Book Review: “The Jane Austen Society” by Natalie Jenner

Are you a maker of Lists? Do you keep a List of books to read, lists of books read, movies to watch, TV shows not to be missed, lists of gifts, grocery lists, house to-do lists, a master To-Do List? Do you have a List of Lists? Or, as one friend asked me years ago, do you ever add something to your To-Do list already done so you can cross it off? (I said absolutely NO!). But I do love lists – they organize a life, give a sense of control (false though that may be), especially in these troubled times. And so I find that instead of writing a more traditional book review of The Jane Austen Society, that I’d make a List, a very important list of at-least TEN reasons you should read this book – one reason alone is enough; ten means you should buy it immediately and jump right into its world.

1. The Characters: Real and True

The author Natalie Jenner has said she had no outline for this tale, envisioned about eight characters, half male and half female, and essentially let them run amok.* We can only be glad she did! As one of her more Willoughby-like characters says of this rag-tag motley crew of folk all bent on forming a Jane Austen society: they were “a band of misfits with negligible expertise and no head for business: a country doctor, an old maid, a schoolmarm, a bachelor farmer, a fey auctioneer, a conflict-averse solicitor, a scullery maid, and one Hollywood movie star.” [276] – a “band of misfits” indeed. They are all from different backgrounds and histories, all part of the small rural community of Chawton, all with tragedy, pain and grief permeating and controlling their lives. Yet each is fully-drawn – you like, even love, these people.

2. The Plot: So Inventive

This is fiction (more on this below) – and not even historical fiction – it has nothing to do with the Real Jane Austen Society formed in the 1940s, same as our fictional group – so don’t confuse them. Let this story tell itself, as it brilliantly does: how this unlikely cast of characters discover a commonality in Jane Austen of all people, and strive to honor her in some way – they do live in Chawton after all… And in so doing, each finds Hope and Love and and Self-Knowledge. And as the tale of each unfolds and their lives become inexorably intertwined, we have mysteries and secrets, stories of war and deaths, disagreements among neighbors, gossipy goings-on, and Love and Romance. What is there not to like? Jane Austen has given them a purpose, a sense of hope and a road map into an understanding of the heart. You find fast friends over Jane Austen, as many of us have found in our own lives.

3. The Setting: Chawton, of course

Chawton House

Not everyone living in this fictional Chawton reads or even likes Jane Austen. Some resent the weird travelers looking for sites associated with her. Even the family heir confesses a preference for the Brontës (especially Villette – pay attention here). But the setting is one we all are very familiar with, if we know a bit about Austen’s life after 1809. Living in Chawton Cottage (now Jane Austen’s House ) and trekking to her brother Edward’s Great House (now Chawton House), Jane Austen walked these walks, sat in these chairs, read in this library, all so beautifully and authentically described by  Jenner. You are in this world in the 1940s, right along with the characters.

Jane Austen’s House

4. The Library [not as “In the Library with Colonel Mustard and the lead pipe”…but a Real Library]

One of my favorite parts of the book (the librarian-bookseller in me). Jenner confesses to a wee mistake about the location of the library at Chawton, but literary license allows just about anything, so she is heartily forgiven. Because she gives us Evie, the aforementioned scullery maid, who at 16 (and without giving too much away) has been secretly cataloguing the entire library in the Great House for the past two years and therefore is more knowledgeable about what’s there, what it’s all worth (and with the added bit of a FOUND letter by Austen, of which I shall say no more…), than anyone else in the family (who have ignored the library for generations) or anyone else in town. Evie is a delightful character – we would like to recruit her for our Reading with Austen / Godmersham Lost Sheep Society project!**

Reading Room at Chawton House

5. Jane Austen in Plain Sight:

One of the pure joys of this book is the light-hearted yet insightful analysis of Austen and her novels: characters actively discussing all the works in their general conversation with each other. Farmer Adam, on first reading Pride and Prejudice considers that “he was becoming quite worried about Mr. Darcy.” [10] The town doctor and the local schoolteacher have a lively chat about Emma: the teacher dislikes Emma, the doctor adores her – they wrangle over Mr. Knightley’s true feelings as Austen drops her clues. [I was delighted to find a new-to-me hint to add to my ever-growing List of Clues that Mr. Knightley is very much in Love.]

