I was nervous as I drove across Melbourne to meet by dear friend Amanda - I was going to tell her my secret and didn't know how she would react.
It was September 2013. A work colleague had introduced me to Amanda Mortensen a couple of years earlier. We were both in marketing, were the same age, both married without children, and we shared a passion for music. I played my guitar almost every day, and Amanda was the lead singer with a covers band. I enjoyed her company very much and, being away from home, it was wonderful to find such a kindred spirit on the other side of the world. Amanda was my closest friend in Australia, but I had never shared my heritage or childhood with her.
A few months earlier, I had quietly attended the Jane Austen Society of Melbourne celebrations for the bi-centenary of the publishing of Pride & Prejudice. It was the first step to reconnecting with my heritage and fifth-great Aunt, Jane Austen, who I had left in Chawton twenty five years earlier, when I was eighteen, and vowed never to return to. For months I had pondered what to do. I wanted to set up a literacy charity, to improve literacy rates in honour of Jane, but I couldn’t do that to the best of my ability without revealing my secret connection to the literacy icon. I didn’t enjoy talking about Chawton – my heart still ached for the ancestral estate I had shared with Jane but been forced to leave. But I simply couldn’t forget about literacy.
It was time to break my silence and Amanda had to be the first to know. We arranged to meet for a coffee. I was so nervous, I was shaking. I hadn't talked about Chawton or Jane Austen for years. I didn’t know if Amanda would be angry I had kept such a significant part of my life from her.
I began to tell Amanda my story as she stirred her coffee. ‘What!’ Amanda exclaimed and dropped her spoon on the table.
‘I am Jane Austen’s fifth great-niece, and I grew up in Chawton, on my family’s ancestral estate where Jane lived and wrote most of her books,’ I repeated.
‘I love Jane Austen. Why didn’t you tell me?’ she asked, clearly excited but a little bewildered that I had kept it secret. I explained as best I could and told her about Chawton, where my family had lived for 400 years, and growing up in the heart of Jane Austen's literary home and legacy.
As I talked about the idea of a charity to raise money for literacy in Jane’s honour, our excitement grew. We considered the size and scale of Jane’s audience, the purpose of the charity and the way in which it might operate.
Within minutes Amanda had committed to help and I rejoiced – I felt as if I had a mountain to climb and it was wonderful to know Amanda would be by my side.
We sat and talked for hours about what we would need to do: register as a not for profit, define the purpose and objectives of the organisation, appoint a board of directors, develop a set-up plan, connect with literacy organisations, establish infrastructure. The list went on and on. I would have to face my fears and immerse myself in the Austen community. I knew it would be difficult at times and no doubt emotional, but it was the only way.
We made some decisions at that first coffee meeting. First, the operating costs of the organisation would need to be kept to a minimum. Perhaps the day would come when the charity was big enough to require paid staff to manage it, but that was a long way off. We would build an organisation of volunteers, including a voluntary board, that would raise money to buy literacy resourcesto help communities in need, in honour of Jane. We wanted the donations we received to be spent on literacy resources, not running costs. I had successfully run companies and held charity board positions but I had no experience of the inner workings of a charity or literacy organisation. We had much to learn and do and a limited amount of time each week to do it. Second, like Jane, we would take our time, and do it to the best of our abilities.
In February 2014, we held our first board meeting, with a couple of other professional colleagues, and the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation was formed. We excitedly completed the registration paperwork – we were on our way.
A few months later, out of the blue, Amanda was diagnosed with breast cancer and needed surgery and, most likely, a full course of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It was such a shock – I didn’t know what to say. I was devastated and couldn’t begin to imagine how Amanda and her husband were feeling; she faced months of grueling cancer treatment and, perhaps, her own mortality. As a friend, I didn’t want to let her down, and I wanted to support her in the best way possible. Amanda was determined to remain positive and take every day one step at a time. I assumed she would want to take leave from the foundation, but she wanted to carry on working as best she could.
On 30 October 2014, the anniversary of the date Jane first became a published author, the website of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation was launched. Within a few short weeks, we had received our first donations and funded our first literacy materials - a literacy kit to teach 40 children for a temporary school run by UNICEF in Syria - we were so excited.
Amanda finished her chemotherapy treatment towards the end of the year. We had often talked non-stop on the days when I had kept her company in the chemo room at the hospital. But sometimes we had just sat in silence together. Chemotherapy was followed by daily radiotherapy, which finished on Christmas Eve. We celebrated the end of Amanda’s treatment with a lunch overlooking the water; she was on the road to recovery.
Amanda continued to work on set-up projects for the foundation throughout 2015. Her treatment was complete, but as the months passed, Amanda seemed to be getting weaker, not stronger. The toxic side effects of the chemotherapy had left their mark, and it became obvious that her recovery was going to take far longer than we had realised. Amanda had changed physically, mentally and emotionally, and she fought hard to remain positive and as active as she could manage.
In the middle of 2016, Amanda took a step back from the day-to-day work of the foundation to focus on her recovery, which I fully supported. She needed a fresh start and went to Queensland with her husband. It was a good decision, and, a year later, Amanda is vibrant and full of life once more, as I remember her before cancer took hold.
I am so immensely proud of Amanda, and am thrilled she has returned to the foundation as an Ambassador. I know she will do a fabulous job and, on a personal note, it is such a treat to have her back.
Founder & Chair, Jane Austen Literacy Foundation
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.