I have spent most of my adult life trying to forget Chawton and avoiding all reminders of my heritage, my famous ancestor and Chawton House, which I miss so dearly but which can never again be my family home. I never thought I would end up writing a book about it.
I lived at Chawton House from birth, with my parents, brother and extended family. Jane Austen’s House Museum (the cottage where Jane revised, wrote and published her most famous novels) was only a short walk away and brought thousands of visitors a year to Chawton, and from as young as I can remember I was super-proud of my fifth great-aunt and what she had achieved – she was a phenomenal role model to grow up with.
My early life was filled with the delights of living in a sixteenth-century English manor cocooned in centuries of my Austen and Knight family heritage, the good cheer of family gatherings and Christmas traditions in the Great Hall of Chawton House, the beauty of a country life, and the joys of helping her Granny bake cakes and serve Jane Austen devotees in the tea room in the Great Hall at the front of the house. The family fortune had run out decades before I was born, but that made no difference to my sense of connection to Chawton, and Jane Austen, and naive hope that Chawton Great House (as Jane had called it) would forever be my family's home.
But, in 1987, when I was seventeen, my grandfather, Edward Knight III (the fifteenth squire of Chawton and Edward Austen’s great great grandson) died, leaving a depleted estate in financial ruin. After four centuries and fifteen generations of continuous family ownership, we had no choice but to leave Chawton House, Jane Austen and our heritage behind. I was heartbroken when my parents, brother and I left in 1988.
Since 2003, Chawton House has been open to the public as Chawton House Library, the Centre for Early Women’s Writing 1600 – 1830. It has become a world renowned and respected centre of learning and has been visited by scholars and Janeites from all over the world.
Twenty five years after we left and I had learned not to think about Chawton or Jane Austen at all. It didn’t hurt if I didn’t think about it, so I simply avoided all reminders and never spoke about my family, heritage or connection to the world famous author. My career had taken me to Australia in 2008, to become the CEO of a big marketing agency, and I was so busy, I didn’t have time to think about anything else.
But in 2013, my life was turned upside down. The widely celebrated bicentennial of the publishing of Pride and Prejudice was impossible to avoid – even on the other side of the world – and started a chain of events in my life that would take me back to my roots and reunite me with my ‘very great’ great-aunt, Jane Austen. It was difficult at first, for the loss of Chawton still weighed heavy on my heart.
In Melbourne, where I now live, I talked to a group of women at the local Jane Austen Society and a packed crowd at a National Trust event, and I was astounded by the level of interest in me, and in my family. Jane Austen fans wanted to know every detail of my connection with the world-famous author and my life at Chawton—from the family library, rooms, furniture and crockery in Chawton House to the local walks and family traditions I shared with Jane. Historians were interested in my memories of the last years of Chawton House as a family home.
I quickly realised the philanthropic opportunity that existed for the Jane Austen community to support literacy, and started the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation in 2014, to increase literacy rates in communities in literacy crisis.
During a short visit home that same year, I spent a day in Chawton with Simon Langton (the director of BBC TV 1995 Series of Pride & Prejudice staring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). We spent hours walking around the house and grounds talking about my childhood in the heart of Jane Austen’s literary home and legacy. Simon was particularly curious about my relationship with my grandfather (who never spoke to me) and of the sense of responsibility—and perhaps of a need to ‘keep up appearances’—that drove my grandparents to continue to host community events despite being in financial crisis. He was also interested in how Jane’s fame had brought a continuous flow of tourists to our home and family. ‘It’s a fascinating story,’ he said and suggested I write a book.
I had never had any ambition of becoming an author – Jane Austen had set the bar so high in my family and I knew I hadn’t inherited her phenomenal literary talents. But, I realised that I am a source of primary knowledge. I have a unique first-hand experience of a period in the history of our family and the Chawton estate. Many writers and historians have documented the history of Chawton House and the Austen and Knight families, but little is known about the last decades of Chawton House as my family’s home. The demise of my family’s ancestral estate is typical of the demise of many English country manors and with stories such as Jane's and series such as Downton Abbey, it is easy to imagine ancestral homes in their heyday.
It is, perhaps, not so easy to understand the reality of the burden when the money has run out, the enormous challenges that are faced and the effect this has on the families.
Montagu Knight, the thirteenth squire of Chawton, was the last family member to write a book about the house and its owners, and that book was published more than one hundred years ago. My parents had a copy of Chawton Manor and It’s Owners- A Family History (written by Montagu and William Austen Leigh, published in 1911) which I read during my stay in England. I had not seen the book for years and savoured every world. It was a fine record of the Knight family since they first owned property in Chawton in 1307, and the various branches that had owned Chawton House, including his (and my) branch, the Austens. But I wished he had told me more about himself and his life in Chawton. It gave me no clues as to his personal experience or thoughts.
By the end of my visit, I felt compelled to finish off the story Montague had started. I cherished the records my ancestors had left for me, and I wanted to do the same for future generations. But, as well as the facts, I also wanted to share what I thought and how I felt about it all. Jane’s rise to global stardom had made it impossible for me to avoid reminders of what I missed so dearly and I knew that writing a book would be cathartic and help heal my heart.
Writing about Chawton has been the hardest (I have never written before) and most emotional (I cried for the first eighteen months of writing) undertaking I have ever attempted. But, it has also been the best thing I have ever done. I have shared some of my first hand experience, left a record for future generations and turned my biggest source of pain into my biggest source of joy. I am so grateful to have grown up at Chawton House and for the support of my family in writing this book. I am enormously privileged to be able to call Jane Austen my fifth great-aunt and to have shared Chawton with her.
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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