8 Things you may not know about Jane Austen’s Brother Edward Austen Knight
Born 7 October 1767 – Died 19 November 1852
On this day, Edward Austen died peacefully at his Godmersham home at the age of eighty-five and is buried beside his wife in Godmersham Church.
One could say that Edward Austen had been lucky in life. Although his birth year is often reported as 1768, he was actually born the previous year on 7 October 1767 as clearly written in the Parish Register.
Born into a loving, fun and intelligent family, they affectionately called him ‘Neddy’.
Edward was described as being good, amiable, and sweet-tempered. This probably brought him to the attention of Thomas Knight who was a cousin of his father’s who had no children of his own. He and his wife Elizabeth looked around the family for an heir and chose to adopt Edward.
He was presented to them when he was sixteen years old, and spent his school holidays between Kent and Hampshire.
This silhouette shows George Austen presenting his son Edward to the Knights with Mrs Knight’s mother. It was painted by William Wellings to celebrate the occasion. Edward was sixteen years old at the time.
Unlike his brothers, he was not sent to University. Instead, he was taught at home as a country gentleman to take on the duties of the estates. Edward loved the countryside, and enjoyed horse riding and hunting with the boys in the surrounding villages.
He went on a Grand Tour of the Continent between 1786 and 1790 when he was 18 which included a year spent in Dresden, then Italy and Rome. As a memento of his tour, Edward’s full-length portrait was painted when he was twenty-one. A fragment of broken marble and a ruined temple can be seen in the background, as though it was painted in Italy!
Edward wrote journals and illuminating letters home showing his writing talents matched those of his siblings. They are still in existence today, and show that he loved to describe his surroundings and experiences in great detail.
When he returned from his Grand Tour, he met and married Elizabeth Bridges on 27 December 1791. She was a local beauty and the daughter of Sir Brook Bridges of Goodnestone near Wingham.
They lived in a house called Rowlings after their marriage, and later moved into Godmersham Manor which was larger and could accommodate their growing family.
Edward kept himself busy managing the estates and was also made High Sheriff of Kent in 1801.
Jane made the stagecoach journey from her Hampshire home many times to stay for long periods and help look after her nieces and nephews. It was said that Godmersham was inspiration for Mansfield Park, and moving in wealthy circles gave Jane ideas for the characters in her novels.
In 1793, Edward’s first child Fanny Catherine was born, the first of eleven children. She would become Jane’s favourite niece whom she thought of ‘as another sister’. Jane would advise her later in life when it came to marriage and matters of the heart. It was one of Jane’s last pleasures to re-read Fanny’s letters before she died.
On 10 October 1808, a terrible thing struck the family when Jane was in Southampton and Cassandra in Kent. Elizabeth was only 35 when she died ten days after the birth of her eleventh child from a sudden illness. After his wife’s death, Edward spent more time in Hampshire to be closer to his family.
Upon the death of Edward’s adoptive father Thomas Knight in 1794, Godmersham Park was inherited by his wife Elizabeth with the remainder of his estate going to Edward. She gave it to Edward and moved to a house in Canterbury until she died in 1812. Edward then took the name ‘Knight’ in appreciation of their generosity.
Although there were two estates included in his inheritance, Godmersham Park in Kent and Hampshire. Edward also inherited a third estate in Wittersham, also in Kent.
Edward was a bit of a hypochondriac like his mother, and possibly the management of such large estates and people brought on stress. He would often complain of stomach disorders, faintness and gout. Later this would bring about a visit to Bath to which Jane would accompany him.
Although Edward was a wealthy man he still had money worries, and Jane almost lost the right to live in Chawton Cottage.
He was involved in a court battle that challenged his inheritance through an earlier will linked to his adoptive mother Elizabeth. If the will was upheld, he would have lost the Hampshire estate. It dragged on for years and Edward ultimately settled out of court which shows the seriousness of the claim.
He also lost £20,000 when his brother Henry’s Bank went bankrupt.
Edward lived at Godmersham until his death on 19 November 1852, spending most of his time with his children and grand-children. He had been in good spirits on his usual drive around the countryside the day before.
On the morning of his death, he woke early and asked his servant to leave him to rest, and when the servant returned he had passed away.
One of his relations said afterwards,
It strikes me as a characteristic end of his prosperous and placid life, and he will certainly leave on the minds of all who knew him an image of Gentleness and quiet Cheerfulness of no ordinary degree.
Spence, J. Jane Austen’s Brother Abroad: The Grand Tour Journals of Edward Austen
To read more about Jane’s family, see About Jane Austen