Early Women’s Writing on Show in Chawton House Anniversary Celebration
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of opening to the public, Chawton House is bringing together some of the most precious treasures in the collection for the first time. Covering the Knight and Austen family history, the women – including Jane Austen – who have shaped the estate and the remarkable collection of early women’s writing, Treasures of Chawton House features never-before-displayed objects, new acquisitions, old favourites, and works only found at Chawton House in Hampshire, England.
Owned by the Knight family for 445 years, Chawton House is best known in literary circles as having belonged to Jane Austen’s brother Edward. In 1809, it was Edward who gave his sisters, Jane and Cassandra, and their mother, a home at Chawton Cottage, where Jane wrote and revised her famous novels. Edward himself resided at Godmersham Park in Kent, and in the Library is a display books from the Godmersham Park library which had a strong influence on Jane Austen as she spent months immersed there whilst visiting Edward. These books now form part of the Knight collection.
The exhibition features the never-before-displayed Grant of Arms, the official manuscript received by Edward Austen in 1812 that gave him permission to change his name to Knight and thus inherit the Chawton and Godmersham estates. The Grant of Arms remains in its original presentation case complete with his golden Knight seals. It was Edward’s lucky inheritance that brought Jane Austen to the village of Chawton, opening up a whole new world for the author to be inspired by.
Twenty years ago, and because Chawton House had inspired the work of Jane Austen, it became home to a remarkable collection of early women’s writing which has inspired research and public programming ever since. The exhibition, mounted throughout the house, will bring together the stars of this collection, showcasing the range and variety ofwomen’s writing. Treasures of Chawton House includes beautifully-bound first editions of Austen’s works, botanical illustrator Elizabeth Blackwell’s exquisite Curious Herbal, and first editions of the works of early feminists Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft. In the Long Gallery, an externally-curated display on the recipe books in the Chawton House collection suggests possible avenues for new research brought to light by visiting researchers in the first half of our anniversary year.
Alongside the literary women in the Chawton House Library are the women who owned and lived in the House itself. While property traditionally passed to male heirs, these women played a crucial part in its history, both before and after Jane Austen’s lifetime. From the formidable Elizabeth Knight (1674-1737), the first female squire of Chawton House, to green-fingered Florence Knight (1850-1935), to whom the development of the gardens owes a huge debt, the women of Chawton House are celebrated in the exhibition. Their lives are represented in the letters they wrote, the cookbooks they contributed to, the novels they owned and their personal notebooks, providing snapshots from Chawton’s past. On display here is our latest exciting acquisition, a music book owned and signed by Jane Austen.
“The Knight family history is at the heart of Chawton House," said Chief Executive of Chawton House, Katie Childs, "from its first owners who purchased the estate in the late 16th century and built the House that remains there today, through to Edward Austen, who became a Knight, and beyond to Montagu and Florence, who installed some of the House’s more unusual features in the 19th century.
"But the stories that are less often told are those of the women who lived at Chawton House, and who shaped it as the place that we know and love today. For the first time ever, we will be displaying the Grant of Arms alongside the gardening books kept by Adela Knight and Florence Knight, and then onto our incredible collection of women’s writing, the acquisition of which was inspired by Jane Austen’s association with the estate, and which was first revealed to the public exactly 20 years ago.”
Treasures of Chawton House runs through April 28, 2024.