“Mansfield Park,” Jane Austen’s third novel, ends with the felicitous union of its heroine, Fanny Price, and her cousin Edmund Bertram, and so well deserved is their happiness that they might be forgiven for achieving it over someone’s dead body:
Equally formed for domestic life, and attached to country pleasures, their home was the home of affection and comfort; and to complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living, by the death of Dr. Grant, occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of incomeand feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience.
How ruthlessly Austen does it, sandwiching Dr. Grant’s last breath between the merits of Fanny’s and Edmund’s life — “country pleasures,” “affection and comfort,” “the picture of good” — and that pesky “inconvenience” of a lesser-paying job farther away from Mansfield Park than they would like. Dr. Grant exists to be dispensed with; in the end, he is nothing to Austen and her characters but an administrative hurdle. Death may have him, and he must suffer the indignity of being killed off in an aside in the novel’s penultimate sentence to boot.
The celebration of Austen this year, two centuries after her death at 41 on July 18, 1817, masquerades seamlessly as a celebration of her life, in part because she has proved immortal, and in part because as a writer she had so little time for mortality on the page. What was death to Jane Austen? We readers feel its inconvenience most acutely in material terms; had she lived longer she might have written six more novels, though the six she completed have amply sustained 200 years of entertainment, analysis, multimedia adaptation and, lately, zombie attack, which is more than one can say for Fanny Burney.
Austen covered sufferers of chronic illness: Mrs. Smith in “Persuasion,” Anne Elliot’s confidante, wise and infirm before her time; the invalids of “Sanditon,” Austen’s final, incomplete manuscript. She excelled at hypochondriacs: Mrs. Bennet, in “Pride and Prejudice,” with her nerves; Mr. Woodhouse, in “Emma,” ever vigilant against a chill. Nor were her characters deaf to the rumble of time’s winged chariot: Anne Elliot’s vain father, Sir Walter, entertains a theatrical horror of aging. To him, crows’ feet and sun-damaged skin spell social suicide, a fate worse than — well, you know.