Then there are the almost direct correlations between characters – you’ll certainly find a Willoughby or Henry Crawford or a William Elliot in these pages, several of Austen’s couples, maybe even a Mr. Rushworth and a Mrs. Elton – there’s even a Dog! – the fun is finding them and going “aah…” Here’s a standout: one of the characters says “within the pages of Mansfield Park was the playbook for making a good woman fall for a cad.” [151] How true that is – and I never looked at Crawford’s behavior in such a light before…

And then the direct quotes in different contexts, which leads us to…

6. Jane Austen Is Not for “Dull Elves”:

The Austen discussion and character correlations are more straightforward than the many allusions scattered throughout, multiple readings likely needed to flesh them all out. Austen was a master of the allusion herself and again, it’s great fun to find these little crumbs:

“You have borne it as no other woman in England would have…” [295]

“I probably would’ve cut him a lock of my own hair if he’d asked for it.” [188]…

Sense & Sensibility – CE Brock – Molland’s

So many – don’t want to inhibit your “sharp-elves” detective skills, so that’s all I shall share…which leads us to another no-spoilers here item on our list…

7. The Mystery(ies) wherein lies a will and an heir just like an Austen plot

….and shall just say there are secrets and mysteries in abundance. So much under the surface, so much history Jenner gradually allows the reader to see, like the proverbial peeling away of an onion – layers of stories to reveal truths… and again, not unlike Austen, Jenner feeds us more and more of each character and their motivations, and we care largely because of ….

8. The Romance: There’s A Lot of It!

So we have eight major characters, and a house full of minors (some of whom, like in Austen, have a lot to say, and a lot to do to move the plot along). Part of the fun (and mystery) is who will end up with whom? Even one of the characters falls asleep one night musing on and making mental lists of possible couplings. Evie at 16 is perhaps the most perceptive at seeing what the heck is going on. It’s all quite endearing – but no spoilers here (though can I say there is a Wentworth-like letter??)

9. It’s Fiction!

Ok, have to repeat this – this is pure fiction, not even great literature (though it is very well written), not based on the real Jane Austen Society as I’ve said (and that real story is compelling it is own right – you can read about it here.)

But even if you are not an avid reader of fiction, but you like Jane Austen, you will get much out of your few hours of time invested. And even if you don’t know squat about Jane Austen, you’ll love this book (you can also listen to it – spending several hours with Richard Armitage is top on my Must-Do list] – because of the humor, the grace, and the romance, and because…

10. We Need This Right Now:

This is a Feel Good book – and goodness, we need that right now more than anything – pick it up and wander back into a simpler (though in so many ways harder) time, to a place ravaged by war, when loss and grief were the bywords of the day, and live for a bit with this delightful “band of misfits” as they each find their way to a better future, all with thanks to Jane Austen, a lesson for us all, especially now…

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* You can hear Natalie Jenner’s May 15, 2020 talk for the Chawton House Literary Festival on Youtube here:

Also read her interview with Rachel Dodge at the Jane Austen’s Regency World blog here.

** For a real-life cataloguing project concerning Edward Austen’s libraries at his Godmersham and Chawton estates, please visit the Reading with Austen website and the Reading with Austen blog. Under the direction of Professor Peter Sabor, the hope is to locate (and return if possible) as many of the books that were originally in the Knight library during Jane Austen’s time. We need Evie on this project!

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About the author:

Natalie Jenner is the debut author of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen wrote or revised her major works. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law and has worked for decades in the legal industry. She recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.

WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK | INSTAGRAM | GOODREADS

  • Twitter handles: @NatalieMJenner, @StMartinsPress @MacmillanAudio
  • Hashtags: #TheJaneAustenSociety #HistoricalFiction, #AudioBooks, #AmReading, #JaneAusten #RichardArmitage

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About the Book:

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

Book details: Genre: Historical Fiction, Austenesque Fiction

The Jane Austen Society: A Novel, by Natalie Jenner
St. Martin’s Press (May 26, 2020)
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1250248732
eBook ASIN: B07WQPPXFW
Audiobook ASIN: B082VL7VRR

Blog Tour Dates: May 25 – June 30, 2020 – you can read more about the blog tour and the schedule here and here at Austenprose.

You can buy the book at all the usual suspects – but start with your local bookstore!

Indiebound / Amazon / Barnes and Noble / Book Depository / BookBub / Audible

©2020 Jane Austen in Vermont

Blog Tour Shout-Out! “The Jane Austen Society” by Natalie Jenner

Hello there Gentle Readers: I welcome you to join in on the virtual online book tour of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, Natalie Jenner’s highly acclaimed debut novel May 25 through June 30, 2020. Seventy-five popular blogs and websites specializing in historical fiction, historical romance, women’s fiction, and Austenesque fiction will feature interviews and reviews of this post-WWII novel set in Chawton, England. All is sponsored and coordinated by Laurel Ann at Austenprose. The pandemic has limited the author from engaging in the usual real-life book talks and marketing tours, so we are going all out to be sure that this book gets a full-court press in our now largely virtual world. Please enjoy all the chat, then get thee to a bookstore and add it to your TBR pile (on top!) – you will not be disappointed…

My review will go live tomorrow but wanted to list here all the blog tour sites that over the next month will be offering reviews and interviews of this delightful tale:

 

About the Book:

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England’s finest novelists. Now it’s home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen’s legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen’s home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

************* 

Book details:

Genre: Historical Fiction, Austenesque Fiction

The Jane Austen Society: A Novel, by Natalie Jenner
St. Martin’s Press (May 26, 2020)
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1250248732
eBook ASIN: B07WQPPXFW
Audiobook ASIN: B082VL7VRR

Blog Tour Dates: May 25 – June 30, 2020 [see below]

****************

About the author:

Natalie Jenner is the debut author of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen wrote or revised her major works. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law and has worked for decades in the legal industry. She recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.

WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK | INSTAGRAM | GOODREADS

Accolades:

  • An Amazon Best Book of May 2020
  • One of Goodreads Big Books of Spring & Hot Books of Summer
  • One of Audible’s Top 50 Most Anticipated Spring Audiobooks
  • June 2020 Indie Next Pick
  • May 2020 Library Reads Pick
  • Starred Review – Library Journal
  • Starred Review – Booklist 

Audiobook Narrated By Actor Richard Armitage (!!):

The full unabridged text of THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY was read by the distinguished English film, television, theatre and voice actor Richard Armitage for the audiobook recording. Best known by many period drama fans for his outstanding performance as John Thornton in the BBC television adaptation of North and South (2004), Armitage also portrayed Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy adaptation of The Hobbit (2012 – 2014).

Link to YouTube audiobook excerpt: https://youtu.be/OJ1ACJluRi8 

Spotify Playlist:

Spotify users can access a playlist for THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY at the following link: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5Q1Vl17qyQQIvvPGeIPCkr?si=-iMhVz8uRk2v2mTdolrPdg. The playlist includes music from various film adaptions of Jane Austen’s books, as well as film scores by such incomparable artists as Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, Rachel Portman, and Michael Nyman. 

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BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE:
[I’ll add live links once the post is active]

