Today’s guest blogger is my dear internet friend Antoine Vanner, a naval expert and author, who happens to reside very close to Chawton House. I am certain you will love the many images of the estate where Austen lived from 1809 – 1817, as seen through the eyes of someone who observes her lasting effect upon the literary world each day.
The Knight Estate at Chawton and Jane Austen’s Lucky Brother
by Antoine Vanner
The “Jane Austen House” in the village of Chawton in Hampshire, where she lived with her mother and sister – both called Cassandra – in the later years of her life, is today preserved as a much-visited museum. Of equal interest however, about a quarter-mile distant, is Chawton House, the centre of the splendid Knight Estate which had been inherited by one of Jane’s brothers, in a manner that would not have seemed out of place in one of her own plots.
A major concern for Britain’s gentry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – when the words “gentleman” and “lady” referred very specifically to social status – was provision for large families. The rules of primogeniture meant that property and wealth – if there was any – would pass to the eldest son only and his brothers would have to make their own way. For daughters, the only route to avoiding the dreaded fates of spinster or governess was to marry well – a recurrent theme in Jane Austen’s own books. The options for the younger sons were limited, since no gentleman could retain his status as such if he were to participate in “trade”, essentially commercial activity of any kind. The Church, the Army, Medicine and the Law were all however considered appropriate occupations. Particularly popular with families living on the edge of genteel poverty was the Royal Navy since, unlike the Army, it was not necessary for an officer to purchase his commission or to pay for promotion thereafter. The Navy promoted on merit and had the added advantage that, in times of war, substantial fortunes could be made through “prize money” – shares in the value of captured enemy shipping. A boy could be entered into the navy while still a child – often under ten – and his board and lodging would be provided. It would be up to him thereafter to make his own career and fortune. The most notable example was Horatio Nelson, son of a country clergyman, and indeed many officers had fathers had similar backgrounds.
Jane Austen’s father George was, like Nelson’s, a country clergyman, and with her mother faced the familiar challenge of the time – provision for numerous offspring, in their case six sons and two daughters. Though their circumstances were modest, they did however have the advantage of having rich relations, most notably Thomas Knight, the wealthy husband of George’s second cousin, who appointed George to the “living” – the position of parish clergyman – of Steventon in Hampshire. This brought with it accommodation as well as a small income.
Two of the Austen sons – Francis (1774–1865) and Charles (1779–1852) – followed the time-honoured path of clergyman’s sons into the Navy. Both had quite spectacular careers, serving with distinction throughout the Napoleonic Wars and, as hoped, wining prize money that could make them financially independent. A touching mention by Jane tells of how one of her brothers made use of the first money he came into: “Charles has received £30 for his share of the privateer, and expects £10 more; but of what avail is it to take the prizes if he lays out the produce in presents to his sisters? He has been buying gold chains and topaz crosses for us. He must be well scolded.” Two centuries later, the obvious familial affection still moves the reader. These brothers were to rise steadily in their profession in the decades that followed, directing major campaigns in various parts of the world and managing the navy’s transition for sail to steam. Charles died as a Rear-Admiral while Francis attained the highest rank in the Royal Navy, Admiral of the Fleet. They provided the model for the dashing Captain Wentworth in Jane’s last novel, Persuasion.
Another of Jane’s brothers, Edward (1768 –1852), was however to become the most prosperous of all. Thomas Knight – the relation who had provided George Austen the living at Steventon – was, with his wife Catherine, childless and therefore lacking an heir to their wealth and their estates, including that at Chawton. Liking Edward, they made him their legal heir and funded his education, including the Grand Tour of Europe, which was obligatory for any cultivated gentleman.
When Thomas died in 1794 he left one of his estates, Godmersham, to his wife for her lifetime, with the remainder going to Edward immediately. She in turn left Godmersham to Edward with the stipulation that he change his legal name to Knight. He thus inherited three estates, in Steventon, Chawton and Godmersham, wealth of which Mr. Darcy himself would have been proud. Attentive of the welfare of this mother and two sisters, Edward provided them with the use of the house which had formally been the residence of the bailiff of the Chawton Estate. It was here that Jane was to live from 1809 until her death in 1817. Her mother and sister, the two Cassandras, remained there until their own deaths in 1827 and 1845 respectively.
The key feature of the Knight Estate is Chawton House, its home farm and the church of St. Nicholas in its grounds. Magnificently maintained today, one has a strong impression of how self-contained and self-supporting such a community would have been from the middle ages onwards – a church has occupied this location since 1270, though the present structure is more recent. Jane worshipped here and her mother and sisters were buried outside it – she herself having been buried in Winchester Cathedral.
Chawton House itself started as an Elizabethan manor house and was added to over the years. Today it is home to The Centre for the Study of Early Women’s Writing, 1600-1830, including a collection of over 9,000 books and related original manuscript. The credit for rescue of the building and for establishment of the centre goes to a foundation established by Sandra Lerner and Leonard Bosack, co-founders of Cisco Systems.
