Watercolour of Fanny Knight, by Cassandra Austen

Object name: Watercolour portrait of Frances (Fanny) Catherine Knight by Cassandra Austen.

Object number: CHWJA:JAH170

Category: Objects

Description: A watercolour drawing of Jane Austen’s eldest niece, Fanny Catherine Austen (1793-1882), who changed her surname to Knight in 1812 on her father inheriting the Knight estates.  The drawing is by her aunt, Cassandra Austen.  The portrait shows a slender young girl of perhaps around 12 to 14 years of age in a high-waisted dress with her light brown hair held up in a comb.  She is sitting at a small circular table painting with an open paint box beside her.   The portrait may be the one that Fanny referred to in her diary entry of 3rd September 1805 – ‘Aunt Cassandra took my likeness’.

Made: Early 19th century

Context: Fanny, the subject of the drawing, was the eldest of Jane Austen’s many nieces and nephews and the first of eleven children born to Jane’s third brother Edward and his wife Elizabeth.   Jane was just 17 years old and Cassandra 20 when Fanny was born.  Fanny was very close to her Aunts when young; in a letter from Jane to Cassandra in October 1808, Jane wrote:

‘I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another Sister, & could not ever have supposed that a neice (sic) would ever have been so much to me.’

Fanny’s life was to be one of maternal responsibilities.  When her mother died in 1808, Fanny became at the age of 15 a mother substitute for her 10 younger siblings.  On her marriage to the widowed Sir Edward Knatchbull in 1820, she became step-mother to the six children from his first marriage and went on to have 9 children of her own.

In her early 20’s Fanny sought advice from her Aunt Jane about a suitor; in a letter dated November 1814, Jane advised her niece that:

‘Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.’

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen has Jane Bennett give very similar advice to Lizzy when she reveals her love for Darcy:

‘Oh, Lizzy! Do anything rather than marry without affection.’

It seems likely that Jane applied this maxim to her own life, in particular her short-lived engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither.

Jane’s sister Cassandra was a keen amateur artist; her two drawings of her sister Jane are the only known contemporary images of the author. Cassandra also illustrated Jane’s juvenile work The History of England with small circular drawings of the monarchs, several of which are thought to resemble members of the Austen family.

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