  • May 25        Jane Austen’s World
  • May 25        Austenprose—A Jane Austen Blog
  • May 26        Frolic Media
  • May 26        A Bookish Affair
  • May 26        Courtney Reads Romance
  • May 26        Margie’s Must Reads
  • May 26        The Reading Frenzy
  • May 27        Book Confessions of an Ex-Ballerina
  • May 27        Gwendalyn’s Books
  • May 27        Romantically Inclined Reviews
  • May 28        Getting Your Read On
  • May 28        Living Read Girl
  • May 28        The Lit Bitch
  • May 29        History Lizzie
  • May 29        Silver Petticoat Reviews
  • May 30        Cup of Tea with that Book, Please
  • May 30        Historical Fiction Reader
  • May 31        Jane Austen in Vermont
  • June 01        From Pemberley to Milton
  • June 01        My Jane Austen Book Club
  • June 01        AustenBlog
  • June 02        Lu’s Reviews
  • June 02        The Green Mockingbird
  • June 03        The Interests of a Jane Austen Girl
  • June 03        Relz Reviews
  • June 03        Impressions in Ink
  • June 04        The Caffeinated Bibliophile
  • June 04        Life of Literature
  • June 04        Laura’s Reviews
  • June 05        Reading Ladies Book Club
  • June 05        Bookish Rantings
  • June 06        From the TBR Pile
  • June 07        Rachel Dodge
  • June 07        An Historian About Town
  • June 08        Bringing up Books
  • June 08        Austenesque Reviews
  • June 09        Captivated Reading
  • June 09        Savvy Verse and Witt
  • June 10        Lady with a Quill
  • June 10        Drunk Austen
  • June 11        Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell
  • June 11        Inkwell Inspirations
  • June 12        Nurse Bookie
  • June 12        A Bookish Way of Life
  • June 13        Calico Critic
  • June 14        Jane Austen’s World
  • June 15        Stuck in a Book
  • June 15        Storybook Reviews
  • June 15        Confessions of a Book Addict
  • June 16        Literary Quicksand
  • June 16        Becky on Books
  • June 17        The Reading Frenzy
  • June 17        Anita Loves Books
  • June 18        Chicks, Rogues, & Scandals
  • June 18        The Write Review
  • June 19        Diary of Eccentric
  • June 20        Cracking the Cover
  • June 21        Short Books & Scribes
  • June 22        Reading the Past
  • June 22        Babblings of a Bookworm
  • June 23        My Vices and Weaknesses
  • June 23        The Book Diva Reads
  • June 24        Books, Teacups & Reviews
  • June 24        Wishful Endings
  • June 25        Robin Loves Reading
  • June 25        Bookfoolery
  • June 26        Lit and Life
  • June 26        Vesper’s Place
  • June 27        Foxes and Fairy Tales
  • June 28        Probably at the Library
  • June 28        Scuffed Slippers Wormy Books
  • June 29        The Anglophile Channel
  • June 29        So Little Time…
  • June 30        BookNAround 

©2020 Jane Austen in Vermont 

Interview with Hazel Jones, author of “The Other Knight Boys: Jane Austen’s Dispossessed Nephews”

Enquiring Readers: Today I welcome Austen scholar Hazel Jones in an interview about her newest book The Other Knight Boys: Jane Austen’s Dispossessed Nephews. If you have been following my blog Reading with Austen: Returning the Lost Sheep of Godmersham, you have seen the several posts on the diaries of Charles Bridges Knight, i.e all the excerpts that Hazel shared with me of Charles’ references to his reading in the library at Godmersham Park, home to his father, and Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight [see below for links to these posts]. Hazel has been researching not only the life of Charles, but also the lives of the five other sons of Edward [all six in order are: Edward, George, Henry, William, Charles, and John]. Her recently published book just flows with tales of their childhood into manhood adventures. I highly recommend it, many of the stories worthy of an Austen novel!

So, Welcome Hazel!

JAIV: Can you give a brief summary of the book?

HJ: Jane Austen’s letters provide clear-sighted glimpses of her six Knight nephews as they grew up, but hers was not the only pen to record their privileged upbringing. Cassandra and Henry Austen commented on Edward Austen Knight’s indulgence of his sons and worried about the boys’ ability to cope with future adversity in the wider world; their affectionate sister Fanny noted key moments in their lives – birthdays, holidays, marriages; Charles kept a detailed diary throughout  the 1830s and 40s. The Other Knight Boys explores the character of each nephew in turn, their professional and personal circumstances, their close fraternal bonds as well as the difficulties and disappointments they encountered in adulthood. For five of the brothers, future dispossession of their beloved family home at Godmersham as a consequence of birth order was a reality they had to live with. How it affected the choices they made forms the story that the book attempts to tell.

