I spent hours as a child searching for Jane Austen’s books in my family’s ancestral library at Chawton House. A collection of three thousands books put together over four centuries lined the walls of the library, but none of them were Jane’s. Why didn’t Jane’s own family (my family) consider her worthy of inclusion in the collection?
When I was a girl, the Knight collection of books inherited by Edward Austen (who was adopted by the Knight’s to become the 11th Squire of Chawton) was in the library at Chawton House, the room my grandparents (Edward Knight III – Edward Austen’s great great grandson and the 15th Squire of Chawton – and Elizabeth) used as a sitting room. I visited the library every day and would sometimes take a book off a shelf and peak inside. The spines cracked as I levered open the hard leather covers. Some of the books were highly decorated with elaborate gold leaf designs.
Many of them were complete with a bookplate inside the front cover, indicating which of my ancestors had been their original owner. I was fascinated by each ancestor’s choice of bookplate design—and books—because I considered their choices an indication of personality. Edward Austen Knight’s bookplate, for example, was much plainer than Thomas Knight’s:
Unlike the rest of the family, who appeared to have satisfied themselves with one bookplate design, Montagu (Edward Austen Knight’s grandson) had three—and each was elaborate and bold. I particularly liked Montagu’s round design; it was the only circular bookplate I had seen. In a seemingly typical example of Montagu's personality (he was one of my more flamboyant ancestors), his bookplate was in many of books, including those already in the collection when he inherited it!
I particularly liked the books with beautifully hand-painted illustrations of flora and fauna from around the world and would marvel at the pictures – bright and clear as the day they were painted. I couldn’t help but run my fingers over the thick pages. Most of the books were extremely old, and many were in languages I didn’t understand. Tales of foreign travel; illustrated natural histories, books of letters, volumes of poetry, novels, and books on politics, law, sport, history, estate management, art, and religion were interspersed with estate records, family history and our Chawton heritage.
The library was very much a male domain (which was hard to ignore), despite the fact that a woman—Jane—was the celebrated and much-revered literary member of our family. The bookplates showed that the collection had been largely put together by the men of the family, and most of the books had been written by men. The journals of foreign travels were of gentlemen’s journeys—photographs and illustrations focused on men’s achievements and interests, not women’s. Jane would have known the older books, either at Chawton or in the library in Godmersham Park before they were moved to Chawton. I could imagine her browsing through the eclectic mix of books, perhaps to gain knowledge and inspiration for her writing and I wondered which books had been Jane’s favourites.
Was Jane, the most talented writer in the family, resentful of the lack of female representation in the library? Was she offended that her novels weren't included? I can't deny being privately outraged, on her behalf, although I never had the courage to mention it!
Perhaps she expressed her views through the voice of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, in a lively conversation with Captain Harville. But you can read more about that in my book - I want to talk about something else in this article.
Many years later I discovered that four of Jane’s books were listed in the Godmersham Park library catalogue of 1818, the year after she died. At the very end of the catalogue, in a small section labelled ‘Drawing Room’, the novels published in Jane’s lifetime were listed: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). They were recorded as having been printed in London, as sitting on shelf six and as comprising three volumes each. My father told me that Jane's novels would, of course, been immediately added to the family collections - it is likely a set was also held in the Chawton as well. Much of the Godmersham collection was moved to Chawton when Godmersham was sold in 1874, so there should have been multiple early copies of Jane’s novels.
But by this time I had realised the extent of the crippling financial pressures faced by my family that had resulted in the sale of most of our property, assets and valuable possessions in the first half of the 20th century – which is why valuable eighteenth century editions of Jane’s books weren’t in our family library (there were modern version on my parent’s bookshelves in our north-wing quarters). Jane's books weren't sold due to any lack of respect or love for Jane and her extraordinary talents, but as a desperate act by a family in financial crisis.
It was hard not to feel a little sad at all of the books that had been lost from our family collection since Jane’s time. But, in February of this year, something wonderful happened. A set of Jane’s novels from 1833, complete with Montagu’s bookplate, was discovered in Texas. It was an important first edition of a set of Austen novels by Bentley, who, for the first time, had published Jane’s novels as a ‘complete works’. The owner, Sandra Clark, who had been collecting Austen editions for years, had generously sent them back to Chawton House – and I whooped for joy. At least one of our family’s copies of Jane’s books, which I had searched for in the library when I was a child, had returned home.
And now, in even more exciting news, the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society in the USA have launched a campaign to locate other books, now held in collections around the world, that came from Edward Austen Knight’s libraries. I would like to sincerely thank Deb Barnum from JASNA in Vermont and everyone else who is involved. How wonderful that other books from our family library might be found, I can't tell you how much this means to me.
So, take a look at the old books on your bookshelves - could any of them be from the library that Jane Austen knew so well?
And how do you know if your books are from Chawton? Montagu Knight’s bookplate, of course!
For more information about the project click here
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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