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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Life among the ruins

Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald ran an engrossing interview this past weekend with Caroline Knight, a great-greatgreatgreatI'velostcount niece of Jane Austen.

Knight and her brother -- descendants of Austen’s brother Edward, who took the name Knight after he was adopted by wealthy cousins – grew up in Chawton House, the Elizabethan pile down the road from Chawton cottage. The cottage, which we now know as Jane Austen’s House Museum, is of course the place where Austen wrote or revised all her novels.

Knight, a business consultant who lives in Melbourne, is in the news right now because she’s launched a literacy charity (the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, natch) and wants publicity for this good cause.

But for us Janeites – not to mention us Downton Abbey viewers – what’s fascinating is the glimpse she offers into the life of a once-wealthy British family living in a formerly luxurious mansion that was falling down around their ears. Even as her semi-aristocratic family opened village fetes and hosted pheasant shoots, her father mowed the great lawn himself because no one could afford a gardener.

"It was us keeping up appearances, if you like," Knight tells the newspaper. "Where we lived was magnificent and the sitting room, library and great hall was very grand. The kitchen was in a hell of a mess, the attic rooms and back rooms hadn't been touched for years. It was the peripherals of the house that needed repair, the roof, the structural work you couldn't see. I had no sense of the fact that the place was falling down slowly.''

A few years after the last family event in the Great House – Knight’s eighteenth-birthday celebration – the property was taken over by Silicon Valley multimillionaire Sandy Lerner, whose successful quest to restore the house and turn it into a center for the study of early English writing by women is chronicled in a chapter of Among the Janeites.

Knight has returned only twice, she told the interviewer, but against her better judgment, part of her still misses that life. ''Even at nineteen, intellectually I knew this house was unsustainable, something has got to happen to it,” she says. “But that doesn't stop the heart, does it?''

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