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Royalty and Jane Austen?

This year is the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, the great English novelist whose works have been published to worldwide acclaim and continue to be enjoyed as plays, films, performances and of course, through the books themselves. The event will be especially commemorated in Hampshire – the rural county that Jane knew and loved – and in Bath. The anniversary is being marked with exhibitions, talks, walks and workshops and celebrated through costume, food and music – some of these events will no doubt be as part of the Jane Austen Annual Festival in Bath in September, whose special 2017 programme is still awaiting release.

Events will mainly be taking place at Winchester, because it was here that Jane Austen died aged 41, in rented lodgings close to the cathedral. Jane had come to Winchester from her Hampshire cottage at Chawton, accompanied by her beloved sister Cassandra, to seek medical help because of her failing health. Jane had already begun to become ill in 1816, yet still, she continued to write, beginning her new novel The Brothers later published as Sanditon, in January 1817 which – poignantly – was to remain unfinished.

Jane was buried at Winchester Cathedral, and her original tombstone makes no express reference to the fact that she wrote. It is important to remember that the works published by Jane in her lifetime appeared anonymously, something which the tombstone inscription continues to support. However, it is notable that the third memorial in Winchester Cathedral – a stained glass window erected in her memory in 1900 – was paid for by public subscription, something which alone speaks for how her literary recognition had grown since her death.

Watercolour painting of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen (1773-1845) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That Jane’s works were enjoyed in her lifetime however, meant that readers admired the unidentified writing of “the author of Sense and Sensibility” – as she appeared listed in the three volumes of “Pride and Prejudice,” printed by the London publishers Egerton in 1813  – 1811’s Sense and Sensibility listing the work as simply being written “By a Lady.” She was not without her royal readers, either. Queen Victoria – born two years after Jane Austen’s death in 1819 – particularly enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, and we also know that she read Northanger Abbey. With the publication of Emma, the Prince Regent, later King George IV – who admired Jane Austen’s work – received his own copy, sent to him by the publisher John Murray.

The Prince Regent’s librarian, James Stanier Clarke, had invited Jane to view the Library at the Prince’s lavish mansion residence of Carlton House, which she did on 13 November 1815. It seems to have been hinted as part of this visit that the Prince Regent wished her new book, Emma to be personally dedicated to him, something which – despite being personally unsympathetic to the Prince Regent – Jane could hardly ignore and which was more or less, after all, a royal command by way of a request, she being “at liberty to dedicate any future work to the Prince.” The Prince Regent duly received his three-volume copy, and the one that was sent to him is today held in The Royal Collection. Jane dedicated the work to the Prince Regent by his permission and respectfully signed it as “THE AUTHOR.

Various editions of Jane’s works are today kept in The Royal Collection, including a set of her novels and an edited collection of her letters to her sister Cassandra. Poignantly perhaps, there is also among these books, a four-volume set of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. These two novels were published only after Jane’s death.

George V and Queen Mary visited Winchester Cathedral on St Swithun’s Day in 1912, for a thanksgiving service; Jane Austen wrote her a poem from her sickbed for St Swithun’s Day in 1817, just three days before she died. George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Winchester in 1939 and were presented with the keys to the city at the Guildhall; they returned in 1945. Queen Elizabeth II visited Winchester in 1955 for the 800th anniversary of the city’s charter. The Queen was welcomed in Winchester College’s quadrangle by the boys of the college and escorted by the School Master. There followed a traditional greeting in Latin, after which The Queen presented medals to outstanding pupils of the school. The Queen said during her visit: “We must be careful that the new does not obscure the old, that in times of change, traditions which have been tested by long experience, should not be discarded.

The title page of the 1816 publication of Emma [Jane Austen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Winchester College stands adjacent to the house on College Street where Jane Austen died in 1817. Last year, a celebration was held in Winchester’s Guildhall to mark the 90th birthday of The Queen – entitled “This Royal Throne; A Celebration to mark H.M The Queen’s 90th Birthday” – it was centred around words to describe the history of the Crown, through the words of English (and British) monarchs themselves but also, through the words of English writers to the present age – from William Shakespeare to William Makepeace Thackeray and from Horace Walpole to – Jane Austen.


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