J.B. GRANTHAM TALKS TO JEREMY KNIGHT OF CHAWTON, JANE AUSTEN'S FOURTH GREAT NEPHEW, ABOUT HIS CHILDHOOD AT CHAWTON HOUSE, HIS FAMOUS AUNT, HER DONKEY, AND HER LAPTOP.
I knew well in advance that I would be interviewing Jeremy Knight on my last day at Alton during Regency Week 2017, and on the morning of the actual day I felt very excited and slightly nervous.
Jeremy is the great great great grandson of Edward Austen, who inherited the Chawton estate from rich cousins, the Knights. As a condition of his inheritance, Edward changed his name (and the name of his descendants) from Austen to Knight. Jeremy lived at Chawton House until he was forty-five and the house could no longer be kept as the home of the Knight family. Now in his early seventies, he continues to work at Chawton House and Jane Austen’s House Museum as a volunteer, and his connection with his ancestral home remains very strong.
I found a quiet corner at the bar of The Swan, an inn at Alton where we agreed to meet. Keen on not missing my important guest, I asked a couple of friends to “stay guard” at the two main doors of the hotel, but, of course, Jeremy appeared completely unexpectedly, entering the bar through the back door, which he, the local resident, knew of and my friends and I had no idea about.
I recognised Mr Knight immediately, as I had met him before, but still, his easy and warm manners and charming smile struck me, just like the first time. When he smiles at you, you just cannot help but smile back in the widest and happiest way possible.
My friends, who were very keen on meeting Jane Austen’s fourth great nephew, shook hands with Mr Knight and after a brief exchange of the usual pleasantries, took their leave, and finally, Mr Knight and I were settled at the table with my phone between us, poised for recording.
I felt that before the interview I had to deal with a little formality and I started by asking:
Julia: What should I call you?
JK: Call me Jeremy. You don’t want to call me Mr Knight. I’ll call you Julia.
His eyes sparkled with laughter.
Why do you prefer to be called Jeremy rather than Mr Knight?
JK: A long time ago, I used to find it difficult and embarrassing that people called each other by their Christian names. In the village I was called Master Jeremy, but never Jeremy by the villagers. But as I grew older, I started seeing this quite differently, and preferred to call people by their given names and to be called Jeremy by them. When Chawton House first opened to the public, a chap came in - he used to live in Chawton, my age, but I hadn’t seen him in 20 years - and he shouted across the room, “Oh, Master Jeremy, how are you?” It was a joke but reminded me of that time.
Julia: OK, Jeremy it is then. Thank you for talking to me today. You probably know that we asked people who follow the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation page to send us questions they wanted to ask you. And they did – lots and lots of questions. I hope we can go through all of them. But I’ll start with the one from your daughter, Caroline:
What are your fondest memories of living in Chawton House?
JK: Chawton House was a wonderful place to grow up. There was lots of space. The Great Hall was our playroom - table tennis, rollerskating, playing all sorts of games. Christmas was wonderful, full of people on Christmas Eve when the Great Hall came into its own. In summer we had a very old swimming pool (not there now). It was fun just filling it with the fire hose, about 100 yards from the house.
Living there as an adult was different. A lovely place to entertain lots of friends. We also had shooting parties in the winter which were social occasions. It was also hard work, keeping the grass cut, and the gardens tidy, clearing fallen trees in the woods, which I loved. It was a great place to bring up our family and I think they enjoyed it as much as me.
Julia: Were you born in that house?
JK: No, I was born in India. My father, Edward Knight, was a Major in the British Army and stationed in India during the war.
(I am making big eyes and a “wow” sound.)
Julia: And when did you come to live at Chawton House?
JK: I think I was about 2 or 3. We came back from India in about 1946. I was born in 1944, so around then.
Julia: What are your first memories of Chawton House? When did you first realize that you were a Knight of the Knight family and how did you find out that Jane Austen was your relative?
JK: It was just always there.
When I first spoke to anyone about it, it was at school. I told the teacher that I was actually related to Jane Austen, and at that time it wasn’t seen as a very big deal. You know she wasn’t that famous. She was famous enough, and most of the people I went to school with would know of her, but most of the world wouldn’t. She wasn’t as mega-famous as she is now, so it wouldn’t have meant much to anyone.
Julia: How did your teacher react when you told him or her?
JK: I think he just said “That’s nice”.
Julia: Clearly, in those days Jane Austen was known but not as known as she is now…
JK: Of course not. I know she was read then, and I know people who were interested in her and her work, but not the Austen that we know today. In those days people knew her books - they enjoyed the books, but didn't necessarily research her life. She was part of English culture, but rather academic culture, certainly not popular culture. Me talking to you wouldn’t have happened 30 years ago; you wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be here. At that time the change hadn’t happened yet.
