FAM­ILY TIES

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

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Words by KYLIE LANG

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.

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