READ PART 1 IN PRIDE & POSSIBILITIES, ISSUE 23, OCTOBER 2017
Julia B. Grantham talks to Jeremy Knight of Chawton, Jane Austen’s fourth great nephew, about his work as a volunteer at Jane Austen’s House Museum and at Chawton House Library, his interactions with Janeites from all over the world, and how Jane turned his life around.
In the first part of the interview we already established that Mr Knight likes being called “Jeremy”, enjoys outdoor pursuits and has plenty of theories about his famous Aunt, her characters and locations of her books. We’d talked for about two hours by this point and both felt that some refreshment would help us to keep going. Two cups of tea and some sandwiches did the trick and we continued our conversation with a renewed zeal.
Julia: How has being Jane Austen’s nephew affected your own life?
JK: Surprisingly, before my retirement – not much. I was working full-time, and my time was occupied with work and looking after Chawton House.
Now I am retired a lot of my time revolves around Jane Austen. I am a volunteer at both Chawton House and Jane Austen’s House Museum 4 sessions a week. I split my hours approximately fifty-fifty between the Cottage (JAHM) and the Great House (CH).
So yes, my working life now revolves completely around Jane Austen. I have learned so much more about her since I retired. I always knew she was a great writer, of course, and my 4th great Aunt. I knew she grew up in Steventon (another of the Knight estates) and, after a few years in Bath and Southampton, lived in Chawton for the last years of her life on her brother Edward’s estate (my third great grandfather). I knew a few stories about her, but not the detail of her life. I am dyslexic so reading doesn’t come naturally, but a few years ago I discovered audiobooks – I now know Jane’s work intimately and get what all the fuss is about! So now I can really discuss her life and work with all the visitors.
Julia: How do people find out who you are?
JK: I wear a name tag saying Jeremy Knight. All the guides wear name tags.
Julia: I bet you’ve had many interesting encounters with people coming to both houses so intimately connected with Jane’s story. But I know that you are a very private person - may I ask, do you ever get embarrassed by all the attention you get from visitors at Chawton?
JK: Sometimes it’s just slightly embarrassing. I am happy to chat with visitors and don't mind if they want a picture, but any more makes me uncomfortable. People just want to talk and listen to what I want to say, to know my opinions, but what she was like is very much unknown and there is so much speculation. I of course have my own opinions and I don’t mind if people like meeting me and want to know my thoughts about Jane and we have some very nice discussions. People come a long way – from America, Australia, Russia, China and many other parts of the world, and if meeting me adds something extra to their holiday that’s lovely. But to - I don’t know - kiss me or something, and put it on Facebook is slightly embarrassing. I'm not on Facebook so luckily I don't see it.
But, you know, there are many lovely stories… Once I came to Jane Austen’s House, and saw a photographer I had met on other occasions, in the garden. He was waiting for a couple flying over from America to go on a conducted tour around Hampshire. They were booked at the B&B across the road. When the couple came to Jane Austen’s House Museum, he proposed to her on the lawn, a total surprise for her. Isn’t it great? The photographer told them who I was, and they joked that meeting me was almost as good as their engagement.
Julia: It certainly made it even more special.
JK: And in the summer an Italian chap and his girlfriend came in and they had flown from Italy that morning and were going back the same day! They came to Chawton for her birthday treat! So romantic. They came to learn about Jane Austen’s life, and they were having dinner at Winchester and then going home. I told them who I was and got them into Chawton House – which was closed that day. I hope it made the trip a little more memorable for them.
During Regency Week in Alton last year I was on my usual Monday morning duty and two ladies, obviously real Austen fans, who knew my relationship with Jane, came in. Unusually, I was on duty nearly every morning that week, and they came in each day, shook my hand, chatted for a while and left. It seemed most strange but they were having a good time in England so I was pleased for them.
Julia: Exactly! It made their experience richer, but from the sound of it, this work makes your life richer as well.
JK: It makes my life amazingly rich, I retired from full-time work but I can’t just stop working and I love what I do!
Julia: Talking about the visitors, what is the most common question you are asked?
JK: Most people ask about Jane’s illness and the cause of her death.
Julia: And what do you say in response?
JK: I always say – no one knows. If you go to a doctor, or even two doctors on the same day with a list of complaints, you might well get two different diagnoses. It is even more difficult to come to any definitive conclusion after 200 years. Addison’s disease has been accepted as the cause of Jane’s death for many years, then it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Just today I talked to two doctors who have studied all her letters and came up with another theory - some auto-immune condition. They are going to publish an article about it and it will be interesting to read what their opinion is. I will make sure that Caroline gets it.
Julia: Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral, while her mother and sister are here, in the churchyard in Chawton. Why do you think she was buried in the cathedral rather than the cemetery here?
JK: Someone asked me this very question the other day in Winchester. There was a lady standing near me who came up with an interesting theory, which for me rings true. She thought that Jane’s family realised that there are certain people in our world born to be great. You know what I mean? I certainly can think of a few people I know like that. So her family knew she was brilliant, she died young, but she had greatness in her and they wanted her in the cathedral, they knew she was special, different to them all. That’s what the lady said.
Julia: So even though her writing was not mentioned on her tombstone, it obviously was at the back of their minds.