Julia: When DID it happen then, in your experience?
JK: I think, for me, most probably after BBC…
JK: Darcy coming out of the water… It changed the world as far as Jane Austen goes. Now at Jane Austen’s House I talk to lots of people – they saw the film and loved it. So they read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and from then on they go and read the other books and that’s how they become Austen fans. Before 1995 lots of people had read Austen, and they’d obviously enjoyed it, but the fandom, as they call it, hadn’t started then. It started after 1995.
Julia: So how did it change life for you?
JK: Back then it didn’t, really. I was working, I was in a working environment, and if before 1995 I met someone and said I was related to Jane Austen, they didn’t always know who I meant. But after the BBC adaptation, I would say that she wrote ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and then they would know who I was talking about.
For me, it made a big difference when I retired 6 -7 years ago because it meant I could be a steward at Jane Austen’s House, and since then my encounter with ‘the fandom’ has really started. I never wanted the limelight, but just standing back there, at Jane’s House, I realised that people were interested and wanted to talk to me.
Nowadays I can talk to them about Jane Austen’s work. I know her books well, but 30 years ago I didn’t know her books at all.
Julia: Even though you knew all your life you were related to her you didn’t read her books?
JK: I’m dyslexic. When I went to work in Australia at 17, I was not able to read and write very well - I think that’s one of the reasons Caroline wanted to support literacy and started the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation. But now I can read books. Although reading books is still not easy for me and I must say, I prefer to I listen to them. I know that there are “aficionados” who say: “Even if you are listening to them you are getting someone else’s view, someone else’s interpretation”. I disagree. I had a conversation with two professors from Oxford, and one of them said: “You should listen to them, because Jane wrote them to be read out-loud in those days. That’s what she was working for, for them to be read aloud”. So he said I am doing it properly. I listen to them all over again. I’ve worn out all of my tapes with her books, but now I have a computer and I can download them and listen to them again and again.
Julia: Many of our readers wonder, what is your favourite Jane Austen’s book?
JK: I don’t really have one. I have a slightly un-favourite book, which is, most probably, ‘Northanger Abbey’. I don’t believe the ending, I don’t believe a colonel in the army would abandon someone that young, I find that very difficult, and I am not sure about all the gothic stuff because I am not a fan of gothic at all.
Julia: Alright, no favourite book… Let’s try another question - this one came from April Eksnam from Wisconsin - what is your favourite Jane Austen character?
JK: Most people actually would think I would say Darcy…
I would probably say someone like Mr Martin. He was a hard worker who got his girl in the end; he got the respect of Mr Knightley and that must have been a lot to get it from Mr Knightley.
The Knights, before they bought Chawton House, were yeomen - working farmers, who were doing well through hard work, like Mr Martin.
Julia: That’s a fantastic choice! Andrew (Chawton’s head gardener) mentioned on the garden walk yesterday that it was unusual that in the walled garden the Knights have acorns on top of the gate posts, rather than pineapples or lions. He said that it was a reference to their beginnings as a hard-working family. Growing a big tree out of a small acorn as a reference to where the Knights started from.
Actually, is it true that a lot of geography in ‘Emma’ is based on Chawton?
“Ha-ha, I am not going to enter that argument!” said Jeremy and immediately entered it:
I personally think Chawton House is Donwell Abbey and Prowtings is Mr. Woodhouse’s house, and, probably, Mrs and Miss Bates lived down the road, right opposite Jane Austen’s Cottage. There was an old post office at Chawton - where Jane Fairfax was told not to walk in the rain - it’s a five minute walk.
Many people argue that Chawton could not be used by Jane for the geography of 'Emma', because of the Box Hill picnic, and Box Hill is some 40 miles from Chawton and 14 miles from London. But it is known that Jane had visited Box Hill, and if she’d been there why couldn’t she use it in her fiction set in Surrey, while using Chawton as an inspiration for Hartfield?
Actually, I’ll tell you another interesting story. Some people who don’t agree that Chawton was described by Jane Austen in ‘Emma’ point out that the Great Hall in Chawton House has a wooden floor, and in the story Mr Woodhouse complains of a cold stone floor when taken into Donwell Abbey. But in recent repairs we discovered that the stone floor had been replaced by a wooden one. So in Jane’s days the floor was in the Great Hall WAS made of stone!
Julia: Wow! Of course, ‘Emma’ is a work of fiction, but Jane Austen actually lived in Chawton when she wrote ‘Emma’, so it makes perfect sense that she would use the location she knew so well. So, at least, shall we stick to that?
JK: I could be the only one with that theory.
Julia: It’s a good one!
