HALFWAY along the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral is the black ledger stone I have carefully skirted a thousand times: the memorial to Jane Austen. She lies there not on her own merits, but because she had two influential brothers, and she had died in a house just outside the Close. In the epitaph there is no mention of her work as a novelist.
She had been brought to Winchester from her home in Chawton, for the last few weeks of her life, hoping for a cure for her Addison’s disease — or was it lymphoma? Nobody can be quite sure from her symptoms. Indeed, she wrote jokingly to her brother Edward that if her doctor, Mr Lyford, could not cure her, “I shall draw up a Memorial and lay it before the Dean & Chapter, & I have no doubt of redress from that Pious, Learned, and Disinterested Body.”
SHE described her comfortable lodging in College Street, a few yards from the Kingsgate into the Cathedral Close (and just across the road from where I and my family once lived). Her devoted sister, Cassandra — the person to whom Jane was closest all her life — was with her in her final days as hopes faded. The memorial stone tells of her “long illness supported with the patience and hopes of a Christian”, which was indeed true.
Her last letters all speak of the love and gratitude to all who cared for her, and “pray to God to bless them more and more”. In her final hours, Cassandra writes, she wanted “nothing but death & some of her words were ‘God grant me patience, Pray for me oh Pray for me.’” Mr Lyford was sent for and “applied something to give her ease” (probably laudanum), and she died quietly several hours later.
Two of her brothers arrived — one a rich landowner, the other an admiral — and it was through their influence that the Dean and Chapter were prevailed on to allow Jane to be buried in the cathedral rather than taken back to the Chawton graveyard. Cassandra watched from the doorway of their lodgings as the brothers walked in a “little mournful procession” beside the wheeled bier along College Street, and turned into Kingsgate to cross the Close. It was in the early morning, as the funeral had to be over before cathedral matins at 10 a.m.
IT WAS a while before the inscribed ledger stone covered the brick-lined vault, and it is the second of three paragraphs that describe:
The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowment
of her mind [that]
obtained the regard of all who
knew her and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Jane could be waspish, even callous at times, but this was the Jane that her family remembered, and how they wished that others would remember her. (It was some years later that a brass was put near by, reminding those who passed that here was the grave of a great writer.) The floors and walls of all cathedrals and many ancient churches are covered in such memorials, often fulsome with praise, and their subjects are remembered and wondered over — as are hundreds of thousands more, in churchyards and cemeteries all over the country.
IT HAS been a human instinct throughout the millennia to create some sort of tangible memorial to those who have gone into the great unknown.
Yet that instinct seems to be fading. Whether it is the loss of faith in a future life, or the overwhelming busyness of modern life — always to be lived rushing on to the future — or the prevalence of cremation, remains are scattered. It is done with reverence, and often in a place special to the dead one, but that is the end of it. There is nothing for future generations to see, read, and feel that closeness to the great length of human history, and to all those forefathers and foremothers who contributed to who we are today.
There is something profoundly moving about finding the memorial of an ancestor who lived long before one could know them: it is a tangible link with one’s personal history and the great continuity of life. I never knew my grandparents, but I know where their remains lie. And I remember feeling a real grief when I discovered that the church of the Essex parish where some of my 17th- and early-18th-century ancestors lived had been demolished and rebuilt elsewhere, and that the churchyard where they were presumably all buried had become part of a farmyard used for dumping rubbish.
THERE are thousands upon millions of God-cherished people that only he now remembers. It is inevitable that not many memorials will last through centuries, although we value those that do. And, as populations grow, not all of us can claim much space.
But I find it sad that so many people no longer feel the need to mark the life of their family members; sad that my sister and brother-in-law were blown across a field that they loved, and that there is nowhere for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to remember, or to feel that closeness.
More and more, we shall come to depend on that inscription used in war cemeteries where all efforts of identification have failed: that the final resting-place of so many will be “Known only unto God”.