At one time, the squire’s quarters would have encompassed this room, the grand dining room, but my grandfather, Edward Knight III (Edward Austen’s great great grandson) had separated off the north wing decades before I was born and it was used as the sitting room of my family’s quarters.
Equally as splendid as the Great Hall next door, it was complete with a large stone-mantel fireplace, floor-to-ceiling oak panelling and leaded-light windows to two aspects with beautiful views across the front of the estate. With clear sight of the front entrance of the house, a window seat offered a perfect spot to view who came and went.
The dining room had hosted dinners for generations. Only a short distance from the house kitchen via a passage, it was convenient for service. The bell to summon the servants had been disconnected long ago, but the button was still in place in the dining room, and the brass bell still hung in the servants’ passage.
How wonderful it would have been to go back in time—just for a minute—to see the silver service in full flow. ‘We four sweet Brothers & Sisters dine today at the Gt House. Is not that quite natural?’ Jane wrote to Caroline Austen in March 1815. It was easy to imagine the room filled with lively conversation and finely dressed guests seated around Edward Austen Knight’s grand dining table.
Did Jane and Cassandra always sit in the same seats, or did their position at the dinner table depend on other company present? The table had long since been removed from the dining room; my father had found it in pieces in the old house kitchen, where Granny had been using it for sorting her washing! My father had rescued the table and reassembled it in the Great Hall, where it was used for family lunches.
A striking wooden carving graced the wall above the fireplace mantel, towering up to the high ceiling. Carved in relief from oak to match the panelled walls and fireside columns, a wide central panel showed a shield with four quarters on the left and two halves on the right. Two of the four quarters on the left, with diagonal lozenges, were instantly recognisable as Knight arms. In traditional style, the arms sat above the family motto and below a knight’s helmet with an effigy of the Greyfriar topmost, all surrounded by foliage, just like the arms above the front entrance to the house. You can find out more about this carving and the rest of Jane's Great House in Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage.
My parents had furnished the middle of the room with a sofa and two comfy armchairs with yellow floral upholstery upon a large Persian rug. The sofa and chairs had originally been gold in colour, but my mother had made new covers for them.
Dark wooden furniture dressed the edges of the room and included a long bookshelf topped with photographs in assorted silver frames; a tall, deep corner cupboard for serving spirits; an antique desk; and a piece of furniture that looked like a square table with cupboards underneath but was, in fact, a commode—no longer used of course. The polished dining table bore the faint scars of inkwell stains.
The room has now been returned to its original use and, when it is not being used for functions and conferences, is once again dressed as a dining room, complete with Edward Austen Knight’s dining table – just as it would have been in Jane’s time.
Caroline Jane Knight is the last Austen to grow up at Chawton House on the ancestral estate where Jane herself lived and wrote.
You can find out more about Jane Austen's Great House and family in Caroline's memoir Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage, available in paperback, hardback, e-book and audiobook at all good online retailers
Header Image: Hampshire Heritage Collection - Jarrolds Interiors