Issue 14: Austen Family Bookplates

OUR FOUNDER, CAROLINE JANE KNIGHT, SHARES HER MEMORIES OF THE AUSTEN AND KNIGHT BOOKPLATES IN THE FAMILY LIBRARY IN CHAWTON

The library at Chawton House was the heart of our home. My grandparents used the library as their sitting room and my grandfather, Edward Knight, the 15th Squire of Chawton, could usually be found sitting in his armchair with the newspaper or watching the afternoon’s horseracing on BBC2. Wall to wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves housed the Knight family collection; an eclectic array of over 3000 books compiled over hundreds of years, many complete with a bookplate inside the front cover.  

Traditionally bookplates, or ‘ex libris’, were a way of identifying the owner of a book when books were scarce and expensive. If books were loaned out or circulated, there was no confusion as to whom they should be returned to. A bookplate is a decorative label stuck in the front of a book that bears the name, and usually the heraldry, of the book’s owner.

Jane would have been familiar with heraldry and bookplates from a very young age. George Austen, Jane’s father, had arms that displayed a chevron with three bear paws, a crest (a sitting stag) and a motto (Qui Invidet Minor Est, which roughly translates to ‘To envy is inferior’).  Interestingly, his bookplate (shown at the top of this page) is plain in comparison to most, simply showing his crest. Was this an indication of his taste or a limited design budget I wonder?

When Jane’s brother Edward inherited the Chawton estate from his adoptive parents (the Knights), he was able to provide his mother and two sisters with a home in Hampshire. A stipulation of the inheritance involved changing his surname to Knight. After moving, Jane enjoyed abundant access to the library in Chawton House. I’m sure she would have enjoyed the tales of foreign travel, the brightly-coloured natural history illustrations, novels, as well as books of letters, politics, law, sport, history, estate management, art, religion and poetry. All of this was interspersed with estate records, family history and our Chawton heritage. Each bookplate was an artistic representation of the Knight family’s heraldic symbols of diagonal lozenges, the crest (the Greyfriar) and the motto (Suivant Saint Pierre – ‘follow Saint Peter’), often with quarter arms showing the introduction of new bloodlines through marriage or adoption.

I was fascinated by the choices of bookplate design – like the choices of books, the bookplates seemed to indicate elements of each Squire’s personality. On the shelves of our family library, sitting side-by-side, was evidence of the personalities and choices of generations. I knew the faces of each Squire from their portraits, but the bookplates brought them to life.   

 Montagu, the 13th Squire of Chawton, was one of my most flamboyant ancestors. He used three bookplates!  Credit: Chawton House Library

Montagu, the 13th Squire of Chawton, was one of my most flamboyant ancestors. He used three bookplates! Credit: Chawton House Library

My own bookplate is inspired by Montagu’s design. The four quarters of my arms represent the Austen bloodline and the Knight family who adopted my fourth great-grandfather, Edward Austen Knight, with the Austen motto below. As a woman, tradition dictates that instead of displaying the symbols of battle - a knight’s helmet and crest - my arms are surrounded by ribbons. 

 Caroline Jane Knight's heraldry  © Caroline Jane Knight

Caroline Jane Knight's heraldry © Caroline Jane Knight

The popularity and use of bookplates has fallen in recent decades, though they are still sought after collectable items. I love having one and am proud to offer supporters of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation the opportunity to obtain their own personalized, collectable bookplate to enjoy.

The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation is offering a limited edition bookplate featuring Winchester Cathedral to commemorate the bi-centenary of Jane's death.

To get your bookplate, simply make a donation to the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. The foundation is a volunteer organisation with operating costs privately funded - you can be confident that 100% of your donation will be used to fund literacy resources for communities in literacy crisis.  

Bookplates will be automatically printed with the name you nominate (so you can buy one for yourself or as a gift for a friend) and a unique number.  The bookplate will be emailed to you as a PDF, complete with instructions on how to cut out and paste in the front of books.

I hope you enjoy your bookplate as much as I love mine!

© Caroline Jane Knight,

Founder & Chair of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation

 
 

Support our work today and receive a commemorative bookplate with your name in Jane’s handwriting. We are a volunteer organisation with no wages paid to anyone, so you can be confident your donation will be used wisely to buy books and writing materials for communities in literacy crisis, in honour of Jane. Reading and writing skills empower individuals to participate in society and achieve their dreams. Literacy gives a child pride and opens up a world of possibilities. 

Image credit: austenonly.comphotofunia.com; Julia Grantham