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Edward Austen Knight's Godmersham Library and Jane Austen's Emma.

IN AUSTEN 'S NOVELS, the details matter. Ever the mistress of verbal economy, things--Elizabeth Bennet's dirty petticoat, Sir Walter Elliot's mirrors, and Fanny Price's cross--convey necessary details about Austen's characters. By telling us what books her characters read, Austen shows us how to read her characters. Using Emma as a test case of sorts, I want to provide an introduction to a new resource that can help us interpret allusions to what Austen's characters are reading: the Knight Collection.

Comprised of books once owned by Jane Austen's brother Edward Austen Knight, the Knight Collection is an invaluable resource for those interested in studying the Austen family's reading habits. The collection has recently been loaned to the Chawton House Library by Richard Knight, a descendant of Jane Austen's wealthy sibling (a fitting partnership, as the library itself is housed in the Chawton House estate inhabited by several generations of the Knight family). This collection suggests some possible connections between Edward Austen Knight's Godmersham library and Jane Austen's literary influences. Information in the Godmersham Park Library Catalogue not only sheds light on some ambiguous textual references in Austen's writing but also aids in interpreting men's and women's reading habits in Emma.

Edward Austen Knight inherited three estates from Thomas Knight II: Steventon, Chawton, and Godmersham. The current Knight Collection at the Chawton House Library contains volumes from both Godmersham Park and Chawton House as the two libraries were probably combined at Chawton sometime in the mid-1800s, around the time that the Godmersham estate was sold. (1) Many changes to the collection have occurred since the early nineteenth century: books were added to both estate libraries after Jane Austen's death; unfortunately, many volumes were sold throughout the twentieth century. At just under three thousand volumes representing a little over fifteen hundred titles, the current Knight Collection represents only a fraction of the works that the libraries of Godmersham and Chawton once contained (Scott).

Although we no longer have access to the complete collection as it existed in Jane Austen's day, the Godmersham Park Library Catalogue provides a list of the volumes in the library shortly after the time of Jane Austen's death. The handwritten manuscript contains vital information about the books to which the author would have had access when visiting her brother's estate. The catalogue is dated 1818, but it was likely a project that continued into the 1820s and beyond as it does contain references to books published as late as the 1840s. There are two volumes: the first arranged roughly alphabetically, the second by shelf location. (2) Both volumes seem to have been completed by the same unknown hand although there are a few additions made by a second hand. Close to twelve hundred titles are listed in the catalogue, the majority of which would have been in the library at Godmersham during Jane Austen's visits. Approximately one-third of the titles listed in the catalogue are represented in the current Knight Collection. (3)

Jane Austen spent time at Godmersham Park, and it is clear from her letters that the library was a regularly used space in the home. In an 1813 letter Jane Austen writes, "We live in the Library except at Meals & have a fire every [Even.sup.g]" (23-24 September). In a subsequent letter written during the same visit, the central role of the library becomes more evident when Austen describes the arrival of her brother Charles Austen and his family. After meeting the visitors "in the Hall" the group immediately retires to "the Library." Later, the party "walk[ed] about from one part of the House to the other," but the family convened in the library again after dinner (14-15 October 1813). Jane Austen seems to have also enjoyed spending time alone in the library. In the aforementioned letter of 23-24 September, Jane Austen writes, "I am now alone in the Library, Mistress of all I survey." And in another letter written during this same visit, Austen emphasizes the luxury of being alone in the library: "I am all alone. Edward is gone into his Woods.--At this present time I have five Tables, Eight & twenty Chairs & two fires all to myself" (3 November 1813). (4)

Evidence also exists in Jane Austen's letters to suggest that reading was an important, ongoing communal activity in the Godmersham household. An 1808 letter to her sister Cassandra refers to Jane's plan to make herself useful by volunteering to take the place of Louisa Bridges (Edward's sister-in-law), who "sometimes hears the little girls read" (15-17 June). During the same visit, the novelist refers to her brother James Austen's habit of reading Sir Walter Scott's Marmion "aloud in the [Even.sup.g]" (20-22 June). The exact volume that James Austen was reading does not appear in the Godmersham catalogue (the edition of Marmion listed was published in 1810 whereas the letter is dated 1808). The mention of Scott is significant, however, as he was evidently one of the authors prized at Godmersham. Scott's The Vision of Don Roderick (1815) (5) is listed in the catalogue as one of only eight titles placed in the drawing room. This rare honor was also bestowed on two of Maria Edgeworth's works, Patronage (1814) and Tales of Fashionable Life (1809). As we might expect, the other five distinguished books were first editions of Jane Austen's novels.

