LEGACY AND HISTORY ENTWINED

To say Caroline Jane Knight had a unique upbringing is an understatement. 

Caroline is the fifth great niece of Jane Austen, and is the last of the Austen descendants to grow up in Chawton, England, where Jane herself lived and wrote her most famous works. Everyday Caroline walked the corridors Jane walked, sat at the same dining table and even ate from the same china. Despite the lack of her physical presence, Jane was ever present in Caroline's life and the four walls of the great family home, Chawton House.

Caroline and her family had to leave the ancestral home in Chawton when Caroline was 18-years-old. Her great Grandfather, Edward Knight III, the 15th Squire of Chawton, passed away and the family were unable to keep the house as a home, ending 400 years of history. Since then, Caroline has found her own independence and success and has forged a reputable career in business and philanthropy in the UK and Australia.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Caroline provides insight into her family history and the motivations behind establishing the foundation

 

TELL US ABOUT LIVING IN CHAWTON

I had the rare privilege of growing up in Chawton House surrounded by 400 years of my own heritage and the legacy of my famous great Aunt: Jane Austen. Portraits, statues, stained glass windows, carvings, bookplates, plaques, gravestones, furniture and even the plates we ate from carried the family name or coat of arms and etched our history into the fabric of the estate and my heart. My grandfather, Edward Knight, the 15th Squire of Chawton, and I lived at Chawton House until I was eighteen, in somewhat old fashioned circumstances by today's standards. I was the youngest grandchild living in the house and the only conversation I ever had with my grandfather, the Squire and 'king' of everything I could see, was on his deathbed. It sounds extraordinary now but it felt quite normal at the time. The family fortune ran out at the beginning of the 20th century, and we were not financially rich - just the opposite in fact. But it was a magical place to grow up and I am grateful to have known Chawton House as a family home.

 

WHEN DID YOU REALISE THE SIGNIFICANCE OF JANE'S LEGACY?

I have always known Jane was a remarkable woman and an exceptionally talented writer, long before I read her work. We welcomed a few thousand tourists each year into our home for tea, keen to see where Jane had been inspired, so she was a part of our everyday lives. Jane's cottage is only 700 metres from Chawton House, the home of her brother Edward Austen Knight, my fourth great grandfather. Edward changed his name - and therefore my name - to Knight as a condition of his inheritance of Chawton from his fourth cousin Thomas Knight II. I sometimes sat in Jane's garden as a child wondering what all the visitors to her cottage had come to see and what she would make of all the attention!  Jane has been popular for 200 years - Jane Austen one of the world's most enduring brands.

 

WHY DID YOU FAMILY LEAVE THE GREAT HOUSE IN CHAWTON?

Death duties were introduced in 1894 and changes to estate economy in England were already well advanced by 1900. Land values had plummeted from 1870 as foreign imports undercut home produced products. Estate duties were introduced in 1914 and were crippling for the landowners of England. For many, labour forces had been depleted during the First World War and after the war many former estate worked sought alternative opportunities upon their return. The traditional structure of landed estates all over England collapsed. When my Grandfather died in 1987, he left a diminished estate in need of significant restoration and it simply wasn't possible for it to be kept as a family home.

 

WHAT HAS SINCE BECOME OF THE GREAT HOUSE?

Chawton House is no longer a residential home. It was beautifully restored in the 1990s, saving it for future generations to enjoy. In 2003 it opened as Chawton House Library, an internationally respected research and learning centre for the study of early women's writing from 1600 - 1830. Access to the library's unique collection is for the benefit of scholars and the general public alike. The library houses a collection of early women's writing from the period and the Knight family collection of books that I grew up with. Many of the books carry bookplates to signify which of my ancestors originally owned the book. I was fascinated by the choice of bookplate design as it seemed to be an indication of the personality of each Squire, as was there choice of books. On the shelves sitting side by side were the personalities and choices of generations. I knew the faces of each Squire from their portraits; the bookplates bought them to life.

 

TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AFTER CHAWTON

I was saddened to leave Chawton and chose not to publicise my connections. I wanted to make it on my own and succeed on my own merits. I started a career in business in my early thirties and relocated to Australia in 2008 to become the CEO of a large field marketing company for the Photon Group, who at the time owned about forty-five agencies worldwide. In my first full year as CEO I delivered the highest growth in the whole group and diversified the business. In 2010 I joined the board of the charity Life Education, which empowers children and young people to make safer and healthier choices through education and not fall into drug addiction or alcohol abuse. In 2012 I joined the board of the Australian Institute of Management, training partner to over half the companies on the Australian Stock Exchange. That same year I was a finalist in the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year Awards. I left the corporate world in 2013 and started my own consultancy business. I live in Melbourne with my husband, two dogs and a few chickens. 

