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Jane Austen’s Early Death in the Context of Austen Family Mortality

Jane Austen, born on 16 December 1775, died on 18 July 1817 at the age of just 41 years, 214 days.  This paper aims to establish whether the people in Jane Austen’s family also tended to die young, compared to what we would expect for the time (late eighteenth and early nineteenth century) and place (England).  Or was Jane Austen’s early death an exception to the usual experience of the family? 

These questions are of particular interest as Jane Austen wrote about mortality matters in her books.  Daniel Skwire described her as “both the first and the best practitioner of the actuarial novel” (82).  Indeed, he draws attention to several references to mortality in Jane Austen’s novels.  For example, Northanger Abbey’s narrator summarizes the prospects of Catherine Morland’s mother:  “She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as any body might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself” (13).  Furthermore, in Sense and Sensibility Mrs.  John Dashwood observes that "people always live for ever when there is any annuity to be paid them; and [Mrs.  Dashwood] is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty” (10).  Daniel Skwire confirms the validity of the comments in Jane Austen’s novels on the mortality of her characters and praises “the level of care and detail with which Jane Austen presents financial and actuarial subjects” (82). 

Jane Austen was also interested in the mortality of her own family.  In a letter to her elder sister, Cassandra, on the day after Cassandra’s twenty-third birthday she wrote, “In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer” (10 January 1796).  It is possible to assess whether this was a reasonable statement to make. 

In order to judge whether the Austen family was characterized by high mortality (i.e., whether they died young), data on the mortality of the population is needed.  Registration of births and deaths became compulsory in England only in 1837, and the first table of mortality rates for the population of England (from English Life Table 1, ‘ELT1’) was issued by the Registrar General, George Graham in 1843.  A mortality rate is the probability of dying in the next 12 months, and is calculated separately for each age and for both males and females.  The mortality rates in 1841 can be manipulated to give the expectation of life at birth, the outcome being 40.19 for males, 42.18 for females.  This suggests that Jane’s lifetime of 41.59 years was about average or slightly longer:  the expectation of life when she was born in 1775 was lower. 

However, the expectation of life at birth is greatly influenced by infant mortality:  ELT1 showed that 18.55% of females died before reaching their second birthday.  Since it is often the case that data for infant lives are unreliable, it makes sense to concentrate on the expected age at death for 20- and 40-year-olds.  The expected age at death for a 20-year-old equals 20+ the expectation of life for a 20-year-old; similarly, the expected age at death for a 40-year-old equals 40+ the expectation of life for a 40-year-old.  This information, for ELT1, is indicated in Table 1; as well as the aggregate results, this table also shows the data for two cities (London and Liverpool) and a more rural area of southern England (Surrey, the only rural county available). 

In addition to ELT1, two other early mortality tables are helpful.  First, the Carlisle table, constructed from information in two parishes of Carlisle over 1779–1789, combines males and females, although, as pointed out by Alexander Finlaison, it was based largely on females (45).  Bernard Benjamin and John Pollard regarded the mortality rates from the Carlisle table as lower than for England as a whole, but they were often used by life insurance companies (488), and Daniel Skwire regarded the Carlisle table as “the best contemporary mortality table” (78).  Second, the Seventeen Offices table, although published rather later, in 1843, has a greater scope:  Steven Haberman and Trevor Sibbett found that it reflected the combined experience of seventeen life insurance companies and was based on 83,905 insurance policies (31). 

Table 1: Expected age at death using mortality tables

  At Age 20 At Age 40
  Males Females Males Females
Carlisle table
61.46 67.61
English Life Table (ELT1)
59.88 60.81 66.56 67.72
ELT1: London
55.80 59.10 62.30 65.00
ELT1: Liverpool
53.40 54.30 61.00 61.50
ELT1: Surrey
61.70 61.90 67.50 68.10
Seventeen Offices table
59.84 55.86 66.06 66.36

The results from these mortality tables are shown in Table 1, which sets out the expected age at death for 20- and 40-year-olds.  While ELT1 shows females as living longer than males, that is not true at age 20 for the table using insured lives, who would have had greater wealth and better health than the average person in England.  The adverse effect of females’ child-bearing years was recognized as a factor.  Actuary Charles Jellicoe commented in 1854, “The wear and tear on female life is unquestionably great from twenty to forty, whilst those who outlive this period have for the most part little to disturb the serenity of their declining years.  The male sex, on the contrary, though probably possessing more vigour in its prime, is exposed to the labours and anxieties of life to a much later period” (203). 

Before analyzing the mortality experience of the Austen family, some context is appropriate.  Jane Austen was born and grew up in a rural setting:  the village of Steventon, Hampshire.  She moved to the town of Bath in 1801 and then to Southampton in the autumn of 1806, before moving back to Hampshire (the village of Chawton) in July 1809.  While Jane Austen did frequently stay in London, it is still fair to conclude that she largely avoided cities, where we know that mortality rates were very high:  see, for example, the figures for London and Liverpool in Table 1. 

