This blog is the result of a journey made this past summer into the county of Kent, camera in hand and ready to bring Fanny Austen back to Godmersham Park, the estate of her brother-in-law, Edward Knight.
Jane Austen herself had testified to the pleasures of life at Godmersham. She praised the “Elegance and Ease and Luxury” and confided to her sister, Cassandra, that she intended to “eat Ice & drink French wine and be above Vulgar Economy” (Jane to Cassandra, 1 July 1808).” What defined Fanny Austen experiences when she visited Godmersham with Charles and their children in 1812 and 1813?
I like to think how Fanny might have felt as she approached Godmersham for the first time in mid-July 1812. It must have been an awkward, tiring journey from her home aboard HMS Namur to the Knight’ s estate, situated eight miles south of Canterbury, Kent. Yet she surely felt a measure of anticipation as their destination came closer. Just after the village of Chilham, the carriage traversed Godmersham’s landscaped park, with its views of sheep grazing in the meadows, a browsing herd of 600 fallow deer and wooded downlands rising in folds to the west. Soon Fanny caught sight of the handsome, red brick eighteenth-century Palladian-style house, built in the 1730s by Thomas Brodnax and later enlarged in the 1780s.
On entering the house through a handsome pedimented doorway, Fanny found herself in an elegant front hall. It was decorated with fine white plaster work, beautifully carved wood, and insert statuary (Fig .7), and a magnificent white marble mantlepiece. The overall effect of the room was of light, luxury and refinement. Nor did the nearby drawing room disappoint. It was enhanced by a voluptuous frieze in which scallop shells and acanthus leaves alternated with female masks. Elsewhere the design incorporated motifs of musical instruments and baskets of fruit and flowers. It is unlikely that Fanny had ever been in a house of this size and grandeur. She must have been in awe of what she saw.
Once settled, Fanny found herself introduced to the recreational pleasures of the estate and the neighbourhood. One day her niece and hostess, Fanny Knight, arranged an outing to the nearby cathedral town of Canterbury, and on another she walked “Uncle Chas. and At. Fanny,” as she called them, to the top of the North Downs so that they could admire the view.
The surrounds of the house were very pleasing. One could amble along the River Stour or stroll in the gardens, the lime walk and the shrubberies.
Another pleasing destination was the ornamental Grecian temple, built by the Knights in the 18th century. This was reached by walking to the top of a small hill, quite close to the house. Family tradition records that Jane Austen liked to take her current manuscript to this summer house, as it was a place of seclusion.
Fanny was also treated to a ride in her brother-in-law, Edward Knight’s, personal carriage. He took her to nearby Eastwell Park, home to the Finch-Hatton family, an estate admired for its deer park, fine oaks, beeches and ancient yew trees.
Yet, from Fanny Austen’s point of view, Godmersham offered more than superior creature comforts. Her next visit in mid-October 1813 was particularly significant as it afforded her the close company of another guest, Jane Austen. Jane described the arrival and reception of Fanny and her family. “We met them in the Hall, the Woman and girl part of us [herself and Fanny Knight] … It was quite an evening of confusion. – at first we were all walking from one part of the house to another - then came a fresh dinner for Charles and his wife [Fanny] in the breakfast room - then we moved to the library, were joined by the Dining Room people, were introduced & so forth- & then we had Tea and Coffee which was not over til past 10 …. Edward, Charles and the two Fannys [Fanny Austen and Fanny Knight] & I sat snugly talking. (Jane to her sister Cassandra, 15 October 1813)
Jane’s letters from Godmersham to Cassandra speak of Fanny in familiar terms. Fanny is referred to as “Mrs Fanny,” one of the “two Fannys,” “Fanny Senior, “[Cassy’s] Mama,” and part of “the Charleses” (Jane to Cassandra (15, 18, 26 October 1813). Jane commends Fanny’s choice of dress and appearance and describes her as being “just like her own nice self” (Jane to Cassandra, 15 October). Jane, it seems, had a warm and affectionate attitude to Fanny.
During their overlapping visit to Godmersham Fanny and Jane had plenty of time for conversation. There is no knowing what they may have discussed but they had mutual interests in various topics. Jane was keenly interested in Charles’s career and his well-being. Fanny no doubt shared with Jane her worries about the state of Charles’s naval career and his hopes for a North American posting together with a commission into an active fighting vessel.
Additionally, during the year five-year old Cassy Austen had been spending weeks with her aunts, Jane and Cassandra at Chawton Cottage, away from her floating makeshift home aboard HMS Namur off the Kent coast. Fanny did not like to have her children aboard when winter weather brought frigid temperatures and harsh gales. Moreover, whatever the season, Cassy Austen was very prone to sea sickness. Fanny was grateful that her eldest child was made so welcome at Chawton Cottage. Perhaps, she and Jane discussed how these visits were working out as well as Fanny’s plans for beginning Cassy’s education in reading and writing.
Jane and Fanny also had in common a keen interest in the navy. On this topic Fanny had first hand information she could share with Jane. For example, since August Charles had been encouraging a young midshipman, who had recently joined the Namur. He would also be known to Fanny, as she regularly took an interest in the young trainee officers aboard Charles’s vessels.
This boy was also of interest to Jane; she refers to him as “Young Kendall (Jane to Cassandra, 15 October 1813). At the time, Jane was bringing Mansfield Park to completion. Its cast of characters includes midshipman, William Price. As Jane was scrupulously accurate about naval details in her novels, it would not be surprising if she was curious to learn from Fanny about the experiences and education of an actual midshipman.
About this time Jane was probably thinking ahead to her next novel, Emma, possibly even making preparatory notes. The novel contains a reference to the seaside resort of Southend, a place where Fanny had spent some previous months with her children and parents. In Emma, the John Knightley family make an autumn visit to “South End”, an expedition strenuously recommended by their apothecary, Mr. Wingfield, who prescribed “for all the children, but particularly for the weakness in little Bella’s throat, – both sea air and sea bathing” (Emma, ch. 12). Obviously, Fanny was equipped to explain to Jane the amenities of Southend, to extol the benefits of sea air and to describe the modern bathing facilities.
Godmersham Park was altogether a happy family community for Fanny to visit, where she could appreciate luxurious country living, and enjoy Jane Austen’s company in conversation over their familial and naval interests.
Photo Credits: Hugh and Sheila Kindred, except Fig. 1: The Godmersham Park Heritage Centre and Fig. 8: Courtesy of a private collection.