where she was telling a moral tale couched in over-the-top humor, I think this poem conveys all that – I don’t think she knew or thought her brother was going to “turn a profit” on her writing – indeed, Austen was herself very interested in making a profit and it just didn’t happen in her lifetime – I doubt she would have faulted Henry for touting her talents after her death [he did so before as well… but not in the commercial sense you suggest…]. I am not sure why she was buried in Winchester – I need to look at that again – did she know that before she died? I think her last few days showed an improvement in her health and they were all surprised by her death – Winchester was close and an honor to be buried there- would she have been opposed to this? can we ever really know this?

    Henry and Cassandra were very much in protective mode of her life and works – he let slip in the Bio Notice about these verses and retracted that later – we can look at that as he and Cassandra deciding that these “comic” lines seemed somehow irreverent in her dying days – or they could be that they knew as you suggest that she was telling more in these lines than the words convey and they didn’t want that “laundry” exposed.

    The joy of Austen is that there is room for more than one interpretation – you can look at these at face value and see Austen at her comic best telling the tale of Winchester and St. Swithin; or see that she was conveying her own immortality – we can never really KNOW what was in her mind those last few days – I just like to BELIEVE that she rattled these lines off on the day of the Winchester Races in a carefree manner [was it actually raining on that day in 1817??] in a quiet moment with Cassandra – and I just don’t want to think that she was lying there p’od at the world and her brother [who she loved dearly] – but as I say, we can all take from these lines what we choose – indeed the point of great literature and great writers!

    Thanks for visiting Arnie – I appreciate your insights! – fabulous that you got to go to the conference – I envy everyone there, and as I knew a few people in attendance, I regret not figuring out a way to stowaway!
    Best,
    Deb

    Like

  6. “There is some merit in what you say, but I think you take it too far in assuming that everything that Austen wrote had anger behind it.”

    I never said everything, or even most of what she wrote, had anger behind it. You are confabulating that. But she was a truth teller, and there was much ugly truth to be told in her world, in addition to much beautiful truth.

    “Just like her juvenilia where she was telling a moral tale couched in over-the-top humor, I think this poem conveys all that –”

    The juvenilia is filled with very unsettling imagery that would be just what a sensitive and precocious teenage girl’s reaction would be to disturbing events in her family life.

    At the conference, Annette Upfal made an incontrovertible case for JA’s and CEA’s History of England being a direct and very angry satire of their mother and others in their family, with CEA’s mini portraits being EXACT depictions of at least 1/2 dozen family members.

    “The joy of Austen is that there is room for more than one interpretation – you can look at these at face value and see Austen at her comic best telling the tale of Winchester and St. Swithin; or see that she was conveying her own immortality –”

    There are multiple interpretations THAT SHE INTENDED to be made! You don’t give her the credit she deserves for the intentionality of that multiplicity.

    “I just don’t want to think that she was lying there p’od at the world and her brother…’

    I believe you that you don’t want to think it—-but all that is evidence of is your own state of mind, not hers!!! ;)

    “I am not sure why she was buried in Winchester – I need to look at that again – did she know that before she died? I think her last few days showed an improvement in her health and they were all surprised by her death – Winchester was close and an honor to be buried there- would she have been opposed to this? can we ever really know this?”

    Again, the ENTIRE point of St. Swithin’s curse is that he was buried in Winchester Cathedral against his will. JA died literally in the shadow of Winchester Cathedral, she obviously knew what the family’s plans were for her interment, and she could readily guess what was coming, because the whitewash began before she was cold in her grave.

    Sad, but true, but she was right, she WAS immortal, through her words which have survived her physical death by almost two centuries, and more alive than ever!

    ARNIE

    Like

  7. Hello again Arnie, to answer you:

    you said: “I never said everything, or even most of what she wrote, had anger behind it. You are confabulating that. But she was a truth teller, and there was much ugly truth to be told in her world, in addition to much beautiful truth.”

    you said the following, which sounds to me like everything she wrote had anger behind it: “doing what she had been doing her entire writing career, i.e., saying a cheerful thing superficially, but an angry thing beneath the surface”

    so no quibbling – she told the truth – and the truth was not always beautiful as you say; but I also think she had an incredible sense of humor and humor is a way to show truth in a pleasant way, not always conveying anger, but as a way to deal with reality so we can make light of our foibles as humans… if, as you say, her History of England can “incontrovertibly” be made to represent her family, etc – then you are not allowing here the “multiple” interpretations you are such a strong proponent of… and satirizing her family members can be done in high humor, not just anger… and how fun to make her family members represent the Royals! – it does not mean she was angry at her family all the time…

    You say: “There are multiple interpretations THAT SHE INTENDED to be made! You don’t give her the credit she deserves for the intentionality of that multiplicity.”

    You misread me here – I do indeed give her credit for her INTENTIONAL creation of multiple interpretations and think my sentence states that quite clearly…

    As for her being opposed to being buried in Winchester – we do not KNOW that she knew of these burial plans – she was in Winchester to be near her doctor with hopes of improvement … as I said I need to look into this further to see if she ever said anything – do you have proof that she knew of this and did not agree with this decision to be buried there?? or are you conjecturing this because you think she used the St. Swithin curse to prophecy what would befall her as well??

    aah! we can agree to disagree Arnie – I just think that unless someone totally agrees with your line of seeing, then you discount them for not seeing beneath the surface – but that defeats your very own theory that there are many layers – let me enjoy the layer I see – it may actually be the one that Austen intended, and though we can never know, it allows for much discussion where hopefully no one is right or wrong but just enlarged by the reading…
    Deb

    Like

  8. “so no quibbling – she told the truth – and the truth was not always beautiful as you say; but I also think she had an incredible sense of humor and humor is a way to show truth in a pleasant way, not always conveying anger, but as a way to deal with reality so we can make light of our foibles as humans…”

    Again, you ascribed to me the claim that she “always” conveyed anger, and I did not claim that. Sometimes she did indeed convey truth that did not have an edge or a subtext….but equally often, she used her incredible sense of humor in a way that did expose serious human foibles in a sharp way.

