The Knight family were significant to Jane from the day she was born. Little did she know just how significant the Knights would become to her writing career.
Jane Austen spent her childhood in Steventon, Hampshire. Her father George was the rector of Steventon, a living that had been given to him by his fourth cousin, Thomas Knight. Jane and her family lived in Steventon Rectory, owned by Thomas Knight. Thomas was also the 9th Squire of Chawton, the primary Hampshire seat of the Knight family. Chawton Great House (as Jane called it) was built in 1588 by John Knight, and had been passed down through the generations, never being sold. In addition to Chawton, Thomas owned Steventon, Godmersham Park in Kent and May’s Buildings which he built in St Martin’s Lane in London.
When Jane was five years old, Thomas Knight died and his estates passed to his only son and heir, Thomas Knight II. Unfortunately Thomas Knight II and his wife, Catherine (nee Knatchbull), didn’t have any children so needed to choose a suitable relation, a nephew or cousin, perhaps, to become the heir, as was the practice when the squire had no children of his own.
Thomas and Catherine became particularly fond of Jane’s older brother, Edward (my fourth great grandfather), and after a visit to the Austens in Steventon, when Jane was five years old, they took twelve year old Edward with them on the remainder of their wedding tour of their Hampshire estates.
Caroline Austen (Jane’s niece) recorded what Henry Austen (another of Jane's brothers) had told her about Edward’s early life:
'he [Jane and Edward's brother Henry] was very clear as to the purport of the discourse which he heard between his Father & Mother on the morning when they received a letter from Godmersham, begging that little Edward might spend his holidays there… My grandfather was not disposed to consent to Mr. Knight’s request. With the single eye of a Teacher, he looked only at one point, which was, that, if Edward went away to Godmersham for so many weeks he would get very much behind in the Latin Grammar. My grandmother seems to have used no arguments, and to have suggested no expectations; she merely said, “I think, my dear, you have better oblige your cousins, and let the child go;” and so he went, and at the end of the Holidays he came back, as much Edward Austen as before. But after this, the Summer Holidays, at least, were spent Aith the Knights, he being still left to his Father’s tuition. Uncle Henry could not say when it was announced in the family that one son was adopted elsewhere—it was, in time, understood so to be; and he supposed that his Parents and the Knights came to an early understanding on the subject.'
It was about 1783 when Thomas and Catherine informally adopted fifteen-year-old Edward, and he became heir to the Knight fortune—there was no legal adoption process at that time. Jane was seven years old and knew from an early age that her brother would one day become a rich landowner and, as was customary, would have to change his name from Austen to Knight to inherit the Chawton estate.
To mark the occasion, Thomas commissioned a silhouette by William Wellings of London (who famously painted a silhouette of Pitt the Younger) which shows George Austen presenting his son Edward to Thomas and Catherine Knight.
When Jane was twenty six, George Austen suddenly announced his retirement and moved his wife and daughters to Bath. Jane had been a prolific writer in Steventon, and in Bath made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to publish her work. In 1805, Jane's father died, leaving the Austen ladies in financial hardship and forced to move to cheaper accommodation in Bath. Eventually, they were forced to give up their own home and move to Southampton to lodge with Jane’s brother Frank and his wife (who was pregnant with their first child). While in Southampton, the ladies spent a lot of time visiting friends and relatives all over the south of England and, as far as we know, Jane wrote very little, if at all, during this time.
After three years in Southampton, Edward (who was now in control of the Knight estates) offered his wife, sisters and their good friend Martha Lloyd (who had lived with the Austen Ladies for many years), a home in either Chawton or Godmersham. Chawton was the preferred option, and on 7th July 1809, Jane Austen moved into the newly refurbished Chawton Cottage, in the middle of the village, 400 metres from Chawton Great House, her brother’s Elizabethan manor house.
Jane arrived in Chawton an unpublished author, despite earlier attempts. Living in Chawton cottage with her mother, sister Cassandra and friend Martha, Jane at last had the time and privacy she needed to write. Jane was determined achieving her dream and on 30th October 1811 published Sense & Sensibility. Oh, how the ladies must have rejoiced!
During her eight short years in Chawton, before her death in 1817, Jane also published Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma, the last novel she would see published. Jane’s health began to fail while writing Persuasion and she did not live to see it published along with Northanger Abbey which she had written years earlier in Steventon.
Upon the death of Jane's brother Edward Austen Knight, in 1852, the estates continued to pass from one generation to the next until my grandfather, Edward Knight III (Edward Austen Knight’s great great grandson), inherited in 1932. By this time Steventon and Godmersham had been sold, but Chawton remained as the Hampshire seat of the Knight family.
I was born in 1970 and am the last of the Austen branch of the Knight family to grow up in Chawton Great House, a privilege I will always cherish. I shared the same family traditions as Jane, the same walks, rooms, family library, furniture – we even ate from the same china as Jane.
Without the adoption of Edward Austen by Thomas and Catherine Knight, Jane and I would never have lived in Chawton. Jane might never have published her work, the term ‘Janeite’ wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t have grown up in the heart of her literacy legacy.
The Wellings silhouette commemorating the adoption hung in Granny’s bedroom at Chawton House when I was a child (I lived there until I was 18), and was a constant reminder of the event which had changed so many lives, including Jane Austen’s. It is hardly surprising that as a tribute, Jane named one of her most perfect heroes 'Mr Knightly'.
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.