 

HAVE YOU EVER RETURNED TO CHAWTON?

Yes, my father and I took my husband to an open day at the house in 2007. A woman overheard Dad talking about the old fire buckets that hung in the entrance hall and asked if he had been a Barnardo's child. The charity, Dr. Barnardo's, had evacuated children from London to the safety of Chawton House, and other country homes, during the Second World War to avoid bombing from enemy fighters. "No, I grew up here, I'm Jeremy Knight", my father explained and the woman curtsied, bowed her head low and said how honoured she was to meet him. I had seen all sorts of reactions from Jane Austen fans over the years so I wasn't surprised, but I could see the shock on my husband's face - he hadn't expected it at all! I didn't visit again until 2014. It is fantastic to see the house in such good condition and being enjoyed, but I can't deny it is always a little strange being a visitor in our family home.

 

IS OUR UNDERSTANDING OF JANE CORRECT WITH YOUR FAMILY'S UNDERSTANDING OF HER?

There is a lot published and on the internet about Jane that is conflicting or inaccurate, but I think it's very difficult for anyone to be sure about Jane's life and personality - so much is assumed from letters and the memories of those around her. The family have been managing Jane's brand from the day she died, although they might not have thought about it in those terms. Cassandra Austen burnt most of Jane's letters so thoughts, confessions and opinions written to her sister in private would remain forever so. The first family biography was published in 1869 and painted a picture of a genteel woman who wrote a few books as a hobby and was not motivated by literary success. This is not the Jane I was brought up with and in recent years academic research has dispelled many of the myths. Jane was a remarkable author and businesswoman who, despite many hurdles and setbacks, remained determined and achieved her ambition. Jane was warm and generous, witty and quick, with a keen sense of independent thought and responsibility. I am lucky to have had Jane as a role model.

 

HAVE YOU KEPT ANY ITEMS THAT WERE OWNED BY JANE?

Most of Jane's own few possessions are on show at Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton, or at other museums, but my family do have things that Jane would have known and used. In September 1813, Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra of a trip to London with her brother, Edward. "We then went to Wedgwood's where my brother and Fanny chose a dinner set...the pattern is a small lozenge in purple, between lines of narrow gold, and it is to have the crest." So clearly inspired by our heraldry, the dinner service was made specifically and uniquely for Edward Austen Knight and must have taken months to paint by hand. Jane ate from the dinner service and luckily most of it has survived. A few pieces of this precious heirloom are on display in Chawton. Jane would also have known many of the books in the family library, housed at Chawton House, which tales of foreign travel, brightly coloured natural history illustrations, novels, books of letters, politics, law, sport, history, estate management, art, religion and poetry were interspersed with estate records, family history and our Chawton heritage.

 

WHY DID YOU WANT TO START THE FOUNDATION?

2013 marked the 200-year anniversary of Pride & Prejudice and the celebration stretched globally from England to Australia and everywhere in between. Media articles were written, documentaries and movies were played on television, commemorate merchandise went on sale and events where held to mark the anniversary. Since Colin Firth's iconic portrayal of Mr. Darcy made women swoon around the world, there have been over seventy film and television adaptations of Jane's works and life, there is a multi-million dollar Austen merchandise, tourism and re-enactment industry and over 7000 websites and social media profiles across the world from Australia to Asia, Europe and America - The Jane Austen Society of North America has over seventy branches!

With 125 million children not in school, there is a literacy crisis and I could not ignore the opportunity to harness the worldwide passion for Jane Austen to raise money to improve global literacy rates. Jane herself was an advocate for education and I am sure she would approve of her legacy being used to help teach children to read and write.

FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM

Personal photos from the Austen Knight Family

Caroline aged 18-years in Chawton House © Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Edward Knight, 15th Squire of Chawton © Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Chawton House in 1980s © Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

A young Edward Knight III © Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Caroline outside Chawton House © Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Caroline and her mother, 1986 © Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

The Chawton Estate today. © Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Chawton House as it stands today. © Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

The Chawton Estate today © Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. All Rights Reserved.