Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Edward Austen Knight's Godmersham Library and Jane Austen's Emma

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Edward Austen Knight's Godmersham Library and Jane Austen's Emma

Article excerpt

IN AUSTEN 'S NOVELS, the details matter. Ever the mistress of verbal economy, things--Elizabeth Bennet's dirty petticoat, Sir Walter Elliot's mirrors, and Fanny Price's cross--convey necessary details about Austen's characters. By telling us what books her characters read, Austen shows us how to read her characters. Using Emma as a test case of sorts, I want to provide an introduction to a new resource that can help us interpret allusions to what Austen's characters are reading: the Knight Collection.

Comprised of books once owned by Jane Austen's brother Edward Austen Knight, the Knight Collection is an invaluable resource for those interested in studying the Austen family's reading habits. The collection has recently been loaned to the Chawton House Library by Richard Knight, a descendant of Jane Austen's wealthy sibling (a fitting partnership, as the library itself is housed in the Chawton House estate inhabited by several generations of the Knight family). This collection suggests some possible connections between Edward Austen Knight's Godmersham library and Jane Austen's literary influences. Information in the Godmersham Park Library Catalogue not only sheds light on some ambiguous textual references in Austen's writing but also aids in interpreting men's and women's reading habits in Emma.

Edward Austen Knight inherited three estates from Thomas Knight II: Steventon, Chawton, and Godmersham. The current Knight Collection at the Chawton House Library contains volumes from both Godmersham Park and Chawton House as the two libraries were probably combined at Chawton sometime in the mid-1800s, around the time that the Godmersham estate was sold. (1) Many changes to the collection have occurred since the early nineteenth century: books were added to both estate libraries after Jane Austen's death; unfortunately, many volumes were sold throughout the twentieth century. At just under three thousand volumes representing a little over fifteen hundred titles, the current Knight Collection represents only a fraction of the works that the libraries of Godmersham and Chawton once contained (Scott).

Although we no longer have access to the complete collection as it existed in Jane Austen's day, the Godmersham Park Library Catalogue provides a list of the volumes in the library shortly after the time of Jane Austen's death. The handwritten manuscript contains vital information about the books to which the author would have had access when visiting her brother's estate. The catalogue is dated 1818, but it was likely a project that continued into the 1820s and beyond as it does contain references to books published as late as the 1840s. There are two volumes: the first arranged roughly alphabetically, the second by shelf location. (2) Both volumes seem to have been completed by the same unknown hand although there are a few additions made by a second hand. Close to twelve hundred titles are listed in the catalogue, the majority of which would have been in the library at Godmersham during Jane Austen's visits. Approximately one-third of the titles listed in the catalogue are represented in the current Knight Collection. (3)

Jane Austen spent time at Godmersham Park, and it is clear from her letters that the library was a regularly used space in the home. In an 1813 letter Jane Austen writes, "We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every [Even.sup.g]" (23-24 September). In a subsequent letter written during the same visit, the central role of the library becomes more evident when Austen describes the arrival of her brother Charles Austen and his family. After meeting the visitors "in the Hall" the group immediately retires to "the Library." Later, the party "walk[ed] about from one part of the House to the other," but the family convened in the library again after dinner (14-15 October 1813). Jane Austen seems to have also enjoyed spending time alone in the library. In the aforementioned letter of 23-24 September, Jane Austen writes, "I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey. …

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