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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Small world

The world of the British aristocracy can seem very small indeed. Witness this month’s auction of items from the estate of the late Patricia Knatchbull, 2nd Countess Mountbatten of Burma, a royal cousin who just happens to have been a descendant-by-marriage of Jane Austen.

Pay close attention, children: This is all a bit complicated, as genealogy tends to be when you’re dealing with centuries of inbreeding.

Patricia was the elder daughter of Louis Mountbatten, the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Louis was the uncle of Prince Philip, who -- as royal-watchers, or at least viewers of The Crown, will recall – is married to Queen Elizabeth II. That makes Philip and Patricia first cousins, but Patricia was also a third cousin of the queen's: Both women -- not to mention Philip himself, a distant cousin of his wife's -- all descend from Queen Victoria’s many offspring.

When Patricia’s father was granted his earldom in 1947, in recognition of his service as Britain’s last viceroy of India, it was specified that the title would descend to his oldest daughter, a rare exception to the usual rule of male primogeniture. (Before you start popping feminist champagne corks, however, I must note that the rule was broken only for a single generation: After Patricia and her younger sister, the title could descend only to a male heir.)

A year earlier, Patricia had married John Knatchbull, 7th Baron Brabourne – and here’s where the Austen connection comes in.

As Janeites will recall, Jane Austen’s beloved oldest niece, Fanny Knight, was married to Sir Edward Knatchbull, a widowed baronet more than eleven years her senior. Their son, Sir Edward Knatchbull-Hugessen – he added his paternal grandmother’s maiden name to his original surname – had a long political career, in recognition of which he was created Baron Brabourne in 1880. (Although baronets and barons both occupy rungs on the ladder of Britain’s hereditary aristocracy, baron is one rung higher.)

Janeites care about the first Lord Brabourne because in 1884, after his mother’s death, he published the first collection of Jane Austen’s letters. Yes, he did occasionally bowdlerize them in deference to Victorian sensibilities that seem ridiculous to us today, but we nonetheless owe him thanks for seeing the importance of the author’s correspondence and ensuring that it would survive.

Fast-forward a couple of generations to the 1946 marriage of Patricia, later Countess Mountbatten, to John, Fanny’s great-great-grandson and therefore a great-great-great-great nephew of Jane Austen. Fast-forward to a horrible family tragedy: the 1979 assassination of Patricia’s father, Lord Mountbatten, in an IRA bombing that also took the lives of three others, including John Knatchbull’s mother and one of John and Patricia's fourteen-year-old twin sons. And fast-forward one last time, to Patricia’s death in 2017 at the age of ninety-three.

You know how it is when venerable relations pass on: There’s always lots of stuff to dispose of. Sometimes it’s old Tupperware and moth-eaten sweaters, and sometimes it’s . . . a bit nicer than that.

Which brings us to this week, when Sotheby’s will wrap up its auction of some three hundred and eighty-five items of Lady Mountbatten’s personal property – family portraits by prominent artists, art deco jewelry, gold snuffboxes, Chippendale furniture, and an “incredibly rare 1950s toy robot.” That last one is expected to fetch £4,000 to £6,000 (about $5,500 to $8,300), but the auction promises to have something for nearly every budget: Sotheby’s has estimated likely prices at £80 to £100,000 ($111 to $139,000). Online bidding began ten days ago, but prices won’t be final until the auctioneer’s gavel comes down on Wednesday.

Although the Sotheby’s press release notes the family’s Austen connection, only one auction lot -- a set of fairly terrible miniatures of Fanny's eight children -- mentions an Austen provenance. You’ve got to believe that the smart marketers at Sotheby’s would have noted other such links had they been able to pin them down. So I suspect this isn’t the place to go if you want to get your hands on anything definitively owned by an Austen relation. (Except for the aforementioned miniatures, of course.)

Still, the auction offers a fascinating window onto the small-town world that is the British aristocracy. Join me in pressing our noses against the glass.

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