 JAIV: How did you end up doing this research on Austen’s nephews, the six sons of her brother Edward?

HJ: Quite by chance, in 2010, I was in a small party on a guided tour of Trafalgar (pronounced Traffle-gar) Park near Salisbury in Wiltshire. The property featured as Hartfield in the 1996 ITV film of Emma [with Kate Beckinsale], as well as Barton Park in Emma Thompson’s Sense & Sensibility.  Originally known as Standlynch Park, it was acquired in 1813 by Parliament for Nelson’s brother William, the new 1st Earl Nelson and re-named Trafalgar Park. The Nelson family lived here until 1946. In 2010, the owner was Michael Wade, whose housekeeper conducted us around the ground floor rooms. In the saloon she pointed out a stunning full length portrait of William Nelson’s beautiful wife, Hilare. Wait a minute, I thought, wasn’t she subsequently married to one of Jane Austen’s Knight nephews? Next followed some very intensive sleuthing which uncovered baptismal records in Cornwall and three marriages – to a cousin, to Nelson and eventually to George Knight of Godmersham. The Kent History and Library Centre and the British Library supplied more biographical material and in a room not usually open to visitors at Chawton House, I found a portrait of George as a young man. My research turned into an article on the couple for the 2016 Jane Austen Society Annual Report. After that came the urge to write about the other five Knight boys and uncover as much as possible about the women in their lives. Charles of course never married, but he had close relationships with his father, his brothers and their spouses.

[Portrait of Hilare Countess Nelson, by George Sanders, 1829-34. Courtesy of Martyn Downer and Michael Wade] 

JAIV: Your research took you to materials scattered throughout southern England – “Kent, Hampshire, and beyond” as you say (3). Was most of this known or did you discover any untapped sources?

HJ: The archives in Hampshire Record Office and the Kent Archives at Maidstone have been scoured pretty thoroughly by Austen scholars across many generations, although even here I discovered one or two sparkling gems which had never appeared in any other text. Previously ‘untapped sources’ for me were the Winchester College Archives, the matriculation records held at St John’s and University College in Oxford, the Nelson archive at the British Library and the War Office records at the National Archive, Kew. Articles in the Jane Austen Society Annual Reports (now accessible online) also filled in a number of gaps and put me in touch with other Austen / Knight researchers such as Margaret Wilson, who then provided material I would not otherwise have found. Sophia Hillan, Linda Slothouber, Maggie Lane and Deirdre Le Faye were also happy to have their generous flow of scholarship ‘tapped’. Karen ievers, Andrew Bradford and Hampshire Cultural Trust allowed me to see and reproduce previously unseen images.  

JAIV:  Of the six boys-to-men you researched, was there more information available from sources on any one more than others? And if so, was that frustrating? For instance I know that Charles kept extensive diaries for years – did any of the others leave such behind them?

HJ: Edward’s life is well documented, given that he was the eldest son and lived at Chawton House, but there are few examples, beyond business letters, of his own personal voice. George’s facility with language shines through his amusing poems and articles on cricket written for The Sporting Magazine. His restless character is evidenced by Fanny’s reports of his comings and goings between England and the Continent, his inability to settle to a career in the law and Charles’s revelation of his brother’s wish to try his luck in America. Letters were written to Fanny by all of the brothers, she records their arrival in her daily diary entries, but where are they now? I wish I had found a greater number of letters from Henry to Lizzy Rice. He comes across as the most contentedly independent and self-sufficient of all the brothers; the harrowing nature of his early death tugs at my heart strings. One or two of William’s letters have survived, together with contemporary descriptions of his youthful exuberance and Fanny’s revelation of his affair with the Knatchbull governess. John is the brother about whom least is known and the hardest to pin down on the page, yet his moving account of the loss of Godmersham is the most revealing of all.

