• Deborah Yaffe

Recovering a literary Holy Grail

It’s been more than three years since a trio of passionate Janeites formed the Godmersham Lost Sheep Society (GLOSS), an organization dedicated to recovering the scattered contents of the library owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight and housed at Godmersham, his estate in Kent, England.


And now comes word that a key item in that missing collection – “the Holy Grail in these endeavors,” according to GLOSS co-founder Peter Sabor, an English professor at McGill University in Toronto – has been found and purchased for public display.


The Holy Grail in question is a first edition of William Cowper’s Poems, originally published in 1782. Cowper was reportedly Jane Austen’s favorite poet; she mentions him in her letters and novels, with Fanny Price quoting a line of his in Mansfield Park and Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, deploring Edward Ferrars’ “tame” and “spiritless” reading of his poetry. It is likely that Austen perused this very volume during at least one of her extended visits to Edward’s family.


Only about 500 of the 1,250 books listed in an 1818 catalogue of the Knight family’s holdings are currently in the possession of Chawton House, the research library situated in the Elizabethan mansion that was Edward’s second home in Hampshire. Recovering the remaining volumes – identifiable through their bookplates – is GLOSS’ goal. (You can view a reconstruction of the Godmersham library on the clever and entertaining Reading with Austen website.)


How this particular acquisition came about remains somewhat obscure: Although Chawton House’s press release refers to funding from both GLOSS and Friends of the National Libraries, a UK non-profit that supports British libraries considered to be of national importance, it does not say how much those entities had to pay for the Cowper, or who sold it.


Still, such details of provenance won’t interfere with our enjoyment – in person or online – of that most tantalizing of literary relics: a beloved book that Jane Austen may once have held in her hands.

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