Jane Austen-Donegal Love Story
When Jane Austen’s niece Anna, attempted to become a writer like her aunt, she was given two pieces of advice. One was to keep to two or three families in a country village, and the other was to avoid writing about Ireland: ‘You know nothing of the manners there,’ she was told. Austen could never have guessed that three of Anna’s cousins, Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra Knight — May, Lou and Cass — would live out their lives there, through famine, bitter land wars and political upheaval, or that they would lie buried, far from England, in almost forgotten graves.
May, Lou and Cass were the daughters of Jane Austen’s older brother, Edward. Adopted by the Knights, a wealthy childless couple of the neighbourhood, Edward eventually inherited the great house of Godmersham Park as well as the family name. It is a storyline that Austen adopted for her novel Emma. Although daughters of the great house, they would never inherit. Having not married, Jane’s niece Marianne would live out her long life as one of the overlooked heroines of the age, the maiden aunt: managing households, rearing her nieces and nephews, nursing the sick and elderly.
The younger sisters, Cass and Lou, always close, were bound by a common fate. When Cass was 20, Lord George Hill proposed marriage. As the youngest son of Lord Downshire, his future depended entirely on his widowed mother, the formidable marchioness. Her verdict on Cass: “No money – all charms.” But Cass, like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, held to love even when all hope seemed lost. Lord George devoted himself to his career. When he returned eight years later, he proposed again, this time successfully. Cass married Lord George, in a grand society wedding at St. George’s, Hanover Square, on a blustery October day in 1834. It should have been joyous. Yet, the weeks and days before, full of whirling autumn storms, rainswept journeys and catastrophes seem more like a tale by Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens than Jane Austen. Cassandra ‘looked like a victim’, her brother Charles wrote, ‘as if she was going to be buried alive’. It was an inauspicious beginning. This young couple was about to leave for Ireland, where the inevitability of dangerous times was a given.
Eight years later Cassandra died, suddenly, following the birth of her fourth child. It fell to her younger sister Lou to leave her family, move to Ireland and bring up her sister’s four children. By 1847, she and Lord George were married. It was a marriage that caused much discussion and distress, unlawful in Victorian England.
Meanwhile, Lord George’s own circumstances had changed. Following his mother’s death, in 1836, he had inherited enough to invest in a large estate in the remote hinterland of Gweedore, to which he now removed his entire family. A memorial in the small Anglican church in Bunbeg records how Lord George “devoted his life and fortune to civilize Gweedore and to raise its people to a higher social and moral level”. The phrasing of the memorial exposes much about the troubled relations between Ireland, England and the British Empire. How these histories are straddled by this one family, eventually involving all three Austen nieces, is exceptional. Many of its plots and subplots already appear in Austen’s novels. The graves of the Knight sisters can be found near Ballyare, Donegal and in Letterkenny.
Author Sophia Hillan has explored the history of this family in her publication: “May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s nieces in Ireland”.