Furthermore, Jane Austen was the daughter of a vicar.  Whereas 61% of the population survived to their 20th birthday according to the Carlisle table, and 67% in the ELT1 (females) table, a survey in 1830 by Charles Ansell, examining the children of clergymen, primarily in the diocese of Canterbury, showed that the corresponding proportion was 77%.  This pattern leads to the expectation that the Austen family, typical of those with middle-class occupations who avoided city life, would have lower mortality than average. 

We do not know the cause of Jane Austen’s death.  In an article in the British Medical Journal, Zachary Cope suggested that hers was the first recorded case of Addison’s disease of the adrenal bodies, a disease that, at the time, had not been recognized.  Other suggestions over the years have included Hodgkin’s disease (from F. A. Bevan) and disseminated bovine tuberculosis (from K. G. White).  Linda Robinson Walker has pointed out that breast and ovarian cancer have also been identified as possibilities and has put forward typhus as another.  More recently, from Sandra Tuppen comes the idea that Jane contracted cataracts from arsenic poisoning.  The problem remains unsolved and perhaps insoluble.  What is unknown is whether there was some link between Jane’s poor health and early death and the rest of the Austen family. 

This article presents a new study of the mortality experience of the family of Jane Austen, including both ascendants and descendants.  The start is to include Jane’s four grandparents and their brothers and sisters, and record their dates of birth and death.  Then include their spouses and children; and, similarly their spouses and children and so on.  There is a condition that spouses have to be married and children born by 1817 (the year of Jane’s death) to be included.  Where date of birth is unknown, the date of baptism is used if available; month or year of birth is used as an approximation if that is all that is known.  The main sources for the survey are the works by Richard Austen-Leigh, George Tucker, Maggie Lane, Claire Tomalin, Jon Spence, and Margaret Wilson, together with Jane Austen’s letters. 

There are 204 individuals whose dates of birth and death meet the criteria stated.  These include 5 males and 6 females who died under the age of 20.  However, there would have been many other deaths at young ages, details of which are unknown.  It is therefore appropriate to exclude the 11 early deaths and restrict the analysis to those who survived to age 20.  That leaves 193:  129 males, comprising 112 blood relations and 17 spouses, and 64 females, comprising 47 blood relations (defined to include Jane herself) and 17 spouses. 

The longest-lived male in the survey was the 94-year-old Rev.  John Leigh Hoskyns, born in 1817.  He was one of six male blood relations who lived to 90 or more (as did one spouse).  The longest-lived female was 95-year-old Marianne Austen, born in 1801.  She was one of two female blood relations who lived to 90 or more (as did two spouses). 

Jane’s father lived to the age of 73.  Her mother lived to the age of 87, surviving Jane by nine years.  Mary Beeton and Karl Pearson established a relationship between longevity of parents and offspring, using data on people in the Society of Friends and policyholders of an insurance company, the Friends’ Provident Association.  This model would lead to an expected lifetime for Jane (and also her sister Cassandra) of 57 years.  Cassandra died at age 72; the average lifetime of the sisters was indeed 57.  Jane had six brothers, who on average lived to 75.  Considering their six marriages before Jane’s death in 1817, Jane’s sisters-in-law lived, on average, to only 45:  childbirth was associated with three out of the six deaths. 

Table 2 shows the average age at death of the 193 individuals in the analysis (those dying under age 20 omitted).  Figures are reported first for blood relations and then “all family,” including spouses.  Including spouses may lead to a slight distortion of the results because they would not, of course, be included unless they had survived to the age at which they married.  For example, a spouse marrying at age 50 could not have died before age 50; thus, a calculation that includes an older spouse may mean that the average age at death was higher than otherwise.  However, spouses may have influenced Jane’s perception of mortality.  There are higher figures in the later period, as we would expect; and there is also an overall advantage for males over females, albeit small.  Jane’s death at age 41 is clearly lower than the typical Austen family experience. 

Table 2: Average age at death in Austen family

  Males Females
Blood Relations   
Born pre-1775  60.71 60.64
Born 1775–1817 64.88 64.19
All periods 62.98 62.22
All Family     
Born pre-1775 60.31 59.30
Born 1775–1817 64.06 63.28
All periods 62.14 60.79

For a more refined analysis, the data is used to construct a table of Austen family mortality, with mortality rates, by age and sex, for each of males and females and each age for each of three periods: born pre-1775 (the year of Jane’s birth), born 1775–1817, and born post-1817 (the year of her death).  This table is then used to calculate the expectation of life, separately for males and females, in each of the three periods.  The resulting expected age at death for the 193 members of the Austen family who survived to at least 20 is shown in Table 3.  Overall, the figures are much higher from 1775 onwards than before, but there is no sustained improvement after 1817.  This is consistent with the finding of Bernard Benjamin and John Pollard that England had a fairly stationary level of mortality from the 1830s to 1871 (490).  The figures for “all family” are generally below those for blood relations, indicating that those blood relations tended to live longer than their spouses.

