A Closer Look at Catherine Knight

Standard

Mrs. Thomas Knight, nee Catherine Knatchbull, by George RomneyCatherine Knatchbull Knight, the wife of Thomas Knight, is best known to Janeites as the adoptive mother of Jane Austen’s brother Edward; Edward’s inheritance of the Knight estates brought him, among other properties, the ownership of Chawton Cottage, which he was able to offer to his mother and sisters as a home, and in which Jane wrote and revised her novels for publication. Most biographies do not see her as a great influence on Jane Austen’s life and writing, though she clearly took an interest in the Austen ladies and also in Jane Austen’s published writing.

Mrs. Knight’s relationship to the Austen sisters makes an appearance in a letter written by Lady Knatchbull, née Fanny Knight, Edward’s eldest daughter and Jane Austen’s favorite niece, to her younger sister:

Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, and if she had lived fifty years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to our more refined tastes. They were not rich & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course tho’ superior in mental powers & cultivation were on the same level as far as refinement goes–but I think in later life their intercourse with Mrs. Knight (who was very fond & kind to them) improved them both & Aunt Jane was too clever not to put aside all possible signs of ‘common-ness’ (if such an expression is allowable) & teach herself to be more refined at least in intercourse with people in general. Both the aunts (Cassandra and Jane) were brought up in the most complete ignorance of the World & its ways (I mean as to fashion etc.) & if it had not been for Papa’s marriage which brought them into Kent, & the kindness of Mrs. Knight, who used often to have one or other of the sisters staying with her, they would have been, tho’ not less clever and agreeable in themselves, very much below par as to good society and its ways. If you hate all this I beg yr’ pardon, but I felt it at my pen’s end & it chose to come along & speak the truth.

Leaving aside Janeites’ opinions of Lady Knatchbull’s state of mind when that letter was written, one can pull out the comments about Mrs. Knight—that she was fond of and kind to Jane and Cassandra Austen. The mentions of Mrs. Knight in Jane’s letters bear that out, and also indicate that the fondness was returned, and her kindness much appreciated. Continue reading