In 2015, the Jane Austen community celebrated the 200 year anniversary of the publishing of Jane's fourth novel, Emma, which has always been of particular significance to my family.
Jane's first three novels Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park tell stories of women who are on the fringes of privilege and poverty. But Emma is different.
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.
Emma explores the responsibilities of the 'have's', rather than the challenges facing the 'have not's'. I am the last Austen descendant to grow up at Chawton Great House (as Jane Austen called it) and my grandmother and parents instilled in me a strong sense of 'noblesse oblige' - the responsibility that comes with privilege. Despite the financial crisis my family were facing, and imminent loss of our ancestral home, the traditions of hosting the annual community events, for example, was honoured until the very last day. And it didn't matter if you were from a wealthy or poor family, everyone was treated with the same respect and dignity (and if pushed hard enough, Granny would scold anyone that required it!)
Mr Knightley's reprimand of Emma when she humiliates Mrs Bates at the Box Hill picnic is a reminder that with privilege comes a duty to those less fortunate:
“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!”
— THE WORDS OF MR KNIGHTLEY AS WRITTEN BY JANE AUSTEN, EMMA, CHAPTER 43
As a child I was told that Mr Knightley was so named as a tribute to the Knight family and Edward Austen Knight, Jane's brother and my fourth great grandfather. Edward was adopted by childless cousins Thomas and Catherine Knight and became heir to Chawton, Steventon, Godmersham Park and other landholdings owned by the Knights.. 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, a short walk from Chawton Great House.
Once settled in Chawton Jane set about revising earlier drafts of Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice for publication, before writing Mansfield Park and Emma, the last of her novels published in her lifetime. In 1812, as a condition of his inheritance, Edward changed his (and my) name from Austen to Knight.
I recently had the pleasure of reading Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton: Commerce & Community, by Linda Slothouber. Linda visited Chawton for six weeks in 2014 and researched the family archives and Hampshire record office to build a picture of Edward Austen Knights stewardship of the Chawton estate during Jane's residency. It is well researched and a fascinating insight into a man who clearly took his responsibilities very seriously.
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.
The estate owner’s responsibilities 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.
Jane's Mr Knightley is one of her most honourable characters, a model of good behaviour and a true gentleman. It seems extraordinary to imagine this is mere coincidence.
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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