Table 3: Expected age at death using Austen family mortality rates

  At Age 20 At Age 40
  Males Females Males Females
Blood Relations     
Pre-1775  59.30 51.91 65.81 57.22
1775–1817 64.31 64.39 70.38 67.32
Post-1817 64.41 63.68 67.77 70.29
All periods  62.95 62.23 68.17 67.73
All Family         
Pre-1775 59.40 53.32 65.43 59.59
1775–1817 61.86 64.62 68.25 69.65
Post-1817 63.90 63.35 67.95 69.46
All periods  62.13 60.79 67.89 67.01

The all-period expectation was higher for males than females, especially pre-1775.  Later on, females did rather better; this difference was more apparent at age 40 than 20.  The data indicates that the female expectation of life was higher than the male for ages 41 and above; this result is strikingly similar to that of the Seventeen Offices population, which, like the Austen family, covered those wealthier than the average. 

Now consider how the Austen family experience compared with the population as a whole.  The Carlisle table showed, at age 20, an expected age at death of 61.46:  the Austens’ experience (blood relations 1775–1817, unweighted average of males and females) is 64.35, better by 2.89 years.  At age 40 the Carlisle table indicated an age at death of 67.61, compared with 68.85 for the Austens, a narrower difference of 1.24 years.  Looking at post-1817 experience, the point of comparison is the English Life Tables.  The Austen blood relations at age 20 out-live the ELT1 population by 4.53 years for males and 2.87 years for females.  Using “all family” figures (blood relations and spouses), the Austens out-live the ELT1 population by 4.02 years (males) and 2.54 years (females).  At age 40 the excess for blood relations is 1.21 years (males) and 2.57 years (females); using the “all family” figures these become 1.39 and 1.74 respectively. 

These results are consistent with what was anticipated, namely that the Austen family would live longer than the population.  Jane’s early death was therefore not something that could have been expected from the mortality experience of her family.  Consider Jane’s hope that her 23-year-old sister Cassandra would live 23 more years.  The probability of this forecast, using the mortality table for the Austen females over 1775–1817, was 80%, so it should have been a fairly safe bet.  There was an 86% probability, however, of an Austen female surviving from 23 to 42, which Jane did not. 

Using Table 3, and considering the period of Jane’s lifetime, 1775–1817, we expect that a female blood relation in the Austen family who lived to at least 20, would go on to live until she was 64.39, more than 22 years beyond Jane’s actual lifetime of 41.59.  One can only speculate on how many works she might have written during those lost 22 years. 

Works Cited
  • Ansell, Charles.  On the Rate of Mortality at Early Periods of Life.  London: National Life Assurance Society, 1874.
  • Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters. 4th ed.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  Oxford: OUP, 2011.
  • Austen, Jane.  The Works of Jane Austen. 3rd ed.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford: OUP, 1933–1969.
  • Austen-Leigh, Richard Arthur.  Pedigree of Austen.  London: Spottiswoode, 1940.
  • Beeton, Mary, and Karl Pearson.  “On the Inheritance of the Duration of Life, and on the Intensity of Natural Selection in Man.”  Biometrika 1 (1901): 50–89.
  • Benjamin, Bernard, and John Hurlstone Pollard.  The Analysis of Mortality and Other Actuarial Statistics.  Oxford: Faculty and Institute of Actuaries, 1993.
  • Bevan, F. A. Letter to the editor.  British Medical Journal 2 (1964): 384.
  • Cope, Zachary.  “Jane Austen’s Last Illness.”  British Medical Journal 2 (1964): 182–83.
  • Finlaison, Alexander Glen.  Report on the Mortality of the Government Life Annuitants.  London, 1860.
  • Graham, George.  Fifth Annual Report of the Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages in England.  London: HMSO, 1843.
  • Haberman, Steven, and Trevor Sibbett, eds.  History of Actuarial Science.  Vol. 10.  London: Pickering, 1995.
  • Jellicoe, Charles.  “On the Rates of Mortality Prevailing amongst the Male and Female Lives Assured in the Eagle Insurance Company during the 44 years Ending 31 December 1851.”  Journal of the Institute of Actuaries 4 (1854): 199–215.
  • Lane, Maggie.  Jane Austen’s Family through Five Generations.  London: Hale, 1984.
  • Skwire, Daniel D.  “Actuarial Issues in the Novels of Jane Austen.”  North American Actuarial Journal 1 (1997): 74–83.
  • Spence, Jon.  A Century of Wills from Jane Austen’s Family 17051805.  Paddington, NSW: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2001.
  • Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen, a Life. London: Penguin, 2000.
  • Tucker, George Holbert.  A Goodly Heritage.  Manchester: Carcanet, 1983.
  • Tuppen, Sandra.  “Did Jane Austen Develop Cataracts from Arsenic Poisoning?”  Untold Lives Blog.  British Library, 9 Mar. 2017.  http://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2017/03/did-jane-austen-develop-cataracts-from-arsenic-poisoning.html
  • Walker, Linda Robinson.  “Jane Austen’s Death: the Long Reach of Typhus?”  Persuasions On-Line 31.1 (2010).
  • White, K. G.  “Jane Austen and Addison’s Disease: An Unconvincing Diagnosis.”  Medical Humanities 35 (2009): 98–100.
  • Wilson, Margaret.  Jane Austen’s Family and Tonbridge.  Alston: Jane Austen Society, 2001.
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