Edward Austen-Knight’s Income

The problem with Chawton estate was not lack of income, but a legal challenge to his ownership of the estate.

This situation was real and overshadowed the safety of the Chawton estate in the last few years of JA’s life, as portrayed in Miss Austen Regrets. Edward’s Godmersham estate in Kent was not affected by the legal challenge.

Deirdre le Faye in Jane Austen: A Family Record describes the problem as follows:

In addition to this unexpected bereavement, the latter part of 1814 was saddened for the Austens by an attack upon the very roots of their Chawton life – an attack which caused not only financial worries but also social embarrassment, as it came from their neighbours across the road, Mr and Miss Hinton of Chawton Lodge who, together with their nephew, James Baverstock, ‘a clever and rather scampish brewer of Alton’, brought a lawsuit against Edward for the possession of his Hampshire estates.

Under the terms of the Will of the old Mrs Knight who had entailed these lands to Mr Thomas Brodnax-May-Knight of Godmersham early in the eighteenth century, the Hinton family were to become her next heirs should his line fail. When he succeeded to her properties Mr Knight and his son, Thomas Knight ix, cut off the entail, and the present claim of the Baverstocks and Hintons rested on their being able to prove some error or inexactitude in this disentailing deed, though they were not disputing the intention of the Knights to make Edward Austen their heir.

They were not laying any claim to the Godmersham estate, which had never formed part of Mrs Elizabeth Knight’s holdings; but if they were to win their lawsuit, Edward would lose two-thirds of his property and Mrs Austen her home at Chawton Cottage.

It seems that the claimants had first made informal approaches to Edward earlier in the year, for in her letter of 5 March 1814 Jane told Cassandra: ‘Perhaps you have not heard that Edward has a good chance of escaping his Lawsuit. His opponent “knocks under”. The terms of Agreement are not quite settled.” But this was an over-optimistic belief, and a formal writ of ejectment was served upon him in mid-October. The lawsuit dragged on for several years, a source of constant unease to the family, and was not settled until April 1818, when Edward was obliged to cut a great swathe through Chawton Park Wood in order to raise £1,ooo by the sale of the timber to buy off his opponents – “that all claims on the estate should be for ever relinquished.”