By Jon Michail
Jane Austen passed away 200 years ago, yet the names of Lizzy Bennet and Mr Darcy are familiar even to people who have never picked up one of Austen’s novels. Then there are those who have read Austen’s works countless times. The academics, the Janeites, and those who simply appreciate her work for its place in classic literature. Austen’s books have been translated into over 35 languages. Over 100,000 people make the pilgrimage to Jane’s homes each year and there are over 30 Jane Austen Societies worldwide, the largest of which (The Jane Austen Society of North America) has more than 70 branches.Over fifty Jane Austen events and festivals are held each year across the world and her works have inspired at least 75 movies or television series. More than 20,000 fan fiction novels have been published, based on Jane’s life, work, and characters, and there are over 7,000 Austen related websites and social media profiles online.
A new book aiming to satisfy this craving for all things Austen is Caroline Jane Knight’s Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage. Part history, part memoir, Knight’s book shines a new light on the places, traditions and family that shaped and were shaped by the author so many people love and admire. Caroline has been a client and friend of mine for many years, and it has been fascinating to see her evolving attitude towards her “Austen heritage”. Although Knight grew up in the Knight/Austen family home at Chawton, when she was seventeen her family were forced to leave, and she determined to put the past behind her, forging her own path free from Austen.
Knight did this with success - becoming a renowned businesswoman and establishing herself on the other side of the world, proving that she did not need to ride anyone’s coat tails.
"For more than twenty years, I chose not to tell my colleagues and friends that I am Jane Austen's fifth great niece and the last of the Austen family to grow up in Chawton House, in the south of England, on the ancestral estate where Jane herself lived and wrote," Knight writes. "But in 2013, the widely celebrated bicentennial of the publishing of Pride & Prejudice started a chain of events in my life that would take me back to my roots and reunite me with my 'very great' great-aunt, Jane Austen."
Knight reconnected with her past, and out of this adventure the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation was born. "Give a girl an education” kept echoing in Knight’s mind, and these words penned by her relative in a different century inspired the formation of a charity “to harness the global passion for great Aunt Jane and raise money to provide reading and writing resources to communities in need across the world.”
Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody
- Mrs Norris from Mansfield Park
Even though these words are given to the fictitious and less-than-inspiring Mrs Norris, like so many of Austen’s literary observations, this inherent irony only enhances their truth. Knight believes her great aunt would approve of the charity founded in her name, and so do I. In her letters “Jane mentions her and Cassandra’s plans for spending the £10 that Edward gave them each year to provide small comforts for the poor in the village.” Letters also show Jane as a mentor to “her nieces, Fanny and Anne, both budding writers who sent their work to Jane for critique and advice.”
Though Austen’s novels are praised for their realism and observance of human nature, they have often been criticised for a lack of political awareness and relevance, causing them to be written off as romances by many. But mere romances don’t change the literary landscape and contribute to the public sphere in the way Austen’s work has. An interesting study by The Upshot looked at word choice in Austen’s novels in comparison to the words in a sample of 127 British novels from 1710 to 1920.
Kathleen A. Flynn writes of their findings:
“I saw a pattern that had eluded me, a connecting thread: how the peculiar brilliance of Austen lies partly in what she focuses on, and what she ignores. Scarce or absent were big, dramatic things: war, elopement, murder, highwaymen, kidnapping, ghosts, gambling, shipwrecks, pirates. Instead we have families, letters, visiting, gossip, carriages, tea, dances, conversations, thoughts, emotions. We are left with daily, ordinary life, a focus on states of mind, thoughts and feelings — and efforts to understand others’.”
Flynn and her co-worker Josh Katz go on to observe
“Human nature (together with the operation of time) is the true subject of all novels, even those full of ghosts, pirates, plucky orphans or rides to the guillotine. By omitting the fantastical and dramatic elements that fuel the plots of more conventional novels both of her own time and ours, Austen keeps a laser focus. That points to traits so crucial for her endurance in the Darwinian struggle for literary immortality: acute emotional intelligence, and a rare ability to render it in stories that amuse even as they instruct.”
Further evidence of Austen’s focus on a person’s moral obligations to society come through in caustic observations about characters who fail to fulfil theirs. When Sir Walter Elliot from Persuasion learns that he is “growing dreadfully in debt” through his own gross overspending, and informs his daughter Elizabeth of their plight, her “serious” measures of economy centre around keeping their own high standard of living by diminishing any responsibility to others.
Elizabeth, to do her justice, had, in the first ardour of female alarm, set seriously to think what could be done, and had finally proposed these two branches of economy, to cut off some unnecessary charities, and to refrain from new furnishing the drawing room; to which expedients she afterwards added the happy thought of their taking no present down to Anne… they were neither of them able to devise any means of lessening their expenses without… relinquishing their comforts.When the eponymous heroine of Emma humiliates the spinster Miss Bates, she is reminded not to abuse the position of power she enjoys because of her wealth and youth.
She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she lives to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!
Then of course there is the moral questioning which runs throughout Mansfield Park and becomes more obvious as Fanny Price comes of age. In championing a literacy foundation, Knight honours the spirit of her ancestor in a more fundamental way than dressing in Regency costume and quoting Pride and Prejudice line and verse.
Such celebrations are fun, but as a celebration of a point in history they miss the timeless lessons to be gained from Austen. This is the enduring appeal that goes beyond regency dress and manners, country dances and romances. Their depth is the reason Austen’s works endure when those of her contemporaries did not. Austen contributed to literature and culture, and it is wonderful to see Knight’s writing contributing to our understanding of Austen’s life and work. To learn about Chawton and the Austen/Knight family is not just to indulge curiosity about a beloved author, but to consider the conditions that allowed that author to flourish, and the family and society that shaped, and were shaped by, her. When Jane Austen’s brother Edward was adopted by relatives as an heir, it gave him the opportunity to help his mother and sisters (an example a certain Mr John Dashwood could profit from).
In 1809, Edward Austen Knight installed his mother and sisters, Jane and Cassandra, in a cottage in the middle of the village of Chawton. Knight observes that for “eight years whilst in Bath and Southampton, Jane did not have easy access to a library of books and these were her least productive years. In 1809 Jane moved to Chawton, where she had access to the Knight family library at Chawton House and was finally able to devote herself to her writing. It is from her Chawton home that Jane published Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice and went on to write Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. Libraries were an invaluable source of knowledge and inspiration for Jane's work and without access to books, Jane may very well have not left us with such treasures.” For Austen, it seems, Chawton was more than just a house: it gave her “a room of one’s own” - the space, security, and intellectual stimulation necessary to write. To many, the enduring love for Jane Austen is no great mystery, and to them, I recommend Caroline Jane Knight’s new book highly.