Jane herself not only knew the house but walked extensively in the area – it’s possible to trace some of the walks she mentioned, including one across fields and through a small wood to the nearby village of Farringdon. The greatest interest of all is however the house itself, splendidly restored inside and out.
And here I must declare an interest. It is available for social functions, and it was here that my wife and I held our wedding reception in 2011. Having recalled that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”, we thought of no more appropriate location for the occasion, even though the extent of my fortune might not compare with that of Mr.Darcy, even allowing for inflation!
I’m attaching some further photographs below, taken by me. I trust that they will give some idea of how the Knight Estate is today. It’s well worth a visit if you are in Britain and more information can be found on https://chawtonhouse.org/
Antoine Vanner is the author of the Dawlish Chronicles, centred on the Victorian-era naval officer Nicholas Dawlish RN and his indomitable wife, Florence. Five novels so far feature plots linked to real historical events and the most recent, Britannia’s Amazon, tells of Florence’s unexpected confrontation with the corruption, vice and abuse of power that are the underside complacent Victorian society.
Britannia’s Wolf: The Dawlish Chronicles: September 1877 – February 1878
This is the first volume of the Dawlish Chronicles naval fiction series – action and adventure set in the age of transition from sail to steam in the last decades of the 19th Century.
It’s late 1877 and the Russian and Ottoman-Turkish Empires are locked in a deadly as the war between them is reaching its climax. A Russian victory will pose a threat to Britain’s strategic interests. To protect them an ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, is assigned to the Ottoman Navy to ravage Russian supply-lines in the Black Sea. In the depths of a savage winter, as Turkish
It’s November 1879 and on a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. It is laden with troops, horses and artillery, and intent on conquest and revenge. Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so. Nicholas Dawlish, on leave of absence from the Royal Navy, is playing a leading role in the expedition and though it could not be much further from the open sea he must face savage naval combat. forces face defeat on all fronts, Dawlish confronts enemy ironclads in naval combat and Cossack lances and merciless Kurdish irregulars in battles ashore. But more than warfare is involved, for Dawlish finds himself a pawn in the rivalry of the Sultan’s half-brothers for control of the collapsing empire. And in the midst of this chaos, unwillingly and unexpectedly, Dawlish finds himself drawn to a woman whom he believes he should not love.
Brittania’s Reach: The Dawlish Chronicles: November 1879 – April-1880
It’s November 1879 and on a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. It is laden with troops, horses and artillery, and intent on conquest and revenge. Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so. Nicholas Dawlish, on leave of absence from the Royal Navy, is playing a leading role in the expedition and though it could not be much further from the open sea he must face savage naval combat.
Britannia’s Shark: The Dawlish Chronicles: April – September 1881
It’s 1881 and the British Empire’s power seems unchallengeable.
But now a group of revolutionaries threaten that power’s economic basis. Their weapon is the invention of a naïve genius, their sense of grievance is implacable and their leader is already proven in the crucible of war. Protected by powerful political and business interests, conventional British military or naval power cannot touch them.
Britannia’s Spartan: The Dawlish Chronicles: June 1859 and April – August 1882
1859: a terrified 13 year-old boy has survived the shredding of a flotilla by enemy gunfire, the first defeat suffered by the Royal Navy for four decades. Now he cowers in a muddy ditch, waiting for the signal that will launch a suicidal assault on Chinese fortifications. It is Nicholas Dawlish’s blooding in combat and its memory will stay with him throughout his future career as a naval officer.
1882: now a captain, Dawlish is returning to China command of Britain’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas. Her voyage to the Far East is to be a peaceful venture, a test of this innovative vessel’s engines and boilers. It should bear no relation to that nightmare of failure in China that Dawlish remembers since boyhood and so there is no forewarning of the whirlwind of land and naval combat ahead. But soon after arrival in Hong Kong Dawlish is required to undertake a diplomatic mission in Korea. It seems no more than a formality but he finds a country racked by riot, treachery and massacre and the focus of merciless international ambitions.
Britannia’s Amazon: The Dawlish Cronicles: 5 April – August 1882
1882: Florence Dawlish stands at the quayside in Portsmouth and watches the Royal Navy’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas, departing under command of her husband Captain Nicholas Dawlish. Months of separation lie ahead, quiet months which she plans to fill with charitable works.
Witnessing of the abduction of a young girl shatters that quiet, bringing Florence into brutal contact with the squalid underside of complacent Victorian society. With her personal loyalties challenged to the limit, and conscious that her persistence in seeking justice may damage her ambitious husband’s career, not to mention the possibility of prison for herself, Florence is drawn ever deeper into a maelstrom of corruption and violence. The enemies she faces are merciless and vicious, their identities protected by guile, power and influence.