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I received this book as a gift at Christmas. Its taken me some time to get round to reading it but on my recent holiday I rescued it from the teetering pile of Books to be Read that has been reproaching me silently for some time, and sat down. Within 48 hours I had devoured it.
I freely confess that , for me, reading about the doings of the generations of Austens/ Knights etc who followed Jane Austen is not high on my list of priorities, but I may have been wrong in this belief for Sophia Hillan’s account of the children of Edward Knight, Jane Austen’s lucky and rich brother, is a fascinating and very good read. I had not expected to be sucked into their world so quickly nor, more importantly, did I expect to care for them and their fates so much.
Sophia Hillan tells the sometimes complicated but fascinating tale of Edward Knight and his wife, Elizabeth’s children, who featured so frequently in Jane Austen’s letters. She concentrates on the lives of Louisa (Lou-below) who was Jane’s goddaughter, Marianne (May) and Cassandra (Cass), but of course, during the course of the tale, we hear much about the lives of the other seven children and their aunts and uncles.
Louisa and Cassandra married the same man, Lord George Hill of Gweedore in Donegal.He married first Cassandra who died in 1842, of puerperal fever after the birth of her last child . In 1847, after she had cared for her sister’s children for five years, Lord George Hill married Louisa. This was marriage that caused much discussion and distress as such marriages were then unlawful in Victorian England. Indeed, the couple travelled to Denmark so that they could be married, as it would have been impossible for them to have been married in England, as marriages between brother and sisters-in-law were then considered illegal on the grounds of consanguinity.
The story of their time in Ireland where Lord George was seem as an improving but strict landowner is truly fascinating and absorbing. Sophia Hillan writes with great insight and sensitivity on the terrible time of the Irish Famines and the actions of landlords whose acts, which now seem cruel and incomprehensible. These acts were often prompted by the desire for efficiency but ultimately failed, tragically, to understand the customs, habits and nature of the Irish over whom the Anglo-Irish landlords possessed such power. The later part of the book deals with this subject magnificently and I found myself rapidly turning the pages,desperate to know the outcome of Lord George’s actions.
The sister I enjoyed reading about most was Marianne (May-shown above). Her story could have been heartbreaking, but her strength of character and bravery made it one of triumph over adversity. She never married but devoted herself to looking after her father and then,after his death, her brothers. She did indeed begin life as an Emma Woodhouse figure, the daughter of a great house, Godmersham in Kent, administering the household and overseeing the care of the poor in the parish under her care after the marriage of her sister Fanny. She eventually moved from Godmersham to Chawton where she lived with her brother Charles Bridges Knight, who was rector of Chawton, and like her Aunt Jane, she seems to have enjoyed her quiet, settled life in that village. But she ended her life as a Miss Bates, impoverished and without a real home to call her own, settling in Ballyarr in Donegal, with her widowed sister, Lou, where she eventually died. I loved her character, with its refusal to be cowed by circumstances, her positive outlook and above all, her humour. She did indeed seem to inherit some of her Aunt Jane’s strongest character traits. I would love someone to reproduce in facsimile her Garden Book which she kept while she lived in Chawton.
I would urge all of you to buy this book, because the story of these sisters and their lives in England and most of all 19th century Ireland is so vibrantly presented to us by Sophia Hillan. I’ve read it twice now- the second time to savour all teh twists and turns of the fascinating tale. It is available as a Kindle edition if you are running out of books space, or prefer e-books. I am certain you will not be disappointed by this wonderfully written book.