When Jane Austen’s brother, Edward, inherited the estate of wealthy relatives, he took their surname, Knight, and control of property scattered across five English counties. Jane spent her most productive years as a novelist living in a cottage Edward owned in the village of Chawton in Hampshire. From this vantage point, Jane observed Edward’s approach to managing his estates and learned about the concerns and activities of wealthy landowners, knowledge that is reflected in her novels. In Jane Austen, Edward Knight, & Chawton, gleanings from original estate books, bank records, letters, and other sources, inform the most detailed portrait to date of Jane Austen’s brother. His life story illustrates how landed gentry made their money, tried to ensure the prosperity of their heirs, and interacted with workers on their estates. The English village of the early 19th century was a system of interdependencies, in which farmers, tenants, laborers, estate servants, and clergymen, along with the landowner, all had a role. At the same time, it was the scene of class conflict and social change.
Fiction, including Austen’s, tends to focus on life within the great houses of the gentry, but underpinning those splendid settings was the active world of farmhouses, cottages, and workshops. The estate-owner, though at the top of the social order, was often judged according to the well-being of those at the bottom. The author introduces people Jane Austen knew and wrote about during her years in Chawton, and discusses how the facts of village life intersect with fiction.
During her presentation, she will describe approaches used to research the lives of individuals who left few personal records. Linda Slothouber is a Board Member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and the 2013 recipient of the society’s International Visitor grant, which enabled her to live in Chawton, Hampshire and conduct research into its social and commercial history. Having completed a career as a management and technology consultant, she writes about work and business in the early 19th century and about the artifacts and buildings that survive from that time. Books will be available for purchase.