Literary Obituaries: Death Notices for Austen, Byron, Brontë, and Dickens

Austen, Byron, Bronte, and Dickens Black and White
Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Charlotte Brontë, and Charles Dickens.

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.

Young Jane Austen. (Image via Her life and Letters, 1914.)
(Image via Jane Austen: Her life and Letters, 1914.)

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:

Jane Austen Obituary Salisbury and Winchester Journal - Monday 28 July 1817
Jane Austen’s obituary.
Salisbury and Winchester Journal, Monday July 28, 1817.
(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

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.”

 Lord Byron's obituary. (Morning Chronicle, Saturday May 15, 1824.)
Lord Byron’s obituary.
Morning Chronicle, Saturday May 15, 1824.
(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

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.”

Haworth Parsonage, home of the Brontës. (Image via The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1857.)
Haworth Parsonage, home of the Brontës.
(Image via The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1857.)

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.”

Charlotte Brontë's obituary .( Leeds Mercury, Saturday, April 7, 1855.
Charlotte Brontë’s obituary .
Leeds Mercury, Saturday, April 7, 1855.
(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

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.”

Gad's Hill, Charles Dickens Residence. (Image via Dickens a Sketch of his Life and Works, 1870.)
(Image via Dickens a Sketch of his Life and Works, 1870.)

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.”

Charles Dickens' obituary.(London Daily News, Friday June 10, 1870.)
Charles Dickens’ obituary.
London Daily News, Friday June 10, 1870.
(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

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.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Austen-Leigh, William.  Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters.  New York: Dutton & Co., 1914.

“Charles Dickens Obituary.”  London Daily News.  Friday, June 10, 1870.

“Death of Currer Bell.”  Leeds Mercury.  Saturday, April 7, 1855.

“Death of Lord Byron.”  Morning Chronicle.  Saturday, May 15, 1824.

Edgcumbe, Richard.  Lord Byron: The Last Phase.  Hamburg: Severus, 2012.

Gaskell, Elizabeth.  The Life of Charlotte Bronte.  London: Spottiswoode & Co., 1857.

“Jane Austen Obituary.”  Salisbury and Winchester Journal.  Monday July 28, 1817.

Perkins, F. B.  Charles Dickens: A Sketch of His Life and Works.  New York: Putnam & Sons, 1870.

Slater, Michael.  Charles Dickens.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.


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20 Comments on "Literary Obituaries: Death Notices for Austen, Byron, Brontë, and Dickens"

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nmayer2015
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Byron’s fame while alive was monumental. Not many authors can boast of selling 10,000 copies of a work in one day. He is considered one of the first celebrities like rock stars. Women sent him locks of hair and other items.
Even a paper in New York, USA carried a full page account of his death. The Greeks declared a national period of mourning and honored his memory for many generations. Many in England and elsewhere thought it important enough to mention his death in letters, journals, and diaries.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Yes, he was hugely famous. However, I would argue that now he is even more so, not only because of the advent of technology, but because he has gained respectability. For many in junior high and high school, his poems are now required reading! Though for Byron, I suspect he would have preferred rock star status to literary respectability!

monocochlearmutineer
Guest

He would definitely have gone for the rock star status, given the choice :-)

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Totally!

monocochlearmutineer
Guest

I always enjoy a fresh, eloquent perspective on a well-worn subject. Thank you. It also reminds me of the old adage that it is through death that we understand life.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you liked it :). You’re right, there’s not much left to say on these four, and yet their obits are still so interesting – and so poignant. Especially Bronte’s (at least I think so!)

paper doll
Guest
Very cool post ! And as always, wonderfully illustrated . Just this week I ran into this death notice from a paper of the time Since our last publication death has erased from the list of living English authoresses the name of CHARLOTTE NICHOLLS better known as Miss BRONTE the author of Jane Eyre It is well known that under the names of CURRER ACTON and ELLIS BELL she and her sisters published works which powerfully attracted the attention and curiosity of the public For a long time it was difficult to determine to which of the three sisters the… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

So glad you liked it :) And thanks so much for including that death notice! I love all the euphemisms the writer uses (“The pitiless destroyer” and “erased from the list of the living”).

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I’d have said that it sounded as though Charlotte Bronte had pre eclampsia myself.

A poignant presentation of them all, thanks, Mimi.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you liked it, Sarah :) You may be right about Bronte’s illness. If only the doctors in the 19th century had had the knowledge that we have today!

Angelyn
Guest

I do enjoy reading the news–from the 19th century.

Because I’m in a Halloween mood, I’ll mention that a young printer named James claimed to have channeled Dickens’ ghost when he wrote the ending to Edwin Drood, the novelist’s last (unfinished) novel–his version remained very popular in the United States despite intense criticism.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

What a nice racket for an aspiring author who wishes to expand on a famous, deceased author’s work. You have to appreciate James’ creativity!

Lucy
Guest
Great piece :) In her diaries, Charlotte describes chronic morning sickness, that so severe she was unable to sleep or keep any food down at all, so now the general consensus is she had hyperemesis gravidarum. Such a shame, some intravenous fluids and she’d have come out of the other side of it, must have been such an awful death. I feel sorry for Charles Dickens, too. He left express instructions to be buried at Rochester Cathedral “in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner”, but this were ignored and his body taken to Westminster Abbey for a big fussy… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you liked it, Lucy :) It’s depressing to think how easily Charlotte Bronte’s illness might have been treated if she were alive today. And I had read that about Dickens, too. I wish they had honored his wishes!

JaneGS
Guest

What an interesting post–I’ve read bios of all four authors but rereading the obits in a single post was an interesting way to put their lives and reputation at the time of their deaths into perspective.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’m glad you liked it, Jane :) And I agree, the obits are a fascinating (although brief) snapshot into public feeling in the immediate aftermath of their deaths.

Noirfifre
Guest

I like how you included primary source material to show the authors death. I did not know that Charlotte was pregnant when she passed, I know very little of her except that she wrote a fine story- Jane Eyre.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thank you, Noirfifre :) I try to always cite with print sources so people reading can have confidence that what I write is fact and not internet hearsay. Charlotte’s story is a sad one. It makes me wish she had met someone like Rochester and had a happy ending of her own!

Noirfifre
Guest

Of course, it is one thing I learned from History and Eng. Lit: sources. Charlotte story does sound sad and Rochester learned to live and be happy again.aw

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