JAIV: Edward, of course, was the heir, and while he appears to have maintained a close and friendly relationship with each of his brothers, there had to have been some bad feelings about how he really dispossessed all of them from their Godmersham Park home. Do you feel sympathetic toward him? Did he have any choice?

HJ: Edward’s siblings must have understood that maintaining Chawton House and Godmersham Park was impossible. The drain of his first and second families on Edward’s finances would have been excessive. The sons from his first marriage were at the stage where they required cash, so when Edward Austen Knight died, money came their way via their father. What appears inexplicable is Edward’s expensive and architecturally unsympathetic alterations to Godmersham in 1853, shortly before he decided to lease the property for 20 years. I can understand his attachment to Chawton – it had been his permanent home since 1826, although his frequent and lengthy returns to Kent each year might have misled his brothers and sisters into believing he would eventually move back and continue to make Godmersham available to all the family. When he sold it in 1875, of the brothers only John was still alive.

Chawton House

JAIV:  Some great drama in the family! What is your favorite story? [then I’ll tell you mine!]

HJ: Difficult to choose one … Louisa Lushington’s* description on her visit to Godmersham of the boys somersaulting into the river fully clothed comes near the top of the list and I rather like the story Henry and George concocted, featuring Uncle Henry Austen’s imprisonment for poisoning his second wife. Scandal is always irresistible too … Fanny’s snide references to Fanny Jones, the consequences of Edward’s elopement with Mary Dorothea, William’s affair with the governess.

*[The Journal of Louisa Lushington (1821-22), with an introduction by Linda Slothouber, Chawton House, 2017]

Ok, so you mention my favorite! Edward’s elopement with his sister’s step-daughter is quite compelling, and definitely worthy of a novel – I cannot tell anymore, readers – buy the book!

Photograph of a lost portrait of Edward Knight,
held by Kent County Cricket Club, Canterbury.

 JAIV: There was so much tragedy in their lives: not unlike their father and uncles (excepting the youngest John, and Charles who never married), all suffered the loss of first wives in childbirth or illness. It is really wrenching to read – how do you think they all handled this?

HJ: Tragedies such as these are almost unimaginable in our modern age of effective remedies, reliable diagnoses and informed medical expertise. Death in childbirth happened so frequently that many women – judging by their correspondence – did not expect to survive, so perhaps their husbands anticipated the worst before it happened. As for the Knight husbands, they certainly grieved for a time, it’s difficult to tell for how long, but from Charles’s diaries we learn that Edward was decimated by the loss of Mary Dorothea and that William and Henry were emotionally affected on the first anniversary of their wives’ deaths. Two or three years later, they are all married again, and embarking on the creation of second families. Life went on. Perhaps a combination of strong religious belief, practical rationality and fraternal support carried them through the worst. 

Elizabeth Bridges Knight – Jane Austen blog by Kleurrijk

JAIV: Any sense that the death of their mother after the birth of her 11th child (Brook John, known as John) in 1808 (Edward was 14) had a long-lasting effect on any/each of them?

HJ: John would not have remembered his mother and Charles’s recollections were probably indistinct at best. The affection the brothers felt for each other, for their sisters, and for their father – and his for them – strengthened the familial tie after Elizabeth’s death. Their easy, happy life at Godmersham appears to continue much the same as before, with Fanny standing in as a very capable and loving presence. Male and female occupations and interests were largely separate and distinct, which perhaps helped to lessen the sense of loss at the time and later. Edward, George, Henry and William were away at school for most of the year, Charles and John were initially under Fanny’s care until the time came for them to leave. Any long term effect might have manifested itself in a very understandable anxiety when their own wives became pregnant.

JAIV: Was Jane Austen a big factor in any of their lives growing up (she died when Edward was 23 in July 1817)? But when she became more popular and James Edward Austen Leigh (James’s son) wrote her memoir in 1869 – did any of Edward’s children contribute to that?

