Thursday, October 1, 2015

Dollars and Cents and Sensibility

Edward Austen Knight

…as a farmer,…, he had to tell what every field was to bear next year,….The plan of a drain, the change of a fence, the felling of a tree, and the destination of every acre for wheat, turnips, or spring corn, ..." Emma, chapter12

Generally, I don’t like to do book reviews. It is too much like homework, and, for me, the idea of reviewing a book detracts from the enjoyment of reading. However, I have just finished reading a book that deserves to be read by all those who are interested in Jane Austen’s life and times.

The book is Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton Commerce and Community by Linda Slothouber (1). This book is the result of work done by the author as  a participant in JASNA’s International Visitor’s Program. The purpose of that work and the book is to examine the finances of Edward Knight’s estate and use that information ”to provide a historical context for Jane Austen’s allusions to estate management in her novels, and to help those who study or visit the village of Chawton understand the estate economy there” (p. 2)

The book succeeds beautifully and provides a wonderful window into the lives of the landed gentry in Jane Austen’s time. Edward Knight was, of course, Jane Austen’s brother. He was adopted by wealthy relatives and became heir to a large estate primarily in Hampshire and Kent. He provided the home in Chawton where Jane Austen wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and where she, perhaps, put Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility into their final forms. Jane Austen is also known to have visited Edward at his main residence at Godmersham Park in Kent. As her wealthiest relative, Edward would have provided Jane Austen with a close example of the land owning class in Regency England.

Godmersham Park, Home of Edward Knight 
Attribution: David Anstiss)

The book focuses on the finances of Edward Knight’s estate, but opens with a description of Edward Knight himself and his inheritance. Suffice to say, he was more Knightly than Rushworth and he took a great interest in the management of his estate. 

The book then focuses on the details of the finances and management of the estate. While the estate records are often incomplete, some of the best documented years are from 1808 to 1819, spanning the time of Jane Austen’s residence at Chawton. During this time the property in Hampshire generated an average income of £4,278. Income from Edward Knight’s other properties probably added about £3,800, for a total income of about £8,000. Mrs. Bennet would have been impressed. However, Edward Knight needed to be a careful steward since his income varied significantly over this period. The postwar years were especially difficult, as the income form the Hampshire properties fell to £3,722 in 1815 from a high of £4,909 in 1813.

Chawton House, Edward Knight's Residence in Hampshire, now Chawton House Library

Of course, Edward Knight wasn’t the only one living on the estate. Linda Slothouber also introduces us to all the others who lived around Chawton: the magistrate, justice of the peace, steward, estate servants, genteel tenants, farmers, and day laborers. We learn about how they lived, how much they earned and what roles they all played in the working of the estate.

Slothuber focuses on the finances of estate management, but if you are not inclined toward numbers, never fear. Slothouber’s clear prose and accessible style work to bring these characters to life. By the time I finished reading the book, I felt as if I had been living at Chawton for a few days, getting to know the people who lived there. I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in understanding Jane Austen’s world.

For me, the next step will be to open up a spreadsheet and start working with the numbers to better understand Regency economics.

1. Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton Commerce and Community, Linda Slothouber, Woodpigeon Publishing, 2015.

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