Tuesday 6 August 2019

A REVIEW OF, ”JANE &ME, My Austen Heritage,” (pub 2017) by Caroline Jane Knight, Jane Austen’s Fifth Great-Niece

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Caroline Jane Knight, the fifth great niece of Jane Austen, descending from jane Austen’s third eldest brother Edward who was adopted by the Knight family of Chawton in Hampshire, has written an autobiography, “Jane & Me, My Austen Heritage,” relating her experiences as a descendent of the Knights.  Jane &Me provides us with an account of a personal life in turns, full of fun, depressing, desperate and antique in nature. What makes Jane & Me unique though  is not merely Caroline Knights connection to Jane Austen, which is of interest, it is the underlying analysis of how the gentry can possibly survive in the 21st century, adapting to a more meritocratic and hopefully equal society. This is important because the gentry and aristocratic parts of our society have been with us  for so long and although their past ways of living might not be relevant now, they are still around and it is interesting to find out how they might contribute to today's world.

 Most politicians pronounce bold statements about creating an equal society and often try and fail in their attempts. We struggle with the  issues of equality, in education, opportunity and class and politicians fail to agree on methods and approaches. Maybe the old aristocratic families can be part of the solution? Our society is going through a tumultuous period. One of the major issues is patriarchy, whether in religion , government, business or family and our attempts to eradicate that side of our world. This must be doubly difficult for the gentry who have always been organized on patriarchy. If they can do it so can we.

There have been many scholarly biographies written about Jane Austen over the centuries since her death including by her own ancestors and members of her family.  Jane Austen’s niece Caroline Austen wrote,”My Aunt Jane Austen,a Memoir,” in 1867, first published by the Jane Austen Society in 1952. The much quoted “A Memoir of Jane Austen,” (1870) by James Edward Austen-Leigh, was the first true biography of Jane Austen. William Austen Leigh and George Montague Knight wrote and published ,”Chawton Manor and Its Owners,” in 1911.  Mary Augusta Austen Leigh published, “Personal Aspects of Jane Austen,” in 1920.  Caroline Jane Knight is the most recent member of the Knight and Austen family,  to write  a book referencing her great Aunt Jane and the Chawton estate. There are also a multitude of academic biographies  about Jane Austen, among the most recent being ,”Jane Austen. A Life,” by Claire Tomlin.

 Caroline and myself on the Jane Austen Foundation walk for literacy in Chawton.

When I first started reading Jane &Me, it was very nice  to learn about the members of Carolines present family, her brother, Paul, her mother, Carol and her father, Jeremy , "Bapops," her grandfather( Edward Knight III)  her Granny, their family traditions  and lineage. This consisted of family anecdotes. 

However, the important elements of this autobiography to me are Caroline’s   struggles with her own responses to being part of a family that is part of the  gentry. Her family has lost its financial resources and also its built heritage. These are issues many families among the gentry and indeed the aristocracy  are experiencing and having to battle with. The Knights no longer own Chawton House or any of the other properties once connected to the Knight family. Her uncle Richard, her father’s elder brother and first born, is the inheritor of the Chawton estate and retains the freehold of Chawton House although the leasehold has been sold. The Knights cannot claim full ownership again for one hundred years.  

One of the most poignant aspects of Carolines autobiography is the description of her relationship with her grandfather. She hardly  knew him although they lived in the same house in close proximity during Caroline's formative years. They had very few conversations. In Caroline's eyes he was seen as an autocratic head of the family and she felt she had a lowly status,  hardly acknowledged by her grandfather.
In her youth Caroline describes a curious world that is a mixture of 18th century customs mixed with the modern world invading it and seemingly making life for Caroline an unhappy and perhaps a difficult contradictory world to negotiate. She does put a positive sheen on it all but you sense that she struggles to do so.

Jane Austen's cottage in Chawton, her final home.

The strength of this book lies in the journey Caroline goes through to make her life and her families life relevant today in the 21st century. The book is really worth reading to help us, who are not of aristocratic decent, to understand that other world, the painful struggles that are going on within a group in our society that is trying to adapt and fit into a world of  different  social norms.

The weakness in the book is brought about by Caroline being too close  to what she writes about.  This appears as an inability and even refusal  by Caroline to delve too deeply. She makes guesses and assumptions as to what happened to the family wealth and property. The sort of assumptions she would have made privately as a teenager and not been able to discuss openly. Maybe she doesn’t want to know how the Knight estate collapsed and became impoverished. She knows it has happened,  but an impartial writer might have delved much deeper. There must be county council records, estate sales advertisements, documents held with the family solicitors; the  sale of property leaves a paper trail. 

