The independent voice of cricket

Wisden Almanack 2023

Knight, of the round stable: Cricket and Jane Austen – Almanack

by Emma John 15 minute read

Emma John’s piece on cricket and Jane Austen originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.

On the fringes of the South Downs, a mile or so from Alton, sits Chawton House. The handsome Hampshire manor dates back to the 1580s, with wood-panelled rooms and imposing fireplaces that whisk you back to the first Elizabethan era. For thousands of literary pilgrims who visit each year, it holds another appeal: the estate was once owned by Edward Knight, brother of Jane Austen, and a short walk from its front door is the cottage in which she lived and wrote her most famous novels.

In April 2022 – as Hampshire played Lancashire 25 miles away, in Southampton – Chawton House mounted an exhibition exploring its sporting heritage. And while it couldn’t offer definitive proof that Austen was a solid opening bat or a gun at cover, the story of her family’s passion for cricket did unveil an intriguing legacy.


It is a surprise that sportswriters have failed to probe her connection with the game, given the frequent references to it in her works. Elizabeth Bennett is surely recalling her experiences of country house matches when she asks: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours?” Emma Woodhouse can be thinking only of controversial new short formats when she posits that “one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other”, while it is a truth universally acknowledged, in the opening line of Pride and Prejudice, that a single gentleman in possession of a Gray-Nicolls Powerspot must be in search of a hundred.

Or possibly not. There’s only a single mention of cricket in Austen’s entire oeuvre, in the description of Catherine Morland, who “was fond of all boys’ plays, and greatly preferred cricket” to more suitable pursuits for a girl (these apparently included playing with dolls, nursing dormice, and feeding canaries). Enjoying cricket isn’t a sign of good taste, but proof that Northanger Abbey’s protagonist is an unnatural and unlikely literary heroine, who fails to conform to the sensitive and demure model of womanhood.

Still, Morland was the most autobiographical of Austen’s characters – and the suggestion lingers that Jane was recalling youthful ventures of her own with bat and ball. “It was not very wonderful,” Austen archly writes, “that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.”

This little snippet is also a rebuke to the widespread assumption that female interest in cricket is a relatively recent phenomenon. Girls and women were playing matches nearly 150 years before the establishment of the first female clubs in the late 19th century. Their efforts were also respectfully received: the first record of a women’s village match, reported by The Reading Mercury in 1745, notes that “the girls bowled, batted, ran and catched as well as most men could do in that game”.

Hampshire, Austen’s home county, became a hotspot for women’s cricket, and the game increasingly popular among “ladies of quality and fashion”, the class from which she drew so many of her characters. The exhibits at Chawton House included a small decorative box that would have sat on a woman’s dressing table holding her “beauty patches”. On the lid was a scene from a cricket match and the words “A Present from Sevenoaks” – so at least someone in the Kent souvenir business was convinced women were into cricket.

It wasn’t until the uptight Victorian era that women were edged out of the game. Some of the Georgian enthusiasts had actually encouraged female takeup, such as the Duke of Dorset, who wrote to a number of his women friends: “What is human life but a game of cricket? And, if so, why should not the ladies play at it as well as we?… Let your sex go on and assert their right to every pursuit that does not debase the mind. Go on, and attach yourselves to the athletic.” (A notorious philanderer, Dorset couldn’t resist the opportunity to spice up his letter. “An expert female will long hold the ball in play, and carefully keep it from the wicket,” he wrote, “for when the wicket is once knocked down, the game of matrimony begins and that of love ends.” Even Austen never wrote a metaphor that flirty.)

Austen was 18 when the first of her nephews, Edward, was born, and George, his brother, followed only a year later. They were the “heir and spare” to her brother Edward’s lands in Hampshire and Kent, two of 11 children he would have with his wife, Elizabeth (the family name was legally changed from Austen to Knight as a condition of inheritance). From a young age, Edward and George showed passion and aptitude for the sporting pursuits of the gentry, be it shooting, rowing, archery or racing their horses against each other. Austen noted their love of physical pastimes, and may have been marvelling at George’s hand–eye coordination when she wrote of his “indefatigable” attachment to the game of cup-and-ball.

In 1815, Jane’s niece Fanny wrote to her governess that the boys were “mad about cricket”. Games at home, and matches against neighbouring families, were a major feature of their summers; the first lesson the two young batters were taught was never to fear the ball. Austen didn’t live to see her nephews in their sporting prime. She died three years before George played his first game for Hampshire, against England at Lord’s in 1820. Edward made his own first-class debut there two years later, in an intra-MCC match.