We’ve already established that when Jane, Cassandra and Mrs Austen lived in Chawton, they could walk pretty much everywhere quite easily. The distances were not great, especially for someone as fond of walking as Jane Austen was. However, we all know that they kept a donkey cart for going farther afield and, sadly, for the occasions when they were not in the best of health. One of our readers, Carol Lewis from Vancouver Island, Canada, would like to ask you whether Jane Austen had any part in the care of their donkey or was there a groom hired to look after it?
JK: We know they had a manservant called Robert and there was also someone called William Littleworth. These men most probably harnessed the donkey to the cart. I would think the girls would help - Martha Lloyd, and Jane, and Cassandra were able to drive the cart and would be able to look after the donkey in some way.
Julia: Most likely. I’ve never heard of Cassandra or Jane riding; are you a riding man yourself?
JK: When I was young we did have a pony called Rusty and I learnt to ride. But I never really rode a lot until I moved to Australia after I left school, and a few years later got a job on a sheep station in the south east of South Australia. There I was riding most days.
Julia: I gather you like horses then?
JK: Yes, horses are probably the nicest animals you can think of, after dogs, but horses are lovely and they are so useful. They are incredible and it was one of the most important things for humans to tame. In Australia, if I told a horse to go on when we were herding cattle and sheep about, I would trust it not to get into trouble. We also had dogs most of the time. When Caroline was small our labrador had 12 pups, which was very hard work for Carol, my wife, as she had to help feed them with a bottle several times a day.
Julia: Apart from the donkey cart, are there any other personal items of Jane’s that either belong to your family or are displayed in Chawton House? This question was asked by many of our readers, to name just a couple - by Sheli Woodruff from Ohio and Amanda Mortensen from Australia.
JK: Jane’s personal items are on display in Jane Austen’s House Museum, including her writing desk, quilt, jewellery and letters. You can also see things Jane would have known, like the dinner service that was commissioned when she visited the Wedgwood showroom in London in 1813 with her brother Edward and his daughter Fanny – my father gave it to me as a wedding present when I came back from Australia with my wife, Carol. Parts of the set are on display at Jane Austen’s House Museum.
Julia: Has Jane ever eaten from those plates?
JK: I think that is beyond doubt. She stayed at Godmersham and visited the Great House at Chawton quite regularly.
Julia: She mentioned the set in her letter, didn’t she?
JK: Yes, she says she went to Wedgwood with Edward to buy the set. She describes the pattern of purple lozenges between bands of narrow gold in her letter, and says it is to have the crest.
Julia: And at the Great House the dining table is still the same?
JK: Yes, Edward Austen’s grand dining table is still at Chawton House
Julia: So Jane Austen would have sat at that table?
JK: She certainly would have sat at the table during many dinners she had at Chawton House. Whether she ever used it for any other purpose – to write a book on it for example, is unlikely.
Julia: But what about the famous small writing desk at the Cottage? That one is definitely genuine and was used by Jane for writing, isn’t it? It is amazing how small it is - one would have to balance all the paper and ink on such a tiny surface…
JK: I have theories, everyone has theories about that. I think she would have used it like we use a laptop or a tablet nowadays. In the days when light was a scarce commodity, with the price of candles being so high, she could have moved with that table from one window to the other; it was small enough. She could have brought it to the brightest lit window with a couple of pens and a few sheets of paper. I read somewhere that writers would have three to four pens on the go because they had to soften the dry ink on the quill before writing. She would have had it where it is now in the dining room (in one of the letters to Edward Austen Knight someone said they saw her at her house writing by the window), but once the sun went round in the afternoon, she, as a sensible lady, could have brought the table elsewhere and written there, or she would have kept a chapter and revised it. She must have written at other places in the house, I would think.
Julia: That makes sense.
JK: To me that makes perfect sense. But many other people prefer to think that she would write only on that table and only by that window. But of course in the British Library there is Jane’s writing slope. We don't know if she used that at home or just took it with her to use when she went away to stay with relatives such as Henry in London or Edward at Godmersham.
Julia: It is an interesting theory, and sounds very plausible. I am sure the visitors to Jane Austen’s House Museum are fascinated with your theories and stories and, most importantly, your heritage.
JK: Yes, my life now, in retirement, revolves completely around Jane Austen's House, Chawton House, gardening and Carol and the family. I have a pretty good retirement.
Read about Jeremy’s work as a volunteer at Jane Austen’s House Museum and at Chawton House Library, his interactions - both moving and, at times, awkward - with tourists and Jane Austen fans and much more.
© J.B. Grantham- Jane Austen Literacy Foundation Ambassador and admin of 'Elizabeth Darcy' Facebook page.
The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation works with the Jane Austen community and industry to provide literacy resources for communities in need across the world. 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 credits: Julia Grantham