Nov 122017
 

Happy Sunday, friends!  Are you a fan of The Jane Austen Centre?  Have you spent hours browsing all the interesting finds on their site?  I have!  Not only does The Jane Austen Centre have an amazing gift shop, but they also publish interesting articles and reviews on their blog!  The kind people at The Jane Austen Centre have kindly offered to engage in a post exchange with some blogs, and today I’m sharing one of their posts about Jane Austen, Caroline Jane Knight, and her new book Jane and Me: My Austen Heritage!

The Enduring Love for Jane Austen

Jane Austen passed away 200 years ago, yet the names of Lizzy Bennet and Mr Darcy are familiar even to people who have never picked up one of Austen’s novels.

Then there are those who have read Austen’s works…. countless times. The academics, the Janeites, and those who simply appreciate her work for its place in classic literature.

Austen’s books have been translated into over 35 languages. Over 100,000 people make the pilgrimage to Jane’s homes each year and there are over 30 Jane Austen Societies worldwide, the largest of which (The Jane Austen Society of North America) has more than 70 branches. Over fifty Jane Austen events and festivals are held each year across the world and her works have inspired at least 75 movies or television series. More than 20,000 fan fiction novels have been published, based on Jane’s life, work, and characters, and there are over 7,000 Austen related websites and social media profiles online.

A new book aiming to satisfy this craving for all things Austen is Caroline Jane Knight’s Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage. Part history, part memoir, Knight’s book shines a new light on the places, traditions and family that shaped and were shaped by the author so many people love and admire.

Caroline has been a client and friend of mine for many years, and it has been fascinating to see her evolving attitude towards her “Austen heritage”. Although Knight grew up in the Knight/Austen family home at Chawton, when she was 17 her family were forced to leave, and she determined to put the past behind her, forging her own path free from Austen. Knight did this with success – becoming a renowned businesswoman and establishing herself on the other side of the world, proving that she did not need to ride anyone’s coat tails.

“For more than twenty years, I chose not to tell my colleagues and friends that I am Jane Austen’s fifth great niece and the last of the Austen family to grow up in Chawton House, in the south of England, on the ancestral estate where Jane herself lived and wrote.” Knight writes. “But in 2013, the widely celebrated bicentennial of the publishing of Pride & Prejudice started a chain of events in my life that would take me back to my roots and reunite me with my ‘very great’ great-aunt, Jane Austen.”

Knight reconnected with her past, and out of this adventure the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation was born. “Give a girl an education” kept echoing in Knight’s mind, and these words penned by her relative in a different century inspired the formation of a charity “to harness the global passion for great Aunt Jane and raise money to provide reading and writing resources to communities in need across the world.”

Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody – Mrs Norris from Mansfield Park

Even though these words are given to the fictitious and less-than-inspiring Mrs Norris, like so many of Austen’s literary observations, this inherent irony only enhances their truth. Knight believes her great aunt would approve of the charity founded in her name, and so do I. In her letters “Jane mentions her and Cassandra’s plans for spending the £10 that Edward gave them each year to provide small comforts for the poor in the village.” Letters also show Jane as a mentor to “her nieces, Fanny and Anne, both budding writers who sent their work to Jane for critique and advice.”

Though Austen’s novels are praised for their realism and observance of human nature, they have often been criticised for a lack of political awareness and relevance, causing them to be written off as romances by many. But mere romances don’t change the literary landscape and contribute to the public sphere in the way Austen’s work has. An interesting study by The Upshot looked at word choice in Austen’s novels in comparison to the words in a sample of 127 British novels from 1710 to 1920. Kathleen A. Flynn writes of their findings: “I saw a pattern that had eluded me, a connecting thread: how the peculiar brilliance of Austen lies partly in what she focuses on, and what she ignores. Scarce or absent were big, dramatic things: war, elopement, murder, highwaymen, kidnapping, ghosts, gambling, shipwrecks, pirates. Instead we have families, letters, visiting, gossip, carriages, tea, dances, conversations, thoughts, emotions. We are left with daily, ordinary life, a focus on states of mind, thoughts and feelings — and efforts to understand others’.”

Flynn and her co-worker Josh Katz go on to observe “Human nature (together with the operation of time) is the true subject of all novels, even those full of ghosts, pirates, plucky orphans or rides to the guillotine. By omitting the fantastical and dramatic elements that fuel the plots of more conventional novels both of her own time and ours, Austen keeps a laser focus. That points to traits so crucial for her endurance in the Darwinian struggle for literary immortality: acute emotional intelligence, and a rare ability to render it in stories that amuse even as they instruct.”

Further evidence of Austen’s focus on a person’s moral obligations to society come through in caustic observations about characters who fail to fulfil theirs. When Sir Walter Elliot from Persuasion learns that he is “growing dreadfully in debt” through his own gross overspending, and informs his daughter Elizabeth of their plight, her “serious” measures of economy centre around keeping their own high standard of living by diminishing any responsibility to others.

Elizabeth, to do her justice, had, in the first ardour of female alarm, set seriously to think what could be done, and had finally proposed these two branches of economy, to cut off some unnecessary charities, and to refrain from new furnishing the drawing room; to which expedients she afterwards added the happy thought of their taking no present down to Anne… they were neither of them able to devise any means of lessening their expenses without… relinquishing their comforts.

