The Winchester VersesText by Maura Dooley, Poet-in-Residence at Jane Austen’s House, 2014
In May 1817, exhausted from long months of illness a wan Jane Austen arrived in Winchester, to be closer to her physician hoping for an improvement in her health. Jane Austen did not recover and on July 18th 1817 she died in her sister’s arms, as Cassandra describes movingly in a letter to their niece Fanny Knight, just a few days later. ‘She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow; I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.’
As far as we know it was months since Jane Austen had been well enough to work on her new novel, Sanditon, yet, unable to resist a subject that made her smile, we have a poem written just days before she died.
July 15th 1817 was the day of the Winchester Races, a noisy, tumbling, raucous occasion of fashionable gambling and revelry – a grand day out, as Austen writes:
‘The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined’.
July 15th is also St Swithin’s Day, something the Town seemed to have forgetten. St Swithin, a 9th century bishop, patron saint of Winchester, is linked through long tradition to the idea that if it rains on his feast day, it will continue to rain for 40 days and nights. Jane Austen gives voice to a furious St Swithin:
‘These races and revels and dissolute measures/With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain/Let them stand – You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures/Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.’
I looked up the weather for the summer of 1817; it was notably wet.
The Austen family all wrote light verse, often as a parlour game. I imagine the sisters cooped up, above the wet, noisy street, losing themselves in the fun of creating this sweet and funny verse in those dark last days and it is some small consolation for the loss, painfully early, of such a very fine writer, mischievous to the last.