Many of the specific titles that Jane Austen mentions in her letters from Godmersham are listed in the library catalogue, confirming that she and other visitors made extensive use of the estate library. For example, Austen writes that she is "looking over Self Control again" (11-12 Oct 1813), and Self Control (1811) is listed in the catalogue. In a letter written during the same visit, Austen reports that Mr. Lushington "got a vol. of Milton last night & spoke of it with Warmth" (14-15 October 1813). Several volumes by John Milton appear in the catalogue, including Paradise Lost (1751), Paradise Regained (1743), and State Papers (1743).

As appears to be the case with Scott's Marmion, however, some titles read by Jane Austen at Godmersham were either no longer stored at tire estate at the time the catalogue was written or never part of the Godmersham library. Such may be the case with Crabbe's The Borough (1810). Evidently answering a question posed by Cassandra regarding Crabbe, Jane Austen writes from Godmersham, "No; I have never seen the death of Mrs Crabbe. I have only just been making out from one of his prefaces that he probably was married" (21 October 1813). Deirdre Le Faye's edition of Jane Austen's Letters cites R. W. Chapman's idea that this reference could be to the preface of The Borough published in 1810 (425), but I have not been able to find The Borough or any of Crabbe's works listed in the Godmersham catalogue.

While the catalogue raises many new questions, it also provides ready answers to previous mysteries, such as the following cryptic reference to a book Jane Austen was reading at Godmersham with her niece Fanny Knight: "Fanny & I are to go on with Modern Europe together, but hitherto have advanced only 25 Pages, something or other has always happened to delay or curtail the reading hour" (23-24 September 1813). Le Faye suggests that Austen's reference to "Modern Europe" may indicate that she was reading John Bigland's Letters on the Modern History and Political Aspect of Europe, published in 1804 (421). A reference in the catalogue to "Russell's Modern Europe," published in London in 1810, however, suggests that Jane Austen and her niece were reading William Russell's The history of modern Europe: with an account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire; a view of the progress of society, from the rise of the modern kingdoms to the peace of Paris in 1763: in a series of letters from a nobleman to his son: a new edition, with a continuation, extending to the Treaty of Amiens, in 1802.6 Researchers can now use the catalogue as a tool to help identify uncertain references in Austen's writing.


As Jane Austen's letters indicate, the library at Godmersham clearly influenced her personal reading habits. It is also likely, therefore, that the Godmersham library serves as a kind of model for the libraries in her novels. I suggest that the Knight collection can teach us about the kinds of books we could expect to find in the libraries of the novels' fictional estates, such as Donwell Abbey and Hartfield. Just as we can use the Godmersham catalogue to identify somewhat cryptic references in Austen's letters--such as "Modern Europe"--we may also be able to use the manuscript to understand the more obscure references to reading material in Austen's fictional works.


The Godmersham catalogue, for example, provides a means to discern some of the vague references to women's reading central to the plot of Emma. Mrs. Weston defends Emma's relationship with Harriet by arguing that the friendship will induce Emma to "'read more'" (36). In response, Knightley complains that although Emma has repeatedly drawn up reading lists over the years, she has yet to complete the reading. During this conversation readers get a sense of a tension that will escalate throughout the novel. Because Knightley is ardently invested in Emma's becoming a better person, he is most keenly frustrated when she fails to attain her laudable goals:

"Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through-and very good lists they were--very well chosen, and very neatly arranged--sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen--I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma." (37)

When Knightley discloses that he preserved the list that Emma drew up at the young age of fourteen, he foreshadows the romance plot that will unfold. This passage also serves as an indicator of Knightley's character--specifically in terms of the extent to which he views himself as Emma's mentor.

The Godmersham catalogue may provide some clues as to what kinds of books on Emma's list could have evoked Knightley's praise of her judgment. One likely title is The Ladies Library (1751). The 1751 edition listed in the catalogue is the sixth edition of this text published by Sir Richard Steele, and volumes two and three of this edition remain in the Knight Collection to this day. If Emma were to read through these volumes, she would indeed receive some pertinent advice. The thirty-six-page section on "The Daughter" in volume two is particularly relevant for Emma as it canvasses the following subjects: not marrying against a parent's consent, the dangers of unequal and imprudent matches, and avoiding idleness by cultivating serious occupations such as music. Additionally, daughters are told not to "despise or contemn" their parents due to "any Pretence of Infirmity in them" (1). The author continues, "if indeed they have Infirmities, it must be our Business to cover and conceal them," adding that "this must be done in such a manner as even themselves might not behold it" (1).

