Silhouette portrait of Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra Knight

Object name: Silhouette portrait in gilt gesso frame of Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra Knight

Object number: CHWJA:JAH416

Category: Objects

Description: Silhouette portrait in gilt gesso frame of Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra Knight in the Drawing Room at Godmersham Park.  Two of the sisters (thought to be Louisa and Cassandra) are sitting, one holding needlework and the other a book. Marianne is thought to be the figure standing, holding perhaps a skein of wool.

Made: c.1825-1830

Context: The three young women depicted in the silhouette were daughters of Jane Austen’s third brother Edward and his wife Elizabeth. Marianne (1801-1896), Louisa (1804-1889) and Cassandra (1806-1842), known in the family as May, Lou and Cass, were all born at Godmersham Park in Kent, the largest of the three estates inherited by Edward. As young girls, they were well known to their Aunt Jane and are mentioned in several of her letters.

At the age of 20, Cassandra received a proposal of marriage from Lord George Hill, an Anglo-Irish nobleman, military officer and later, politician and landowner.  As the youngest son of the late 2nd Marquess of Downshire, his future depended entirely on his formidable widowed mother, who disapproved of the match. It was another eight years before Lady Downshire relented; the couple were eventually married in the fashionable St. George’s Church in Hanover Square, on a blustery October day in 1834 and settled in Ireland.  Eight years later, Cassandra died of childbirth complications just days after the birth of her fourth child.

Her unmarried sister Louisa moved to Donegal to look after the children.  In 1847, Louisa and Lord George were married. The couple travelled to Denmark to marry as the Marriage Act of 1835 prohibited marriage between a widower and his late wife’s sister on the grounds of consanguinity. Such a marriage could however still be recognised in the UK if it took place abroad.

Marianne, described as most like her Aunt Jane, was the only one of Edward and Elizabeth’s daughters not to marry.  For over 30 years, she managed the Godmersham household and cared for her aging widowed father. On Edward’s death, Godmersham was inherited by her eldest brother Edward Knight II, who upset many of his siblings by selling the estate. Marianne, with only the annuity of £200 a year left to her by her father, moved to Chawton Rectory to keep house for her brother Charles, Rector of Chawton. Sometime after his death in 1867, she moved to Ireland to be with her sister Louisa. She died in 1896 at the age of 95, the last of the eleven Godmersham siblings.

All three sisters are buried in Donegal.

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