    “if, as you say, her History of England can “incontrovertibly” be made to represent her family, etc – then you are not allowing here the “multiple” interpretations you are such a strong proponent of… and satirizing her family members can be done in high humor, not just anger… and how fun to make her family members represent the Royals! – it does not mean she was angry at her family all the time…”

    Again, you ascribe to me a claim I did not make, I never said she was angry at her family “all the time”. Her satires work on multiple levels, and one of those levels is the angry, judging part. It is you who seems to be denying that level.

    As for JA’s attitude toward interment in Winchester Cathedral, we can either take into account that the voice adopted by JA in the poem is that of St. Swithin, who famously objected to being interred in that same Cathedral, or we can ignore it, in interpreting the meaning of the poem.

    And we can either ascribe to JA (whom we all know to have been an extremely sophisticated reader of great poetry) an intent, when she was dying and feeling the full weight of that experience, to write poetry that was devoid of meaning, or we can look at her poetry, as we look at any other poetry, and seek to understand the poet’s meaning.

    I think that with a writer whose art was SO ironic SO often, one ignores irony at the peril of missing important meaning.

    I am aware of a thousand examples (more than half of which were identified by other scholars, in addition to the other half which I have discovered) in her writing, both fiction and nonfiction, where BOTH the surface meaning AND the covert meaning are conveyed. That is why I speak with such conviction.

    Like

  9. Deb, I just realized I needed to be even more explicit about what I mean, because I fear that what I’ve written so far was not clear enough in one respect, which perhaps is what is causing you to hear me saying what I do not intend to say:

    Here is what I said at my talk in Chawton which is as relevant to this poem as it is to JA’s novels:

    “….So I now turn to the textual clues of Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy in the shadow story of Emma, with one huge caveat. Although you’ll be tempted a dozen times, I beg you not to infer from my descriptions of the shadow story that I thereby presume to tell you what “really” happens in Emma. I merely claim there are two parallel realities in Emma. So, as I speak, please retain in the tables of your memory the mantra “in the shadow story, not the overt story”. When I’m done, the characters you know will remain real and valid in your minds. But the next 15 minutes belong to their shadow doppelgangers.”

    So I take responsibility for not being clear enough about the above, I have learned from experience that when I point out what is in the shadows, it sounds like I am nullifying what is in the light, and that is not so. JA’s meanings are, I think, always a complex combination of both the shadows and the light, her almost uncanny need to keep things ambiguous.

    In the case of St. Swithin’s poem, I think she wanted to convey all sides of the question, both the dark and the light, as if to say, for the final time in her writing career, ‘Life is complicated, it could be ugly, it could be beautiful, it could be both ugly and beautiful–you figure it out!’

    Like

  10. Hello again Arnie,

    I appreciate your efforts to further explain your comments – I DO understand your take on Austen and the emphasis on the “shadow” story – I don’t disagree with you – there ARE so many levels, and each of us brings our own knowledge and personal views to see what is there – that is why Austen is so often re-read – on any given reading we will find yet another layer depending upon where we are in our own lives. I have always agreed with you about this – so we are on the same page – I only object when you state so strongly that this is the ONLY way to see what she was writing – so your clarification is most helpful to anyone else reading your comments. Don’t take away from any of us what is the joy of Austen, though we would all agree she was saying so much more than just a fine story… but sometimes, I just want and need that fine story!

    Did you speak at the conference? or were you referring above to asking a question? I do look forward to YOUR book on Emma – I had just re-read it last year when we had talked on the phone – and have recently finished listening to it on audio, and reading PD James’ article on Emma as a detective story – there ARE so many layers there, and one feels like another re-read is in order yet again!

    Thanks Arnie for taking the time to elucidate your thoughts!
    Best,
    Deb

    Like

  11. And thank you for your patience!

    “Did you speak at the conference? or were you referring above to asking a question?”

    Yes, I did speak at the conference, and I made certain to state that caveat twice as I spoke, to be sure that people did not think I was trying to take away the romantic versions of the novels, I was merely bringing the shadows to light! ;)

    “I do look forward to YOUR book on Emma – I had just re-read it last year when we had talked on the phone – and have recently finished listening to it on audio, and reading PD James’ article on Emma as a detective story – there ARE so many layers there, and one feels like another re-read is in order yet again!”

    I will be interested to hear PD James’s reaction when she finds out that the novel is much more of a detective story than she realized—I bet she will be thrilled!

    Like

  12. Does anyone know if it was raining on that date, and if perhaps the races were actually rained out? Is it possible to check the papers for the day?

    She might have just been bored on a rainy afternoon, heard the news and got the imagination going, with a bit of help from the medication, and the poem just took shape.

    Saint-worship was supposed to be off-limits for C of E folk, but the general themes of sin and judgment were common and popular in that era.

    Like

    • Hello Clive – I like your interpretation! – there is surely a way to check the weather reports for that day – and I too just see her composing her poem in a quiet moment of reflection…
      Thank you for visiting! – will let you know if I find anything further on the Winchester weather in 1817…
      Deb

      Like

  13. Pingback: The Swithin Effect « LBlog

  14. Pingback: The LB Tip » Archive » The Swithin Effect

  15. Pingback: Jane Austen on St. Swithin’s Day « Jane Austen in Vermont

  16. Pingback: Was Jane Austen Poisoned? | British Literature

  17. Pingback: The Swithin Effect | Rooftop Mind

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s