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Good day, my dear readers! I apologize for my recent absence from posting. I have been enjoying way too much reading, which has been my own small escape into summertime!
One of the many Austen-related projects that I have in the works has been inspired by one of my favorite books by Jane Austen, Emma. Play here if you’d like to hear one of my favorite musical pieces from the Miramax adaptation of Emma as you enjoy this post:
So you can imagine my delight in having Caroline Jane Knight here today to share with you another glimpse into her Austen heritage and how life at Chawton played a role in shaping the plot and characters in this beloved story! Please join me in welcoming her to Just Jane 1813…
I am often asked which is my favourite of Jane’s books. One of the things I love most about Jane’s work is the variety we get from just six completed novels – it’s hard to pick a favourite! But one of Jane’s stories is particularly close to my heart as it is the work that was most talked about by my family – for so many reasons.
Emma was the last book Jane published in her lifetime, at the end of 1815, just after her 40th birthday. Jane would only live another 18 months and her health was already failing. The circumstances of the over-done dedication to the Prince Regent in the front of the book is a fascinating tale and her subsequent rebuke of his librarian’s suggestion over the topic of her next ‘romance’ was, and still is, the most empowering example I ever had from great-aunt Jane – a powerful role model to grow up with! You can read more about that in my book, Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage.
But Emma had other dedications buried within it – to her brother Edward Austen (my fourth great-grandfather) and his adopted family, the Knights.
Edward was adopted by childless cousins, Thomas and Catherine Knight, and became the heir to Chawton, Steventon, Godmersham Park, and other landholdings owned by the Knights throughout the south of England. By 1809 Mrs Austen and her daughters Jane and Cassandra were lodging in Frank Austen’s house in Southampton, no longer able to afford their own home after the death of Jane’s father, George Austen. Jane’s writing had all but stopped until Edward gifted his mother and sisters a large cottage in the middle of Chawton. Once settled in Chawton, Jane set about revising earlier drafts of Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice for publication, before she wrote new stories starting with Mansfield Park and Emma. In 1812, as a condition of his inheritance, Edward changed his (and my) name from Austen to Knight. It is said in my family that Mr Knightley was so named as a tribute to the Knight family and Edward Austen Knight – without whom Jane Austen may never have been able to finish her stories, let alone publish any.
Unlike her previous novels, Jane’s fourth published book, Emma, explores the responsibilities of the ‘have’s’, rather than the challenges facing the ‘have not’s’.
Jane’s first three novels tell stories of women who are on the fringes of privilege and poverty. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood have just lost Norland, upon their father’s death the Bennet sisters are facing hardship if suitable husbands cannot be found and Fanny Price is expected to be eternally grateful to her rich relations, regardless of how they may treat her.
Emma takes a departure from great Aunt Jane’s previous works and tells the tale of a woman who is financially secure and has the relative freedom to speak her mind and spend her time as she wishes.
‘Noblesse oblige’ (the duty that comes with privilege) is at the heart of the novel, and reminds us of the responsibility we ALL have towards those less fortunate than ourselves. Mr Knightley’s scolding of Emma when she humiliates Mrs Bates at the Box Hill picnic (chapter 43) is a reminder of this duty:
“Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!”
Edward Austen took his responsibilities as Squire of Chawton seriously. His obligations extended to the community and particularly the poor of the parish. In her letters, Jane mentions her and Cassandra’s plans for spending the £10 that Edward gave them each year to provide small comforts for the poor in the village. Edward gave an Alton apothecary and surgeon £10 a year to attend to the needs of the poor. He added two tenements, or houses for the poor, to the six already in the parish and paid for school mistresses for Chawton and Steventon to ensure the poor were educated. Various small customary donations were made to many including the bell ringers at the church, the parish clerk, and up to nine poor women. Visits were made to the poor, a duty taken up by Cassandra and Jane when the Knights were away. Edward was a patron of agricultural and labourers’ benefit societies and a contributor to collections for poor widows and those affected by the Irish famine.
Edward is said to have been fastidious; he kept bank clerks on their toes, correcting mistakes in their ledgers and took swift and firm action to collect money where he was owed. He visited Chawton annually to meet with his Steward and inspect the accounts in detail, staying each year for as long as five months: “he must have been more his own ‘man of business’ than is usual with people of large property, for I think it always was his greatest interests to attend to his estates”, Caroline Austen recalled of her uncle.
Jane’s Mr Knightley is one of her most honourable characters; a true gentleman and a model of a good squire – it seems extraordinary to imagine this is mere coincidence.
Chawton House had long been the centre of community events and my own grandparents, Edward Knight III and Elizabeth, were committed to this responsibility.
We hosted many annual events, including the village fete and horticultural show, the summer ball, and the Jane Austen Society of the UK’s Annual General Meeting. With dwindling finances, a crumbling manor house, and no servants to help (since the 1950s), it caused an enormous amount of work for the family but these obligations were fulfilled without question – cancelling an event was never even discussed.
My grandparents’ position in the community, with the vast majority of property and land sold decades prior, was not what it once had been, but the values lived on. Granny did not tolerate gossip of any kind and treated everyone who visited with equal respect, from Sir John Junor (British media giant in 1970s and 80s) to the tramp that used to come and ask for food in the winter. Even in our darkest hours, after my grandfather died and we faced having to leave our home of four centuries, fifteen generations and great-aunt Jane Austen, Granny insisted the duties and responsibilities of the ‘Knightley’s’ were fulfilled until our very last day.
Is it coincidence, I ask myself, that my Australian business is located in an eastern suburb of Melbourne called Box Hill? It seems Emma, and the values of duty and responsibility contained within it, are destined to be with me forever!
Caroline Jane Knight is the last Austen to grow up at Chawton House on the ancestral estate where Jane herself lived and wrote.
CAROLINE IS THE AUTHOR OF JANE & ME: MY AUSTEN HERITAGE, AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK, HARDBACK, E-BOOK AND AUDIOBOOK AT ALL GOOD ONLINE RETAILERS
IT’S GIVEAWAY TIME!
Today I am giving away an eBook of JANE & ME: MY AUSTEN HERITAGE, to one Just Jane 1813 reader. To enter this giveaway, please leave a comment on this post by midnight, ET, August 26th.
I’d like to thank Caroline Jane Knight for writing a book that provides readers with an intimate look at life at her life at Chawton and for transporting readers back in time to convey the significance that living at Chawton had on Jane’s life, as well as on her writing.
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