When the eponymous heroine of Emma humiliates the spinster Miss Bates, she is reminded not to abuse the position of power she enjoys because of her wealth and youth.

She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she lives to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!

Then of course there is the moral questioning which runs throughout Mansfield Park and becomes more obvious as Fanny Price comes of age.

In championing a literacy foundation, Knight honours the spirit of her ancestor in a more fundamental way than dressing in Regency costume and quoting Pride and Prejudice line and verse. Such celebrations are fun, but as a celebration of a point in history they miss the timeless lessons to be gained from Austen. This is the enduring appeal that goes beyond regency dress and manners, country dances and romances. Their depth is the reason Austen’s works endure when those of her contemporaries did not. Austen contributed to literature and culture, and it is wonderful to see Knight’s writing contributing to our understanding of Austen’s life and work.

To learn about Chawton and the Austen/Knight family is not just to indulge curiosity about a beloved author, but to consider the conditions that allowed that author to flourish, and the family and society that shaped, and were shaped by, her. When Jane Austen’s brother Edward was adopted by relatives as an heir, it gave him the opportunity to help his mother and sisters (an example a certain Mr John Dashwood could profit from). In 1809, Edward Austen Knight installed his mother and sisters, Jane and Cassandra, in a cottage in the middle of the village of Chawton. Knight observes that for “eight years whilst in Bath and Southampton, Jane did not have easy access to a library of books and these were her least productive years. In 1809 Jane moved to Chawton, where she had access to the Knight family library at Chawton House and was finally able to devote herself to her writing. It is from her Chawton home that Jane published Sense & SensibilityPride & Prejudice and went on to write Mansfield ParkEmma and Persuasion. Libraries were an invaluable source of knowledge and inspiration for Jane’s work and without access to books, Jane may very well have not left us with such treasures.”

For Austen, it seems, Chawton was more than just a house: it gave her “a room of one’s own” – the space, security, and intellectual stimulation necessary to write. To many, the enduring love for Jane Austen is no great mystery, and to them, I recommend Caroline Jane Knight’s new book highly.

For more information on Jane & Me: My Austen Heritage, visit www.austenheritage.com

For information on Caroline Jane Knight’s book tour, visit www.austenheritage.com/about

Many thanks to Jenni Waugh and the team @ The Jane Austen Centre for sending us this interesting post to share.  It is amazing to hear of how far Jane Austen’s influence has spread (I had no idea about the 20,000 works of Jane Austen fan fiction!)  And I agree that Jane Austen would very much approve having a charity founded in her name!  To see the original article, click here.

What do you think, readers?

Have you read Jane and Me: My Austen Heritage?

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  20 Responses to “From The Jane Austen Centre – The Enduring Love of Jane Austen”

  1.  

    I had meant to purchase this book and this post was a reminder to get off my arse and do it! Loved hearing about Caroline Jane Knight and can’t wait to read the book! Thank you for sharing!

  2.  

    Haven’t read it yet Meredith but it’s on the list, the LONG list!! I was lucky enough to visit The Jane Austen Center last year and it was thoroughly enjoyable. It never fails to amaze me how popular she still is. It also saddens me a little that she lived with so little herself, yet the Jane Austen industry must be worth millions today. Great post!

  3.  

    Provide for education is one of the more beautiful things people can do to help others in need of it. Of course, people need to have food, health, a house, a job…but what would our lives be without the wisdom provided by books and libraries? 🙂
    Bravo Caroline for your Foundation! . “Aunt” Jane will be proud of you!.
    Thanks Meredith for sharing this post. I didn’t know anything about Caroline Jane Knight and her brilliant Foundation.

    •  

      I agree, Teresa! One of the great powers of education is that it can change your life. I think the Foundation is something Jane Austen would be very proud of. So happy to share this post with you!

  4.  

    Delightful and informative post Meredith. Wow!! So much Jane Austen fan fare going on around the world. I had no idea. Excellent post about the foundation. Jane would be thrilled to know that her legacy was still being carried on.

  5.  

    I recently found my self wandering around the site and signed up too! I too have Caroline’s book on my list to purchase!

  6.  

    The post exchange idea is brilliant. I’ve got this one on the wishlist since it came out. The description makes me all the more eager.

    •  

      Me too!! I love the idea of learning about living in the home of Jane Austen’s family and following the life and work of Caroline Jane Knight! Thanks for checking out this post!

  7.  

    What an admirable charity. Each of us has ready opportunity to help out with other most charitable needs when we’re open to that. But this is definitely near and dear to all our hearts as mothers, grandparents, etc., and basically book loving human beings, and Jane devotees.

    Lovely post exchange Meredith. I definitely want that book.

  8.  

    I purchased this book and and can’t wait to read it! On a side note, be VERY careful visiting the Jane Austen Centre website….your credit card just buys things ALL BY ITSELF!!! Okay not reall but that is the story I’m going to stick with….lol. So many lovely things that you will HAVE to buy, like their new blanket using the old P&P cover!

    •  

      LOL, Danielle! I appreciate your warning, yet at the same time I’m pretty sure I’ll succumb to the same issue!! I will have to check out the blanket, I love book covers! 😉 Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this post!

  9.  

    Agree!! “Jane and Me” is a candid, remarkable autobiography; it was like peeking in all the cupboards and windows of Carolyn Knights’ life and her history with Miss Austen. Fantastic read.

  10.  

    I’ve read a little bit in it–I need to finish it.

    denise

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