JK: Well, that’s what the lady said. I quite like the idea. I think the family recognized greatness in her and wanted her to be buried in the cathedral. They would have had to pay, but the admirals were getting wealthy, they had money to contribute. Edward most probably contributed.
I just find that quite interesting and I could see it; because there are people who don’t live long but they “last” hundreds of years after their death and, for some reason or other, things of theirs survive. There is some greatness about them that people recognize.
Julia: It’s a very interesting thought. I like it very much. Because there are many theories, but not all of them I find satisfactory. People say that she was buried there because her father was a clergyman, but that wouldn’t be enough, in my opinion.
JK: I know. Throughout her life there was no “official” reason for her to be buried there, but, if her family recognized she was special, then, I suppose, someone as influential as Edward could swing it and get that all-important permission.
Julia: I like that, it makes sense. Any other questions the visitors ask you?
JK: Once they know who I am they ask what I think she was like. To me her books tell us that she was witty but a bit sarcastic. I think she was like that in real life and I guess she did not suffer fools gladly - that could be why Cassandra burnt her letters. She trusted Cassandra so much - she would have felt free to reveal her true thoughts but only to her sister.
Julia: Do people ask whether you notice any family resemblance to Jane Austen amongst your relatives or yourself, facially or in your character?
JK: People want to know what Jane Austen looked like, but again – we have very limited sources of information. There is a watercolour by Cassandra, but it is very difficult to imagine a real person from it.
There are a few more portraits of Edward, my great-great-great-grandfather. There is one picture of Edward as a teenager by the fireplace at Jane Austen’s house. People say I look like him. I have the same small mouth.
Jeremy says this with a wide smile, making it impossible for me to judge whether his mouth is, indeed, Edward-like small. To say something, I thoughtfully observe: You have quite a nose. The Austen nose, you know…
JK: Oh, yes, and, maybe, the curly hair is from the Austens too?
Well, at this point I would invite the readers to judge for themselves. Have a look at the portraits below and come up with your own verdict:
Julia: There is another interesting question: In your opinion, if Jane had had a chance to visit America, what she would think of it?
JK: Well, I don't know what she would think of America, but I think she would have loved to travel. She did travel and visit friends and relatives in different parts of England so I feel she would have loved to go further afield. And suppose she was here now – she would have loved giving talks about her books.
At Chawton House we have an exhibition at the moment about Madame de Staël (2017). They were contemporaries. She was quite the lady - she was very famous in her day and very rich, but she wasn’t very nice about Jane. And we have now an exhibition about the two of them, and one of the first editions of Madame de Staël’s book cost 3000 pounds and one of Jane’s is up there just under 50,000 pounds! In a way, Jane…
Julia: … wins at the end!
Julia: Do you think she would have loved all this attention? All the fame? How do you think she would have reacted?
JK: All the people would embarrass her like me, but I think she would have felt great pleasure in the recognition of her talent and loved the fame. She would have liked to talk about her books.
Julia: And she would have been happy to make a lot of money from them, wouldn’t she?
JK: Of course. Because she wanted to be successful. It is sad that she didn't get to enjoy the recognition and financial reward for her work.
Julia: And she would have wanted to be independent.
JK: Definitely. Her writing makes that clear. I think she felt her own dependence on others very strongly. The women in her books strive not to be reliant on men.
Julia: Even though they marry them in the end?
JK: Of course.
Julia: But somehow they reach certain independence.
JK: Yes, it’s like “I’m marrying you because I want to, and not because of your money”.
Julia: That’s very true, even though Elizabeth says (and I don’t like this line), she says: “But I believe I must date it [love for Darcy] from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”
JK: It is a joke, I hope.
Julia: My husband always says that she shouldn’t have said that, but that’s Jane Austen: she puts a very cheeky joke there.
JK: She is exactly like me then! But I’m better looking even though Caroline says that I can’t say that!
Julia: You can say that ha-ha. Jane would have laughed at that!
Julia: Talking of Jane’s legacy for our times what do you think of the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation founded by your daughter, Caroline? What would be your message to people who read our journal, Pride & Possibilities? Because that is where we will publish this interview - actually we might have to cut it into several parts.
(I didn’t know then how right I was! This is the second part of the interview and the third is coming out soon.)
JK: When people come to the house I always tell them about the Foundation and give them the card.
Julia: How do they react?
JK: They take the card and say “oh I will definitely do something about that”. They definitely like Jane Austen Literacy Foundation bookplates, a lot of them do. I tell them not to put their name on it but for Christmas put 20 names and give them to all their friends. I always explain to people that if they enjoy Jane Austen’s books, the best way to say thank you to her is to spread the gift of literacy. Jane Austen has the power of turning people’s lives around in different ways. She’s turned my life around because I was worried about retiring. I think everybody does. I just didn’t know what to do.
The foundation is a labour of love for Caroline and is off to a great start and I hope the Jane Austen community really embraces the cause. Lots of people are making an awful lot of money out of Jane Austen - a lot of authors, and there’s hundreds of Janeites out there, and if each gave just a little bit we could seriously help improve literacy rates across the world and wouldn’t that be amazing? Think how many more people could enjoy reading her books.
© 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