The society that produced a grandfather who was the head of a patriarchal family should have been examined much more. She doesn’t analyse too deeply. To us she had a distant and  strange relationship with her grandfather. Maybe it would be too hard and painful for Caroline to examine that? Her parents move from Chawton Great House to a small house in the nearby town of Alton  is more of a relief to the family than a great loss. Caroline  realises that her parents feel the weight of responsibility lifted off their shoulders.There seems to be an acceptance that their past history is now too big a burden. Again this is not analysed too deeply and the consequences are not explored.

We hear about the life Caroline then begins to lead. In the late 1980s and early 1990s she is a typical young woman  enjoying parties, getting various temporary jobs and trying to have fun while she rejects and forgets her heritage. She does a good job at that, not ever letting anybody know her background, almost, one feels blocking it from her own consciousness. Eventually Caroline is strong enough, independent enough to become successful as a business woman,  moving to Australia to further her career.What she has achieved  has been achieved on merit and hard work. She has not relied on contacts, family or her position in life through birth. I get the impression, reading her book,she is proud to have achieved  success on  equal terms to anybody born into an ordinary family.

The time came when the name Jane Austen, took on a new powerful  relevance. Colin Firth became Fitzwilliam Darcy and Pride and Prejudice, the 1995 TV series,  stormed the world leading to many other Jane Austen film adaptations, festivals, spin off novels and a growth in Jane Austen societies the world over. Jane has become big business. Caroline describes how her father contacted her after talking to an Australian  Jane Austen fan visiting Chawton Cottage. He became aware of the things done in the name of Jane Austen. He informed Caroline about this and Caroline began to formulate an idea. She eventually felt she wanted to reveal her ancestral identity to her best friend and work colleague Amanda Mortensen. She attended Jane Austen conferences and events in Australia.

At one point in Jane &Me, Caroline refers to a visit she made to Longleat, the home of the Marquess of Bath. Longleat has become a big business. It has a Safari Park and its grounds are used for all sorts of events. Longleat House is open to the public all the year round and guided tours reveal its important and interesting history. This is the way many large estates remain financially viable these days. The National Trust and English Heritage look after and promote many more. These old estates have become  commercial enterprises. Caroline muses that Chawton couldn’t go along the same lines. It is too small and the land is no longer her families to use how they want. Chawton Great House is open to the public, but this is on a much smaller scale  than a place such as Longleat. Chawton has now been developed as a library of early women’s writing and is a research centre allied to Southampton University.  

 Caroline  envisaged creating a Jane Austen Foundation with the aim of promoting reading and writing in impoverished communities around the world. She saw her connections with Jane Austen as a force to help change the world and improve peoples lot. I think something Jane Austen herself would approve of. With the aid of Amanda, her best friend, the foundation was set up.

The ability to read and write opens all sorts of possibilities to people. They grow in confidence and can communicate effectively. These are powerful attributes and necessary to creating an equal society and a meritocratic society. 

We come back to how the gentry and aristocracy of old can contribute and be a part of the world we live in nowadays striving for an equal society. The Longleat model turns the past into a type of funfair experience. Caroline’s model of using her heritage to promote learning is really far more effective and important to society  and one small step to creating that equal society.

Janites gathering in St Nicholas churchyard in Chawton at the end of the Jane Austen Foundation walk for literacy.

Caroline’s book , Jane & Me is worth reading, the good and bad, because it is unique in that somebody born into the gentry explains the pain and disruption herself and her family have gone through to  adapt to the modern world.  She demonstrates  how she can use her family and legacy to help, perhaps in a small way, develop an equal society. We should not ignore our past history. We can learn from it and use it to develop our future. I think this is what Caroline is doing and explores the process  in this book. 

Her literacy foundation is putting her aims into action. The Jane Austen Foundation is working with Worldreader to develop reading in Ghanaian schools and helping, through Worldreader too, to develop effective reading habits within Indian families.  The foundation also has a number of Literacy mentors, volunteers, who give positive support to children with their writing. This is done through an organization called, Pobble. Fifteen percent of the cost of Jane &Me goes to help support and finance the work of the Jane Austen Foundation. During the, Alton, Jane Austen Festival, held in June each year, the foundation also makes money through a sponsored walk, a grand dinner in the Great House, a picnic lunch and through various other events here in Britain and also in Australia.  

 “Jane & Me, My Austen Heritage,” ( published 2017) by Caroline Jane Knight, Jane Austen’s fifth great niece.


  1. Tony, what a well written book review, giving us the bad as well as the good. Sounds like the author would have benefited from working with an editor who would have probed more deeply into the things that would have given the book more depth.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jean. The Jane Austen Foundation, set up by Caroline Knight, is doing good work and a percentage of the price of the book goes towards that. As I tried to explain, the underlying meaning of the book is about how the gentry might help in a society struggling to be equal. All the best, Tony