Emma's most redeeming quality is her loving attitude towards her father, and she seems to follow the advice in The Ladies Library with regard to her relationship with him. Perhaps it is telling that this philosophy--which she perfectly emulates--comes at the very beginning of the essay located at the very beginning of volume two. This placement ensures that even a reader who, like Emma, does not generally read beyond the first chapters of books will hear its advice. (7) Although Emma is keenly aware of her father's infirmities, she does what she can to "cover" the negative effects of his hypochondria. Consider, for example, Emma's attempts to provide her father's guests with proper nourishment before she leaves for the Coles' party so that they will not be limited to foods appealing to his peculiarly bland palate:
 Her father's comfort was amply secured, Mrs. Bates as well as Mrs.
 Goddard being able to come; and her last pleasing duty, before she
 left the house, was to pay her respects to them as they sat
 together after dinner; and while her father was fondly noticing the
 beauty of her dress, to make the two ladies all the amends in her
 power, by helping them to large slices of cake and full glasses of
 wine, for whatever unwilling self-denial his care of their
 constitution might have obliged them to practise during the
 meal.--She had provided a plentiful dinner for them; she wished she
 could know that they had been allowed to eat it. (213)

Emma supplies the guests with food while her father is "fondly noticing the beauty of her dress." By waiting until her father is distracted, Emma ensures that he will not notice her attempts to conceal his faults. Additionally, the narrator's phrase "last pleasing duty" indicates that Emma does not despise her father for his behavior.

The discussion of men's reading habits also plays an important role in the plot of Emma though the majority of the titles the men read are unnamed. When Mrs. Weston suggests that Mr. Knightley may be developing a romantic interest in Jane Fairfax, Emma responds with a list of Mr. Knightley's known interests: "'He is as happy as possible by himself; with his farm, and his sheep, and his library, and all the parish to manage; and he is extremely fond of his brother's children. He has no occasion to marry, either to fill up his time or his heart'" (225). Wishful thinking on Emma's part motivates this speech as she does not want to admit that Mr. Knightley could be romantically interested in Jane Fairfax. But the novel supports Emma's list of Knightley's concerns; we can take Emma at her word that Knightley prizes the activity of reading.

The books Mr. Martin reads are also of great interest to Emma. When she quizzes Harriet about Mr. Martin's reading habits in order to suggest that he is "'not a man of information beyond the line of his own business,'" we discover that he reads selections from Elegant Extracts aloud to the women in the house. Harriet also remembers that he has read Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield. But Austen refrains from listing the titles of other books that he reads. Harriet recalls, "'He reads the Agricultural Reports and some other books, that lay in one of the window seats--but he reads all them to himself'" (29). Because Harriet is not able to specify the kinds of books that are in the window seat, Emma makes negative assumptions about Mr. Martin's reading habits. Alter seeing Mr. Martin, Emma calls him "'illiterate and coarse,'" asking, "'What has he to do with books?'" (34). Her rhetorical question betrays that she bases her assumptions about Mr. Martin's reading habits on her preconceptions about his social status and character. Knightley later characterizes Mr. Martin as an "'intelligent gentleman-farmer,'" confirming that Emma applies circular logic in discussing Mr. Martin's reading habits (62).

The Godmersham library catalogue can provide us with a means to think about men's reading habits in Emma. Mr. Knightley and Mr. Martin share a genuine interest in farming, and it therefore stands to reason that both would be drawn to various books on the subject. Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan suggest that the "Agricultural Reports" read by Robert Martin could be William Stevenson's General View of the Agriculture of the County of Surrey (542). No such title exists in the Godmersham catalogue, but it does contain farming texts spanning a wide range of dates, suggesting that various owners of Godmersham Park had at least some degree of interest in learning about farming principles. These titles include Fuller's Animal Economy (1705), (8) Bradley on Gardening (1717), Miller's Garden Calendar (1732), Complete Farmer (1767), Abercromby on Gardening (1784), Planting and Gardening (1785), Anderson's Essay on Agriculture (1800), and Young's Farmer's Calendar (1805). Unfortunately, none of these titles is represented in the current Knight Collection.

