Today, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens are generally recognized as four of the greatest authors in English literature. But how did their contemporaries view them? Were their works appreciated? And how did the 19th century public feel when three of them, still in their prime, met an untimely end? To discover the answers to these questions, one might delve into the legions of biographies written over the years or have a look at their letters, journals, or contemporary reviews of their poems and novels. However, since it is less than a week until Halloween, I thought we might instead take a brief look at their obituaries.
Jane Austen died at Winchester in the early morning hours on Friday July 18, 1817. She was only forty-one years old. In a letter written to Fanny Knight, Jane’s sister, Cassandra, describes Jane’s final hours:
“She felt herself to be dying about half an hour before she became tranquil and apparently unconscious. During that half-hour was her struggle, poor soul! She said she could not tell us what she suffered, though she complained of little fixed pain. When I asked her if there was anything she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death, and some of her words were: ‘God grant me patience, pray for me, oh, pray for me!’”
Reports of Jane’s death appeared in newspapers across England. Most were brief, containing only a line or two and no mention of her novels at all. The following notice appeared in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal, Monday July 28, 1817. It is one of the lengthier obituaries and one of the only ones I could find that mention her books:
George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, died of fever at Missolonghi, Greece at six o’clock in the evening on April 19, 1824. He was only thirty-six years old. News of his death did not reach England for nearly a month. A courier finally arrived with the sad tidings on May 14, 1824. The next day, London’s Morning Chronicle printed an obituary which proclaimed:
“Thus has perished, in the flower of his age, in the noblest of causes, one of the greatest Poets England ever produced.”
After a lifetime of notoriety and scandal, Byron had travelled to Greece and joined the fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence. The Morning Chronicle lauded his noble sacrifice in the final lines of his obituary:
“It is fortunate for the great when they can escape from themselves into some pursuit, which, by firing their ambition, gives a stimulus to their active powers.—We rejoiced to see Lord Byron engaged in a cause which afforded such motives for exertions, and we anticipated from him many days of glory.—But it has been otherwise decreed.”
Charlotte Brontë died at Haworth Parsonage, along with her unborn child, early on Saturday morning, March 31, 1855. She was only thirty-eight years old and had been married less than a year to her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nichols. Seriously ill for six weeks prior to her death with “perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness,” her death was, at the time, attributed to tuberculosis. According to author and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, the last words Brontë ever wrote were in a February 15th letter to a school friend, which she closed as follows:
“I cannot write more now; for I am much reduced and very weak. God bless you all.—Yours affectionately, C. B. Nicholls.”
On April 7, 1855, the Leeds Mercury printed an obituary for “Currer Bell.” Currer Bell was the pen name under which Brontë was first published. The Leeds Mercury stated:
“Others now mourn her, in a domestic sense; and, as for the public, there can be no doubt that a pang will be felt in the midst of the strongest interests of the day, through the length and breadth of the land, and in the very heart of Germany (where her works are singularly appreciated), France, and America, that the ‘Currer Bell,’ who so lately stole as a shadow into the field of contemporary literature has already become a shadow again,—vanishing from our view, and henceforth haunting only the memory of the multitudes whose expectation was fixed upon her.”
Amongst our four authors, Charles Dickens was the only one to live a (relatively) long life. He died at his residence at Gad’s Hill, near Rochester, at twenty past six in the evening on June 9, 1870. He was fifty-eight years old. Modern biographers attribute his death to complications arising from a stroke he had had the previous week, while contemporary reports stated that the cause of his death was “apoplexy.”
Dickens was already famous when he died and the news coverage of his death was extensive. Within days, reports of his literary achievements would take up column upon column in popular papers of the day. One of the earliest notices, and therefore the briefest, was in the Friday June 10, 1870 edition of the London Daily News which declared:
“There is not a home in the United Kingdom in which the sad news of to-day will not be received with the deepest and most heartfelt regret, while across the Atlantic and amongst the distant populations in our vast colonial possessions a similar feeling will be experienced. Mr. Charles Dickens is dead.”
The posthumous fame of Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens has far eclipsed the celebrity each experienced while they were alive. Still, it is nice to know that, however brief the obituary, those in the 19th century mourned the untimely loss of these literary luminaries and valued the novels, poems, and plays that they left behind as much as we value them today.