A Death in the family meant wearing the right clothes and following the correct etiquette. Sue Wilkes reports on how Jane Austen wrote about mourning and how she was mourned by her family
On the morning of July 24, 1817, six days after her death, Jane Austen was laid to rest at Winchester Cathedral. Her brothers Edward, Henry and Frank accompanied her coffin to the “building she admired so much”. Her brother James was too ill to come, so his son James Edward attended on his behalf (Charles was too far away to reach Winchester in time). Jane’s sister Cassandra did not accompany her on that final journey – women did not usually attend funerals, because it was feared that they would be overpowered by their emotions.
We can assume that Jane’s funeral, which was arranged by Henry, was modest and respectable. Because mortality rates were much higher than today, people were inured to seeing “processions of funeral vehicles every day … on the high roads, and in the crowded streets of great cities”, as Louis Simond, the traveller, wrote in Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain in 1815. “Their solemnity forms, at the same time, a sad and a ridiculous contrast with the light and rapid motion of the carriages of the living, splashing them as they drive by, and the indifference of the passing throng, who heed not this last effort of the vanity of man, and hurry on without bestowing a single look on the show. Some of the friends of the deceased follow in their carriages. The lower people bury their dead on foot, and the nearest relatives walk in the train.”
Simond witnessed the funeral of a lady who lived in an upper storey of his Edinburgh lodgings. She was not wealthy and could not normally afford a carriage, but she received a dignified send-offin a “coach and six, covered with black cloth, and surmounted with plumes of feathers of the same colour, followed by more carriages, with a number of hired mourners on foot, before and behind, in black, and carrying likewise black plumes of feathers”.
By comparison, when Princess Charlotte, the Prince Regent’s daughter, died during childbirth a few months after Jane Austen, the funeral procession was led by a hearse carrying her baby’s body and an urn containing the princess’s heart. Her hearse was pulled by eight black horses, followed by five mourning carriages.
When a young girl died one custom in some areas of the country was the carrying of a ‘maiden’s garland’ or ‘virgin’s crown’ (‘crants’) by girls dressed in white, as part of the funeral procession. This ancient custom, which may date back before the Reformation, was mentioned by Shakespeare of Ophelia: “Yet here she is allowed her virgin crants / Her maiden strewments.”
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