Jane Austen: dead or alive

30th September 2018

I sat for an hour beside the grave of Jane Austen. The problem with people from the 19th century is that they are, to a man and woman, dead.

Yesterday I encountered her sister Cassy and her mother Cassandra. They too were unalive, although for less time than Jane, having had the good sense to live to their 70s and 80s.

The Cassandras are some miles away, in Chawton, in a small church on the grounds of Chawton House. There was little to draw attention to them, other than stark familial facts: they bore, fostered, sustained and loved a literary genius.

Jane Austen’s world was rich in human insight. And her words, fiction as they are, were largely derived from her life experiences among these two, stolid women. They now lie in silence within earshot of bleating sheep and the rolling hum of traffic on the A31. Placid ruminants grazing placid grass; busy people going to busy places.

It was not my plan to grave-sit Jane Austen. But as it turned out, it was comfortable research. She is interred inside Winchester Cathedral, on its north-facing flank. A flagstone of black marble marks the spot, and in the wall adjacent there stands a brass plaque of reverence.

A bunch of fresh carnations, beautifully arranged in the pink and white flowers of youth, sit to one side. Chairs are readily available, this being a cathedral on a Sunday, and I am perched on one. It is noontime and the day’s services are done.

Visitors pass by. They pause at the flagstone under foot, read the plaque, and then move on – perhaps a little more pensively. Others pass by randomly, unaware that Austen is laid here.

‘Oh look’, they will remark. ‘Jane Austen!’. And that is all. They continue on their way, admiring the cathedral’s vaulted roof, perhaps.

I wonder if Jerusalem has such visitors too, randomly rocking up at Calvary.

‘Oh look… Jesus Christ!’.

I have read the words chiseled into that black marble. They do not reference Austen’s literary output. But perhaps they get to something more essential, describing her deep humanity and noting ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’. It is a phrase of immense power.

What a thing the mind is.

The fact that one may die aged 41; that one may never move 100 miles of home; that one may have five people present at one’s funeral. And yet, if the extraordinary endowments of one’s mind are honed and used to perfection, one can live forever.

The flagstone and the plaque map the chasm between the private person and the public persona. The former written in the intense mourning of a family which is already passed from the earth; the latter a mark of eternal celebration.

By way of stretching my legs, I take time to examine those who are memorialised to either side of Austen’s plaque.

There is a Captain Gosling to her left. His name seems ripped from a thrilling adventure novel. The facts of his death support the thesis. He expired in Central Africa, on the Zand River in Chad to be exact. All very exotic. Except for the happy detail of the Captain’s middle name, which makes me happy in turn for his presence.

He is George Bennet Gosling.

To the right, a memorial to a young man of 27 years who was ripped from life during a tour of duty in Asia with the Rifle Brigade. He is Captain Edward Crofton. He has lofty parentage, and a family home in Mohill, Co Leitrim. Crofton was born after Jane’s death, yet his status was enough to merit this placement, here in this part of the cathedral. Beside her.

It seems strange to me that Austen would be surrounded by captains of military in death. As if, subliminally, the great deciders of the age knew that she too had won some piece of geography for Britain.

I ponder the thought, sitting on my cathedral chair.

Human ideas live longer than empires. That we deeply know this is palpable. Her homestead in Chawton has a wall-mounting which attempts to articulate her worth. It is clear to me that those who composed it gave great thought to what they might say.

‘Such art as hers can never grow old’, it declares. It is a phrase of immense power. The second in as many days.

As I sit in the cathedral, a group of children surrounds her grave as their teacher attempts to engage them . He is speaking a language I recognise as Slavic, although I can understand not a single word. The kids are perhaps 15 years old. They silently look to him as he reveals why this flagstone should be interesting.

His narrative is building. And finally, he says her name, Jane Austen, and in rapid succession, her most famous work ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

‘Ah!’, the kids exclaim, nodding their heads and instantly taking photographs.

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