Deborah Yaffe

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A house in Austen country

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 31 2019 02:00PM

As regular blog readers know, I find few pursuits more enjoyable than the ogling of Jane Austen-related real estate. This week’s wallowing is brought to us courtesy of Country Life, that venerable catalog of How the Other Half – or, really, the Other One Percent – Lives.


It seems that a house is for sale in the fair village of Chawton, Hampshire -- known to Janeites as the site of Jane Austen’s House Museum, aka Chawton Cottage, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote or revised all six of her completed novels.


This house, Chawton’s former rectory, is a seven-bedroom, three-bath affair totaling more than 6,800 square feet of living space situated on seven acres of land. There are gardens! Paddocks! A Coach House for stabling the horses!


The house was first built in the fifteenth century – original beams remain visible – but fortunately has been renovated a time or four since then. After serving as the village rectory, it was bought in the late nineteenth century by Montagu George Knight, a grandson of Austen’s older brother Edward Austen Knight and the inheritor of the Chawton estate.


According to Country Life, the home has come to be known as the Dower House because Montagu bought it for “the then-dowager,” although it’s not clear to me who this was: Montagu’s mother died before he acceded to the estate. (And while we’re on the subject of family: Does anyone know why Montagu inherited Chawton when his father had three surviving older sons?)


The Dower House has a further Austen-ish connection, since, beginning in1802, it was the home of Chawton rector John Papillon, whom Edward’s adoptive mother apparently once suggested as a perfect husband for the eternally unmarried Jane. “I am very much obliged to Mrs Knight for such a proof of the interest she takes in me--& she may depend upon it, that I will marry Mr Papillon, whatever may be his reluctance or my own,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in a December 1808 letter (#62 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence). “I owe her much more than such a trifling sacrifice.”


Alas for property values, Austen never did become mistress of the Chawton rectory: Mr. Papillon’s impending, yet never materializing, proposal seems to have become a running joke in the Austen family. (The Austens' Papillon connections are helpfully summarized on the website of the UK Jane Austen Society.)


Whatever its Austen associations, judging from the online photos, the Dower House looks delightful: spacious yet homey and filled with natural light. The price is a bit steep for most of us -- £1.9 million, or $2.6 million – but probably a bargain for the kind of people who read Country Life with more than ogling in mind.


2 comments
Jan 31 2019 06:19PM by A. Marie

I've asked several people (who might be in a position to know) the same question you've raised about why Montagu Knight inherited Chawton House. The most I've been able to glean is a hint that Montagu's mother (Edward Knight II's second wife, nee Adela Portal) may have had something to do with it. Adela was said to have been "an unaffectionate stepmother" to EKII's children by his first wife, and Montagu was the oldest surviving son of the second marriage. (As you can see, I've spent considerable time with Deirdre Le Faye's A Chronology of JA and Her Family as bedtime reading.)

And, yes, wouldn't we all like to be in a position to purchase the old Chawton Rectory? Sigh...

Jan 31 2019 07:24PM by dyaffe

Thank you for this additional detail! I'm surprised the stepmother was able to influence the legal disposition of the estate: was there no P&P-like entail in the case? Also, it looks as if she died nine years before her husband, so he must have been henpecked indeed if she could persuade him from beyond the grave to disinherit his first set of sons. Families!

You also remind me that I've sadly neglected my bedtime reading: I don't even own the Chronology, and though I do own A Family Record, I have yet to read it. Another couple of titles for the TBR list. . .

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