Robert Lowth in the Chawton House Library

The Chawton House Library, which according to its website is “set in the home and working estate of Jane Austen’s brother”, that is, Edward Austen Knight, possesses three copies of Lowth’s grammar, a first edition (1762) and two so-called “New Editions, Corrected”, published in 1767 and in 1783. The first edition is the most interesting of the three, as it contains an inscription on the inside of the cover:

Hart Knatchbull her Book the/ Gift of Dr Lowth Fuaby ye 11 1762

Lowth had been acquainted with the Knatchbull family since his days as a prebendary at Durham. This I discovered in the course of my research for a paper on Lowth’s indebtedness to James Harris for a number of revisions he made to the manuscript of the grammar. Wadham Knatchbull (1707-1760) was one of Lowth’s fellow prebendaries at Durham. (The paper will be published this Spring  in a special issue on Lowth of Historiographia Linguistica.)

The inscription in the grammar shows that the acquaintance with the family continued after Wadham’s death. It also gives us somewhat more precise information about the publication of the grammar: some time before 11 February 1762. The link with the Austen family came about when Jane Austen’s niece Fanny Knight married Sir Edward Knatchbull. This was in 1820, three years after Jane Austen’s death, so too late for Jane Austen to have had the opportunity of relatively easy access to Lowth’s grammar.

But who was Harriet Knatchbull, the girl who received a copy of Lowth’s grammar? According to Deirdre LeFaye’s brief description of the Knatchbull family’s link with Jane Austen in her edition of the letters, Wadham Knatchbull had three children, Charles (b. 1747, Wyndham (b. 1750) and Catherine (b. 1753) – no Harriet, in other words. So who was she, and why did Lowth give her a copy of his grammar? The grammar appears to have been printed in only 250 copies, so this must have been a very special gift.

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