CAROLINE JANE KNIGHT WAS THE LAST OF JANE AUSTEN’S DESCENDANTS TO LIVE IN THE SAME ENGLISH HOME WHERE THE AUTHOR SPENT HER LAST YEARS. LEAVING IT BEHIND WAS SO TRAUMATIC SHE REFUSED TO SHARE HER STORY – UNTIL NOW
Caroline Jane Knight on growing up in Jane Austen’s English manor.
Caroline Jane Knight was 25 years old when she first watched BBC TV’S 1995 adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Pride And Prejudice, which famously features that scene, the one in which Colin Firth strides out of a lake, clad in a wet shirt that clings to his body in all the right places. The series gave Firth – as well as Mr Darcy, the character he played – a new audience of admirers that numbered well into the millions.
Knight was one of them. “I was spellbound,” she tells Stellar. “His portrayal painted a more compelling character than I’d been able to imagine.” Knight had actually first read Pride And Prejudice when she was 16, which would not normally seem surprising – beloved for hundreds of years, it is a staple of school reading lists and one of the most popular books in the world.
Except that Knight is the fifth greatniece of Austen, and the last member of the author’s family to grow up inside the walls of Chawton House, the sprawling Hampshire estate where the English writer spent her final and most prolific years in the 19th century. During her time at Chawton, Austen either wrote or rewrote some of her biggest successes, such as Pride And Prejudice, Sense And Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Emma.
But as Knight explains, she and her family did not spend their Sunday afternoons “sitting around the log fire
reading Jane Austen to each other”. Aside from the regular demands of school, there were vegetable gardens to tend, stained-glass windows to clean and great hallways to sweep.
So, says Knight, “When I did finally read my first Jane Austen book, I didn’t read it with the same eye as everyone else. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy’s romance passed me by! The bits talking to me were the genuine concerns the Bennet family had over losing their house.”
It is easy to understand why. Like the Bennets and many other families at the mercy of estate duties and crippling upkeep costs, Knight, older brother Paul, parents Jeremy and Carol and her paternal grandmother had to surrender the home when the head of the household died.
In Knight’s case, this was Edward Knight III, her grandfather and the great-great-grandson of Jane Austen’s brother Edward. When he died in 1987, Chawton House was crumbling and the family’s fortune had long disappeared.
In theory, Knight understood why she had to leave the 16th-century manor, which was passed on to her uncle, Richard Knight. But emotionally, she was so shattered she spent the next 26 years running away from her heritage, numbing her loss through self-sabotage. Emotional eating, job hopping and a string of broken relationships defined much of her early adulthood.
NOW 46, KNIGHT lives in Melbourne (her mother was born in Australia) with her data analyst husband Roger, 51, and their two dogs, Jack and Roxy. The weatherboard cottage they share may not be a sprawling English manor, but it is where Knight has finally found some peace.
After letting go of a stressful career as CEO of a marketing company and learning to embrace the present, she reversed decades of pain and loneliness. Fittingly, Mr Darcy and her “very great” aunt Jane Austen would be her salvation.
The 2013 bicentennial of the publication of Pride And Prejudice started a chain of events that led Knight to revisit her roots and establish the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, which raises money to help provide books and educational resources to Indigenous children in remote parts of Australia, and to children in war-ravaged Syria. Its mission is a nod to Austen, who in her later years at Chawton taught poor children how to read and write.
Knight has now gone one further, following Austen’s lead and writing a book of her own. Amid the hubbub of Pride And Prejudice’s publishing milestone, Knight says “childhood memories I had pushed to the back of my mind for a very long time resurfaced”. Then a chance meeting with Simon Langton, director of the BBC TV series, convinced her to put them on paper. In Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage, she poignantly reveals her personal struggles and gives a unique insight into the life of a literary lion through the eyes of a relative born two centuries later.
Her mother originally wanted to christen her Jane Austen Knight but opted for Caroline out of fear she would be teased; she admits she anguished over her decision to write the book. After all, she’d spent her adult life concealing her connection to Austen, only to end up delving into a childhood she felt had been ripped away from her. Yet her bloodline provided a particularly useful advantage.
“I am in no way comparing myself to Jane Austen – that’s a hard act to follow – but I have a memory, a knowledge and an experience that if I don’t record will be lost in history,” she says. “Our family’s story has been going for 400 years, and the last relative to write about it was Montagu Knight in 1911. I was left with a sense of responsibility.”
IN THE YEAR following the airing of BBC TV’S Pride And Prejudice, “the number of visitors to Chawton doubled. It elevated Jane Austen’s fame.” Since then, roughly 70 new productions of Austen’s work have been made – and each of her published novels has been adapted for film or TV at least once.
“It absolutely changed the path of her popularity,” Knight adds. “Putting Austen and Firth together had such an effect on both of their careers – they owe each other, really.”
Today, there are festivals, musicals, high teas and Jane Austen societies in England, the US and Australia. From September, Austen will appear on England’s new polymer 10 pound note.
As for Chawton House? When Knight’s uncle inherited it in 1987, he sold a 125-year lease to a property development company that planned to develop it into a hotel and golf course, but the company went broke. Luckily, US entrepreneur Sandy Lerner stepped in to fund a massive restoration program from 1996 to 2003, and Chawton House Library is now an internationally acclaimed research centre and tourist attraction.
In one of life’s ironies, Knight’s parents, now in their 70s, volunteer there. It has been a big month – July 18 marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Yet Knight chose to observe the celebrations from afar. “It’s fantastic that Chawton House is being run well, and has been put on the map globally, [but] I don’t think I’m ever, ever, ever going to be 100 per cent comfortable there, being a guest and asking permission to go into certain rooms.
“This was not just somewhere we lived – this is my family’s house!” Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage (The Greyfriar Group, $32.95) is out now.
“I have a memory, knowledge and experience that if I don’t record will be lost in history”
AUSTEN AND ME (clockwise from top) Chawton House in 1987; Caroline Knight (middle) with her mum and brother in 1985; Knight now lives in Melbourne; at Chawton in 1984; (opposite) Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the BBC’S Pride And Prejudice.