BOOK REVIEWS
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Austen's Ungrateful Niece

Almost Another Sister: Fanny Knight, Jane Austen 's Favourite Niece
By Margaret Wilson.
George Mann of Maidstone, 1998.
x + 175 pages. Illustrations. Paperback, $20.00.

Reviewed by Marilyn Sachs.

Jane Austen was seventeen in 1793 when her niece, Fanny Knight, was born. The oldest child of Jane's brother, Edward Austen (later Knight), Jane adored Fanny and thought of her as "almost another sister ... [I] could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me. She is quite after one's own heart...."

Five letters that Jane wrote to Fanny between 1814 and 1817 are filled with wise and eloquent advice on love, and openly acknowledge the deep affection she felt for her niece.

So it is not surprising that Janeites are outraged by a letter written by Fanny, now Lady Knatchbull, in 1869, describing Jane as "very much below par as to good society and its ways." Fanny believes that it was only due to her rich father and his superior connections that her aunt was rescued from "commonness and a lack of refinement."

Ironically, this biography of Fanny would never have been written if she had not infuriated the devotees of her aunt. None of Jane's other nieces and nephews have excited half as much interest. Fanny displayed no uncommon traits or remarkable abilities, aside from managing large households with many children. And yet, Margaret Wilson has managed to write a well researched, readable, and nearly sympathetic biography of a most ordinary woman.

Fanny's mother died when she was only fifteen, and as eldest daughter, she filled in as surrogate mother to ten younger siblings, and ran her father's household. Later, in 1820, when she became the second wife of Sir Edward Knatchbull, she acquired five stepchildren, and went on to have nine of her own. Most of her stepchildren--as well as five of her own "led before she did. But she survived until she was eighty-nine, and ended her life as a very proper, "venerable" Victorian lady.  

Fanny kept pocket diaries all of her life. They dealt almost exclusively with daily events, and in no way explored her own personal thoughts. Sixty-nine of these diaries survive, and the author used them as well as letters and the records of friends and relations to follow Fanny throughout her long life.

As a young girl, Fanny had been close to her Aunt Jane, and confided in her. On July 18, 1817, she wrote in her diary of "My poor Dear Aunt Jane's death." Marianne Knight, one of Fanny's younger sisters, recalled "that when Aunt Jane came to us at Godmersham she used to bring the manuscript of whatever novel she was writing with her, and would shut herself up with my elder sisters in one of the bedrooms to read them aloud. I and the younger ones used to hear peals of laughter through the door, and thought it very hard that we should be shut out from what was so delightful." Another relative commented that "though this niece did not profess any special literary ability, her Aunt always valued her sound judgement on each new book." After Cassandra's death in 1845, all the remaining letters passed to Fanny, as well as the manu- script of the yet unpublished Lady Susan. This must reflect Jane's faith in her niece, who seemed, at this point, almost insensible of the value of the bequest. Fanny planned on passing along the letters and the manuscript to her own daughter, Louisa (who died before her mother), cautioning her "not to show them indiscriminately" and "destroy any you think right."

The author persuasively shows the changing values and mores of the freer Regency period into the more rigid, puritanical Victorian society that Fanny was to live through. She explains but does not excuse Fanny's letter. "Less easy to justify than Fanny's condescension towards her aunt is her ingratitude.... Even the most ardent biographer can hardly excuse, let alone forgive such lack of generosity."

Jane's belief that Fanny is "quite after one's own heart" certainly did not prove true. But Jane did understand how marriage and time could alter a young, lively mind. "I shall hate you when your delicious play of Mind is all settled down into conjugal and maternal affections," she wrote in 1817.

Prophetic indeed! At least as far as Jane's followers are concerned. Margaret Wilson's absorbing book will interest many Jane Austen fans with its details of Regency and Victorian daily life. Fanny Knight Knatchbull occupies center stage here, and if we cannot completely forgive her for her betrayal of Jane, we can understand how she changed into what she was. We can also sympathize with her own losses and sorrows as one after another of her children die, and she is forced to endure many other difficult tribulations.

Genius in any period is seldom truly admired or understood by less talented members of the same family. Unfortunately, Fanny will be chiefly remembered for her inability to recognize her aunt's greatness.


Marilyn Sachs is the author of many books for children and young adults. She was one of the founders of the JASNA Northern California Region and was keynote speaker at the 1998 Quebec AGM.

JASNA News v. 15, no. 2, Summer 1999

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