With their father owning property in both counties, the brothers also turned out for Kent. Who knows if Edward’s five county matches might have been more, if only he hadn’t made a move on the Kent captain’s youngest daughter (the Earl of Darnley didn’t consider him son-in-law material, and Lady Elizabeth Bligh – the great-aunt of Ashes Ivo – refused his proposal). Edward played 13 first-class matches and often turned out for Hambledon in the club’s declining years: he even hit a match-winning 53 out of 114 in the final game of their last full season, against Goodwood in 1824. But while his obituary remembers him as a sportsman, it doesn’t mention his batting: he was an “unrivalled horseman”, and his greatest achievements were in hunting.

George’s cricketing career was more significant. There’s no official record of it between 1821 and 1824 but, in the three years that followed, he played often for MCC or his two counties, and twice for the Gentlemen against the Players. Six feet tall and relatively slender, he was known for his hard hitting down the order and, on the rare occasions he kept wicket, he proved his worth – he once made four stumpings in an innings in an MCC match. But it was as a bowler he made his name, less for the wickets he took than the style in which he took them.

George, with Sussex’s James Lillywhite and Jim Broadbridge, was one of only three men in England risking the annoyance of opponents and the opprobrium of umpires by bowling round-arm. The trio were reviving a style first attempted by John Willes, which had caused enough outrage for MCC to rewrite their laws to specify that balls must be delivered “underhand, with the hand below the elbow”. Five years since Willes had quit the game in disgust at his ostracism, George was ready to champion what he termed the “spirit of the New School”.

You have plenty of time for campaigning when you’re the second son of a wealthy landowner, with no obligation either to understand the family estate or earn a living. Just like Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Wickham, George had swiftly given up early misguided thoughts of a clerical career. After a lacklustre approach to legal training, he eventually qualified as a barrister, though he never practised.

He did, however, use his rhetorical skills to lobby for the legalisation of round-arm bowling. In 1827, three trial matches were staged between Sussex and All-England, and Broadbridge and Lillywhite were permitted to bowl round-arm in accordance with a new law that George planned to propose to MCC. “In none of these there occurred the slightest difficulty in distinguishing what was fair and what was not,” he wrote.

The following February and March, he published two articles in The Sporting Magazine explaining and defending this rule change. They combined passionate argument with intricate technical detail, and took on the many objections to the scheme raised by doubters, including a fear cricket would move so far in the bowler’s favour that games would be irretrievably shortened. George set himself up not as a radical but a centrist, rolling his eyes at their overactive “dread of change”. How could round-arm be considered akin to throwing, asked George, when it actually put less force on the ball than an underarm delivery? “It is an attitude common enough to a girl about to slap another’s face,” he wrote, “but the last adopted by a pugilist.”

His campaign stirred up debate in the press, and in May MCC convened a special meeting to consider the law change. George was an influential member at a time when the club’s list stretched to only a couple of hundred, many of those the most eminent gentlemen in both cricket and wider society. He was known to be good at scouting for new talent. But even he couldn’t get past the conservative bloc, led by William Ward. While the stipulation for “underhand” was removed, George’s suggestion that bowlers be able to release the ball up to shoulder height was rejected, which left round-armers in legal limbo.

Yet his efforts were not in vain: MCC finally adopted his suggestion ten years later, and his contributions to the game were celebrated in a cricket poem of the day that dubbed him “Gallant Knight”:

As a bowler first-rate, as a bat far from vile
And he bowls in the new march of intellect style.

According to Lord Harris’s History of Kent, George shaped the landscape of the game we recognise today. “But for the Gallant Knight,” he propounds, “we might, possibly, still be all bowling underhand.”

That book also drops a final tantalising nugget. Just as Willes is believed to have picked up round-arm bowling from his sister Christina, Knight is alleged to have learned it “from two ladies”. Among the items on display at the Chawton House sporting exhibit was the journal of Louisa Lushington, a family friend, who wrote that George’s sister Marianne played cricket with her brothers. Marianne may well have adopted the round-arm style to avoid her arm getting stuck in her skirts, just as Christina Willes did. And who might she have learned that from? Is it possible that aunt Jane – like her heroine Catherine Morland – once turned her arm over too?

Emma John is an author and journalist, whose debut book, Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket, was the 2017 Wisden Book of the Year.

Have Your Say

Become a Wisden member

  • Exclusive offers and competitions
  • Money-can’t-buy experiences
  • Join the Wisden community
  • Sign up for free
Latest magazine

Get the magazine

12 Issues for just £39.99