May, Lou & Cass: Jane Austen's Nieces in Ireland

Author Sophia Hillan on the three women whose lives repeated the passions and travails of their aunt's novels

Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra Knight were nieces of the great novelist who gave us such elegant and witty narratives of romance and manners as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility.

It was Jane Austen, after all, who gave us Mr Darcy – brooding, rich, handsome in his jodphurs – and Elizabeth Bennet, sharp-tongued, poised and unquestionably one of literature’s most famous heroines.

Austen's work still informs the romances found in contemporary novels and cinema: she set the vocabulary, was ever a champion of the opinionated woman who holds out for love (without forgetting the importance of financial security), and discoursed so wonderfully on single men in want of wives, whether they be florid clergymen, reserved blackguards or, in the case of Mr Darcy, dashing and deserving.

May, Lou and Cass were daughters of Austen’s brother, Edward. She read and sewed with them, took them to the theatre, fussed over them as aunts will; they are often mentioned in her letters. When Austen died in 1817 they were still young girls, but they would value her legacy greatly.

Belfast writer and academic Sophia Hillan, formerly associate director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, has researched the life and times of May, Lou and Cass, their relationship with their famous aunt, how they came to reside in Donegal and, most interestingly, the way their lives came to uncannily resonate with the plots and themes of Austen’s fiction.

In order to write her accessible and compelling study, Sophia drew on a range of previously unpublished diaries, manuscripts and letters.

It was in a footnote to an edition of Jane Austen’s letters that the author first found a reference to the marriage of her niece, Cass to Lord George Hill of Gweedore, Donegal. It was this reference that sparked her interest in Austen’s connections to Ireland.

'It was fascinating to visit the rooms where Jane Austen wrote and lived and to read her letters and diaries,' Hillan beams. 'And here I found an image of the three nieces together: May, Lou and Cass.

'What most fascinates me is how they seem to live out the plots of Jane Austen’s novels. Handsome noblemen, dashing officers and penurious clergymen sought her nieces’ hands. Just like Austen’s cherished heroines, they knew the pains of blighted love and the joy of patience rewarded.'

Hillan finds wonderful parallels with the novels. 'What happened to Cassandra and Lord George, for example: his mother, Lady Downshire of the Hillsboroughs, forbade their match and they were parted because he had no money.

'This is like Persuasion or like Pride and Prejudice. Lady Downshire seems to have been a real Lady Catherine de Bourgh type. She said of Cassandra: "No money, all charms." And that was the match called off.

'Then eight years later, Cass was about to marry someone else and Jane Austen’s sister persuaded her not to, the mother relented, Lord George came back, went galloping up to her cottage and they finally married.'

It was because of Lord George that they came to Donegal when Ireland was a troubled nation, riven by famine and plagued by land wars. This was worlds away, in many respects, from ordered Regency England and the Austen homesteads of Chawton, Hampshire Godersham, Kent.

May, Lou & Cass is therefore also a rich examination of Irish history in this period and the ways in which events in Regency England shaped its course. Until now, few have considered how Jane Austen’s heritage reached across to Ireland, and what Hillan reveals is that, in fact, the author’s links with this part of the world are surprisingly entrenched.

One of the descendants of Edward Knight, father of May, Lou and Cass, is Timothy Knatchbull, son of Lord Mountbatten. The graves of the Knight girls can be found near Ballyare, Donegal and in Letterkenny. 'Jane Austen’s nieces eventually made Ireland their home and so it was natural that they should be buried here,' Hillan affirms.

The book is a fascinating trajectory of elopements, love matches, evictions, scandals and sorrows, and while much resonates with the novels, some of it, as the author suggests, 'was beyond even the realm of their aunt's extensive imagination'.

But this beautifully written and meticulously researched study also considers the cultural differences between Georgian England and the turbulence of 19th century Ireland, the manners of an era when 'politeness was all' and the difficulties of love at a time when women were coerced to marry for financial gain and reputation.

Austen, writes Hillan, may have found it strange to think of her nieces making their way to live on that 'incomprehensible island, where French ideals of liberty fired the imagination not only of the poor and downtrodden, but also of members of the aristocracy and the landed gentry'.

As the book reveals, in time the children of convicted rebels prepared to attempt the overthrow of the British establishment, would be trusted friends of the great author's family in Ireland.

But fans of Jane Austen will perhaps most marvel at the nieces’ glimpses of the writer at home, at her leisure and at her work. We catch her in the round, during moments of thought and private amusement.

Lou says of her aunt in one letter, conjuring her most vividly for the reader: 'She had large dark eyes and a brilliant complexion, and long, long black hair down to her knees. She was very absent indeed. She would sit silent awhile, then rub her hands, laugh to herself and run up to her room...'

Lou Knight even recounts witnessing a heated argument between Jane and her sister Cassandra on the ending of Mansfield Park: Cassandra vehemently wanted it changed to allow Mr Crawford to marry Fanny Price, but Jane stood firm and opposed any alterations to her narrative.

Marianne, who according to Hillan 'was always thought to be most like her aunt Jane and had the same turn of wit' has similarly compelling recollections.

'Aunt Jane would sit quietly working beside the fire in the library,' she writes, 'saying nothing for a good while, and then would suddenly burst out laughing, jump up and run across the room to a table where pens and paper were lying, write something down, and then come back to the fire and go on working as before'.

The nieces were blessed with such visions of the grand dame of romantic fiction at her craft, and through Hillan's hard work, now we, her readers, are too.

May, Lou & Cass by Sophia Hillan is published by Blackstaff Press, priced £16.99. For more information visit www.blackstaffpress.com.