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Fanny Knight

Fanny Knight

In the last two years of her life, Jane Austen wrote five letters to her niece Fanny Knight that combined true affection, detached analysis, and rare good sense.*  Austen scholar Janet Todd characterized Jane’s role as an “agony aunt” who dispensed sympathetic advice to a motherless teenager with lines that are now famous: “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor — which is one very strong argument in favor of matrimony. ” In 1814,  shortly after her first edition of Mansfield Park sold out,  Jane wrote a letter of caution to her niece Fanny Knight about marriage and affairs of the heart:

And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection; and if his deficiencies of manner, &c. &c., strike you more than all his good qualities, if you continue to think strongly of them, give him up at once…

It turns out that Fanny was never enamored enough to marry the young man. Fanny’s daughter Louisa wrote years later:

these five letters are peculiarly interesting, not only because in every line they are vividly characteristic of the writer, but because they differ from all the preceding letters in that they are written, not to an elder sister, but to a niece who constantly sought her advice and sympathy, and whom she addressed, of course, in a different manner, and from a different standpoint. The other and, naturally, to me a consideration even more important, is that, according to my humble judgment, these letters, whilst they illustrate the character of my great-aunt, cannot, when explained, do otherwise than reflect credit upon that of my beloved mother; whilst they prove the great and affectionate intimacy which existed between her and her aunt, and incidentally demonstrate the truth of a remark in one of Cassandra’s letters that there were many points of similitude in the characters of the two.

Jane’s own words to Fanny co-oberate their closeness:

“You are inimitable, irresistible. You are the delight of my life. Such letters, such entertaining letters, as you have lately sent! such a description of your queer little heart! such a lovely display of what imagination does. You are worth your weight in gold, or even in the new silver coinage.”

While Jane died young, Fanny lived to a great age. We know of Fanny’s infamous letter about her aunt written to her younger sister Marianne in 1869, over 50 years after Jane’s death, which did not exhibit the same degree of exuberant affection as Jane’s letters showed towards her niece. But Fanny’s words were written when she was an old woman who was influenced by Victorian sensibilities. In reality, the relationship between  Jane and her niece was both loving and complex, for Fanny recalled on numerous occasions her many walks with her Aunt Jane and very interesting conversations and delicious mornings.*

Learn more about their relationship in the following resources:

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