The generous act Jane Austen did not approve of

Rather than making Edward Austen wait until she died, his adopted mother, Catherine Knight, stood aside to allow Edward to manage the estates he would eventually inherit. This was reported to be a generous act, but Jane did not agree!

When Thomas Knight II died in 1794, he left his estates to his wife, Catherine, for her life and confirmed Edward Austen to be the eleventh squire of Chawton. But four years later, Catherine passed over the estates to Edward to run, rather than have to wait for her death:

"Catherine Knight out of her love and affection for Edward Austen and in order to advance him to their present possession of the estates which were settled on him and his issue in remainder under the will agreed to convey all the estates unto and to the use of Edward Austen during the joint lives of him and her Catherine Knight subject to a rent charge or clear annual sum of £2,000 clear of all deductions and taxes to be reserved and made passable."

To many this may have seemed to be a great gift to Edward – after all he would have an income of about £15,000 a year (according to estimates) – but the burden and responsibility of managing the estates had also passed to Edward as well as the risk of the income falling short.

Jane did not hide her views on Catherine’s actions. On 8 January 1799, she wrote to Cassandra:

Mrs. Knight giving up the Godmersham Estate to Edward was no such prodigious act of Generosity after all it seems, for she has reserved herself an income out of it still;—this ought to be known, that her conduct may not be over-rated.—I rather think Edward shews the most Magnanimity of the two, in accepting her Resignation with such Incumbrances.

Edward made Godmersham his primary residence and made annual visits to Chawton for up to five months at a time. Most of Edward’s income from his Hampshire estates came from land rental and payments related to use of the land. He let houses, farms, mills and labourers’ cottages. Rent provided a steady income, which Edward supplemented by working in the woodlands.

 The Chawton lands of Thomas Knight - (photo copyright Caroline Jane Knight)

The Chawton lands of Thomas Knight - (photo copyright Caroline Jane Knight)


In the excellent book Jane Austen, Edward Knight & Chawton, Commerce and Community, Linda Slothouber reports (after studying my family's archives in Chawton) that wood was routinely cut from the 9,000 acres at Chawton, and Edward sold firewood, hop poles—cut from slender branches to support growing hops—and fencing rods harvested through coppicing—that is, cutting wood from a tree without killing it. Trees were cut down or topped and the timber sold, and bark was sold to one of the several tanneries in Alton. After Catherine died, Edward as able to rely most heavily on the coppices that supplied underwood, the most renewable resources - income from timber had been up to ten times higher in her lifetime, perhaps to pay her annual stipend.

Edward’s annual income of £15,000 may sound like a lot (half as much again as Mr Darcy’s £10,000), but there were many financial demands to be met. Between a quarter and a half of Edward’s gross earnings were spent annually on expenses, including labour, repairs, professional fees, tithes, transport, taxes and rates.

 Edward Austen Knight

Edward Austen Knight


Edward was fastidious. He kept bank clerks on their toes, correcting mistakes in their ledgers, and he took swift and firm action to collect money where he was owed. He met with his steward annually and inspected the accounts in detail. ‘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 interest to attend to his estates,’ Caroline Austen (his niece) recalled. However, despite careful management of his financial affairs, in 1811 Edward decided to sell the Abbots Barton (another Hampshire estate) after thirteen years of stewardship. Through the sale, Edward was able to cut running costs by selling land that was expensive and difficult to maintain and to release capital to finance expenses. It was the responsibility of the landed gentry to preserve the family's land and fortunes for future generations, so the significance of selling land must not be underestimated.

Catherine Knight received £2,000 a year for thirteen years until her death in 1812, which was equivalent to nearly sixty per cent of the net profits of his Hampshire estates. Perhaps Jane had been right; the early passing of the estates to Edward by Catherine was not such an act of generosity after all.


Caroline Jane Knight is Jane Austen's fifth great-niece and the last Austen to grow up at Chawton House on the ancestral estate where Jane herself lived and wrote. You can read more about Caroline's extraordinary childhood in JANE & ME: MY AUSTEN HERITAGE, available in PAPERBACK, HARDBACK, E-BOOK and AUDIOBOOK at all good online retailers. 15% of any profits made are donated to the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation


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