“Art is long, life is brief.”–Roman translation of a Greek aphorism
Today, Jane Austen died. No, this isn’t an oblique commentary on the new version of Persuasion. But rather the fact that July 18, 1817, Jane Austen left her earthly body. In March of that same year, she had made the difficult decision of abandoning what would become Sanditon, her final, unfinished work. As for the cause of her death, in the absence of modern diagnostic techniques or even awareness of the full range of illnesses she might have suffered, it’s hard to know if it was indeed Addison’s disease, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or an autoimmune condition. But Austen died relatively young (41 years old), and while far from unread, her authorship of Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma was not formally revealed until after her death, and Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were not published until December 1817.
There are few deaths in “real time” in Austen’s novels–certainly nothing to rival Victorian deathbed scenes. But the author’s own death at the height of her powers is an incalculable loss to literature, not just those who knew her in life, which is perhaps the greatest tribute to any artist. Even people who claim not to be fans benefit (in this author’s humble opinion) from her work–read some of the awkward, all-telling-no-showing 18th century doorstopper novels that predate Austen and compare her economy of style and sly wit-which-can-be-taken-two ways which some might argue is more modern than even those novelists who immediately followed her. (Shots fired at Fielding and Radcliffe fans, I know).
Austen wrote in longhand. I can easily send this blog post electronically with an ease she could have envied and probably never anticipated in her wildest dreams at her writing desk. Yet we are still adapting and debating her, well into the 21st century. Her lifetime royalties were, in modern terms, around $67,456. It is we as reader who enjoy her rich legacy in entertainment and insight.