HJ: According to Anna Lefroy, Jane Austen was not loved by the Knight children, although they appreciated her story-telling skills. Anna had her own reasons for holding this view, but the probability is that Jane was merely tolerated by the nephews while at Godmersham, especially as they grew older and beyond female influence. Given their hunting, fishing and shooting pursuits, Jane called it ‘sporting mania’, they would see little of her during the day and there is evidence that at and after dinner, she found their their male acquaintance and their talk of wholesale slaughter distasteful. Maria Bertram, bored silly by Mr Rushworth’s boast of game bagged and poachers apprehended, comes to mind. A spinster aunt casting disapproving looks across the table, however, would have had little effect on these confident, indulged young men.  At Chawton, out of the hunting season, the nephews appear to have proved more congenial company, especially Henry and William, whose visits to the Cottage in their aunt’s final year are recorded with great affection in her letters. In 1822, Henry Knight wrote to his sister Lizzy that he expected Chawton to feel ‘sadly unreal’, surely on account of Aunt Jane’s absence, when he next visited.

James Edward Austen-Leigh attempted to access Fanny’s letters from Jane Austen, but did not succeed. He stayed with William Knight at the new Steventon Rectory for a day and night, in order to walk the familiar lanes and remind himself of where the old rectory used to stand. At the time the Memoir was written, Henry, George and Charles were dead.

JAIV: In reading about Edward’s family, do you feel that at any time in her writing that Jane Austen was modelling a character after a real-life family member?

HJ: No. [ha! Love this very succinct answer!]

JAIV: What surprised you the most? – Something previously unknown to you or anyone else in the Austen research world?

HJ: A small discovery involved Henry’s attendance at University College, Oxford. There is no reference to this in other texts and it was even a surprise to Deirdre Le Faye. Another concerns George’s final years, after his wife’s death. I am intrigued by his relationship, whatever it entailed, with Fanny Jones. George’s sister Lady Knatchbull certainly suspected something untoward, especially when her brother moved to Hereford to share a house with Fanny and her husband. One that almost got away is the small sheet of paper, Plate 8 in my book, comprising poems written by Edward Knight II and his second wife Adela. It was listed in the HRO catalogue, but missing from the file. It had still not surfaced when my last day at the Record Office came, but in the three hours it took to drive home, the Archivist had located, photocopied and forwarded it.

Charles Bridges Knight

JAIV: For instance, Charles went to Cambridge not Oxford like the rest of his family – do you know why that was?

HJ: One of my theories is that he was sent to Cambridge to detach him from certain school friends who had involved him in a rebellion at Winchester College in 1818. A number of the expelled ringleaders went on to Oxford, with which Winchester was closely associated. His sister Fanny reveals that Charles was ‘intended for the Law’ at this point – maybe Cambridge had a better reputation for training lawyers. One can only speculate.

JAIV:  All the brothers had very interesting and novel-worthy love interests – some thwarted by parental involvement – but there were elopements, governess shenanigans, some intermarriage with cousins, etc., some of which you have mentioned above  – Charles was the only brother not to marry – was there any love interest found in his diaries?

HJ: From time to time, Charles expresses a lukewarm interest in what he calls ‘domestic happiness’ but he recognized at the same time that it would very likely result in a diminution of his income and the luxury it afforded. While living at Godmersham he attended balls with his sisters, usually reporting afterwards that he had found them ‘stupid’ or that he ‘had not been up to the mark’. He is open to the appeal of women and notes their beauty, or lack of it, and liveliness. In the summer of 1847, when Charles was forty-four, heavily inked deletions appear in his diaries, which appear to be linked to Lizzie Pole, a young woman he encountered at Wolverton Rectory. That Charles himself was not responsible for these obliterations is a possibility, since not all of the references to ‘dear Lizzie’ are removed. His end of the year summary for 1847 expresses ‘shame and sorrow’ at his unbecoming behaviour and ‘cold unfeeling heart’. What happened remains a mystery.

JAIV:  Charles’ diaries are quite detailed and extensive. Are you hoping to do more with them? Make them available to a larger audience? [You were terrific in sharing excerpts from the diaries about Charles’ reading while at Godmersham – see links below]

HJ: Yes indeed. See the answer below!

