A complete set of Jane Austen’s novels from her family’s library has today returned home all the way from Texas, USA. This was a remarkable surprise gift to Chawton House Library from collector Sandra Clark.
The books, dated 1833, were present in the Library at Chawton House until at least 1908. It is not known exactly when they were sold out of the Knight family or what route they took around the globe. What is known is that they were recently discovered in South Texas. Today, they have returned home at the start of what is a special anniversary year for Jane Austen.
The collection features the bookplate of Montagu George Knight (1844-1914), the son of Jane Austen’s nephew, Edward Knight. They are a complete set of the first English edition by Richard Bentley of Austen’s six novels. This set is significant, not only as a family copy, but also because Bentley’s decision to republish Jane Austen’s works as part of his ‘Standard Novels’ series helped establish her place as an important writer in the literary canon. It was the first reprinting after her death, making her novels widely available to a Victorian audience. This was an early step towards the huge popularity that her work would later enjoy.
An unexpected find
Janine Barchas is a Professor at the University of Texas, and a Board member of the North American Friends of Chawton House Library. She explains: ‘The story of this serendipitous rediscovery is too delicious not to share. It may also inspire other bibliophiles to re-peruse their shelves and those of book dealers for the hundreds of missing Knight family books that have strayed from home. Ms Clark, who lives in Texas, has been collecting Austen editions for over forty years, encouraged by her late husband Robert.
She generously invited me to take a look at a few of them for a project on Austen that I am researching… after I mentioned an interest in the Bentley reprintings, she pulled this 1833 set off a shelf for me to study during my stay. She had not remembered it being an association copy and reached for it without much preamble or fanfare. But when we opened up the first volume in the set, we both grew quiet at the sight of the book label. We quickly inspected all the other volumes to confirm that every volume was a Knight-family copy of Austen.’
Janine adds, ‘Here was a family copy that had, miraculously, found its way to the shelves of a collector in
Texas. That’s when Sandra smiled at me and said, “this one really should go home.”’
On display soon
Visitors will be able to see these remarkable books as part of the exhibition ‘Fickle Fortunes: Jane Austen and Germaine de Staël’ taking place at Chawton House Library from 12 June to 24 September 2017. The exhibition is included in the price of admission. There will be first editions and manuscript material on display, along with a personal letter written by Jane Austen and never exhibited before.
Find out more: read Janine’s full article about these unique books and their journey back home here.