In this short essay I have only been able to provide a brief introduction to the Knight Collection before suggesting a few examples of the ways in which this resource can widen our understanding of Jane Austen's literary influences. Innumerable questions remain. Consider, for example, some of the other references to reading in Emma: What does Mr. Elton read to Emma and Harriet as Emma completes her sketch (47)? What are the "books of engravings" with which Mr. Knightley entertains Mr. Woodhouse at Donwell (362)? What books does the party at Donwell consult when "looking over views in Swisserland" (364)? Austen's contemporaries would likely have filled in these gaps with their ready knowledge of the libraries of Regency-era estates. I hope that this study will spur more research, contextualizing these kinds of references for the benefit of Jane Austen's twenty-first-century readers.

I would like to thank the Chawton House Library ( and Richard Knight for kind permission to refer to the Knight Collection and to reproduce images from the Godmersham Park Library Catalogue. Thanks to Jacqui Grainger and Sarah Parry for the images, and to Sarah for sharing her knowledge of the Knight Collection and estate libraries. Special thanks to librarian Helen Scott for her active and ongoing support of this study: her knowledge of the Knight Collection has been an invaluable resource. My research on the Knight Collection began during the 2006 JASNA International Visitor Program and continued during a 2007 trip supported by a JAS Travel Bursary: my thanks to JASNA and JAS. I also wish to thank Kathryn Strong and Ruth Blandon tbr feedback during the drafting process, as well as Persuasions editor Susan Allen Ford and the anonymous reviewer of this article for their very helpful suggestions.


Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1997.

--. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Cronin, Richard, and Dorothy McMillan, eds. Emma. Cambridge: CUP, 2005.

Godmersham Park Library Catalogue (1818-c. 1840). 2 vols. Bound ms. Chawton House Library, Chawton, UK.

--. ts. Chawton House Library, Chawton, UK.

Knight Collection Contents. ts. Chawton House Library, Chawton, UK.

The Ladies Library. 6th ed. Vol. 2. London, 1751.

Nicolson, Nigel. Godmersham Park Kent: Before, During and After Jane Austen's Time. 1996. Alton: JAS, 2003.

Scott, Helen. E-mail to the author. 9 Aug. 2007.


(1.) When the Godmersham books were brought to Chawton is not known, but Chawton House librarian Helen Scott suggests it transpired between 1852 and 1874. Edward Austen Knight (who was living at Godmersham) died in 1852; the Godmersham estate was sold in 1874. The two libraries were probably collapsed into one collection at Chawton House during this transition. Scott adds that the shelves in the downstairs reading room at Chawton House "date from the late nineteenth century"--another piece of evidence suggesting that the collections from both estates were combined at Chawton around that time.

(2.) While conducting my research, I worked from the manuscript volume arranged by shelf location. l also relied heavily on typescripts, compiled by the CHL stafff, of the manuscript volume and of the contents of the current Knight Collection.

(3.) This rough estimate is based on a project I worked on during the 2006 JASNA International Visitor Program. In cases where one or more volumes are missing from a multivolume set, I count the title as being represented.

(4.) In her notes on this letter, Le Faye concurs with Nicolson's surmise that the mention of the "two fires" betrays the fact that Jane Austen was sitting in the library, the only room in the house with two fireplaces (Letters 426, Nicolson 22).

(5.) The title of the entry simply reads "Roderick 2 vols."

(6.) The entry in the catalogue reads "Russels" rather than "Russell's," likely a spelling mistake by the catalogue's author.

(7.) Mr. Knightley is correct in predicting that Emma's relationship with Harriet will fail to conjure any regular reading habits: Emma's "views of improving her little friend's mind, by a great deal of useful reading and conversation, had never yet led to more than a few first chapters, and the intention of going on to-morrrow" (69).

(8.) The entry title reads "Fullers," but this is likely another mistake: it probably refers to Francis Fuller's Medicina Gymnastica: or, a treatise concerning the power of exercise, with respect to the animal econonomy, etc.

Alice Marie Villasenor is finishing a dissertation, "Women Readers and the Victorian Jane Austen," at the University of Southern California. She is Co-Vice President of the JASNA Southwest region and was the 2006 JASNA International Visitor.
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Title Annotation:AGM 2007: Vancouver
Author:Villasenor, Alice Marie
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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