JAIV: Your previous books, Jane Austen and Marriage (2009, paperback 2017 by Uppercross Press), Jane Austen’s Journeys (2014) are both excellent and informative reads where you discuss the times Jane Austen lived in and how the understanding of that helps us understand her plots and characters. Did you enjoy researching the real people in Austen’s life more or less than delving into a subject?

HJ: I loved creating both of my previous books, but have found biographical writing fascinating and wholly compelling (for that, read obsessive). The Other Knight Boys was my first foray as a writer into this territory and I must admit I did find this kind of study more absorbing than focusing on a set subject. It’s something of a cliché to say it, but I did develop a strong sense of each nephew as a living breathing individual, and consequently able to make informed leaps into speculative musing where there were gaps in the records. Where the boys’ experiences overlapped – attendance at Henry and Sophia’s wedding, for example, or the visit to Ireland on their sister Cassandra’s death – deciding in which chapter or chapters to locate the material and at the same time avoiding unnecessary repetition, was a very complex but rewarding process, rather like solving a six-dimensional puzzle.

JAIV: Which leads us to: What’s up next?

HJ: I am currently working with Peter Sabor on the transcription and annotation of Charles Knight’s diaries – 1832 – 1851.

[The Sophia Hillan book May, Lou & Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland  (Blackstaff Press, 2011) covers the lives of Marianne (May), Louisa, and Cassandra Jane – much has already been written about Fanny, so what about Elizabeth (Lizzy) – is there a story to tell there?

M.C. Hammond’s Relating to Jane has already covered Lizzy Rice’s life.

[JAIV: Goodness, I have this book on my shelf and have never read it – more than half the book is on Lizzy Knight!:  Relating to Jane: Studies on the Life and Novels of Jane Austen with a Life of Her Niece Elizabeth Austen/Knight,  by M. C. Hammond (Minerva Press, 1998)].

JAIV: What is your favorite Austen and why? Your favorite character?

HJ: This reminds me of that question from a famous BBC Radio 4 programme: ‘Which book would you choose to take with you to your desert island?’ My answer would have to be ‘The Complete Works of Jane Austen’.  I find it impossible to single out for special notice one novel or one character. Heroines, heroes and minor characters, they are all perfectly realized and crafted.

JAIV: An absolutely perfect answer! So, what else do you like to read?

HJ: I love reading biographies, by Claire Tomalin and Hermione Lee in particular, also intelligent detective and thriller fiction – P.D. James, Ian Rankin, Stella Rimington, Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Kate Atkinson; authors from other genres include Dorothy Whipple, Hilary Mantel, C.J. Sansom, Tracey Chevalier … I could go on.

JAIV: well. Thank you for that – a perfect reading list to add to my already toppling TBR pile! [and I see that many of Dorothy Whipple’s books have been republished by the incomparable Persephone Books.]

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A hearty Thank You! Hazel, for sharing so much about your book and research into the world of Austen’s nephews. You give a very loving picture of their varied lives, emphasizing their continued connection and affection for each other, and giving us a compelling view into this next generation of the Austen family. The amount of your research alone astounds me! And again, I highly recommend it to all. If you have any questions for Hazel, please comment below and I will forward them to her for answering.

Hazel Jones, Denman College, Oxfordshire

About the author:

Hazel Jones taught English at Exeter University’s Department of Lifelong Learning. She has lectured to Austen Societies in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands and contributed articles to a number of their journals. Since 1995 she has tutored residential courses on Jane Austen’s life, letters and novels in a range of locations. Her published books include Jane Austen and Marriage (2009) and Jane Austen’s Journeys (2014).

The Other Knight Boys: Jane Austen’s Dispossessed Nephews, by Hazel Jones
Crediton, Devon, UK: Uppercross Press, 2020.

165 pages, color illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.

You can find Hazel’s book at:

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The blog posts on Charles Bridges Knight’s reading at Godmersham Park can be found here:

©2020 Jane Austen in Vermont