Knight, Ellis Cornelia (DNB00)

KNIGHT, ELLIS CORNELIA (1757–1837), authoress, born in 1757, was the only child of the second marriage of Sir Joseph Knight, rear-admiral of the white. Though brought up in London, she was educated at a school kept by a Swiss pastor, and early obtained an acquaintance with continental languages and literature. She also became a good Latin scholar. Her mother, a woman of great accomplishments, was a friend of a sister of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Miss Knight thus became acquainted with Johnson and his circle, of whom she has left several anecdotes. Admiral Knight died in 1775, and in the following year his widow and daughter, having failed to obtain a pension, went abroad from motives of economy. For many years they lived principally in Rome and Naples, mingling with the best society, and living on particularly intimate terms with Sir William and Lady Hamilton. In compliance with her mother's dying wishes, Miss Knight placed herself, after the latter's death in 1799, under Lady Hamilton's protection, and she returned to England with her protectress. Nelson accompanied them. Miss Knight was already intimate with the hero, and had obtained the title of his poet laureate by verses in celebration of his victories. She naturally found the position embarrassing. ‘Most of my friends were very urgent with me to drop the acquaintance, but circumstanced as I had been I feared the charge of ingratitude.’ Her autobiography passes very lightly over this period, but records her appointment as companion to Queen Charlotte in 1805. From this time there is an entire break until 1809, and little of importance is recorded until 1813, when the principal event in Miss Knight's life took place—her exchange of the companionship of Queen Charlotte for a similar position in the household of Princess Charlotte. By this step she gave mortal offence to the queen, who lost a useful attendant, and was probably aware that Miss Knight had a just grievance against the dull, uninteresting, and monotonous character of the life which she had perforce to lead at Windsor. Want of interest and monotony could not be imputed to her new employment, where she found herself entangled in intrigues, quarrels, misunderstandings, and recriminations among a number of persons inspired by self-interested views, and in general animated by most undisciplined tempers, especially when their rank placed them beyond the reach of contradiction [see Charlotte Augusta, Princess of Wales]. Miss Knight's autobiography is among the most valuable sources of information for the court history of those days. At length (July 1814) the princess's refusal to marry the Prince of Orange induced the regent to suddenly dismiss all her attendants, including Miss Knight. The princess consequently fled to her mother at Connaught Terrace, and general confusion ensued. Miss Knight afterwards wrote of her own part in these transactions: ‘Either I ought to have remained with the queen, or I ought to have carried things with a higher hand to be really useful while I was with Princess Charlotte. I had the romantic desire that Princess Charlotte should think for herself, and think wisely. Was that to be expected from a girl of seventeen, and from one who had never had proper care taken of her since early childhood?’ In 1816 Miss Knight again went abroad, and, although frequently revisiting England, spent most of her life on the continent, mixing in the highest society, and collecting the anecdotes which appear in her journals. She died in Paris on 17 Dec. 1837.

The most important passages from her autobiography, with selections from her diaries, were edited in 1861 by Sir John William Kaye, or rather, as is virtually admitted in the preface, by Mr. James Hutton. They are justly appreciated by Kaye when he says: ‘Miss Knight was no retailer of prurient scandal or frivolous gossip; she had too good a heart to delight in the one, and too good a head to indulge in the other. Some, therefore, may think that she neglected her opportunities.’ In fact, her memoirs might easily have been more piquant without any breach of propriety. They are matter-of-fact records without any attempt at delineation of the persons concerned, but they bear the strongest impress of sincerity and truth. Miss Knight also wrote ‘Dinarbas,’ a kind of supplement to ‘Rasselas’ (1790); ‘Flaminius, a View of the Military, Social, and Political Life of the Romans,’ a didactic romance in the form of letters (1792), which was translated into German in 1794, and reached a second English edition in 1808; ‘Sir Guy de Lusignan,’ a romance (1833); translations of German hymns and prayers, privately printed at Frogmore in 1812, and published in 1832; besides her principal work, ‘A Description of Latium, or La Campagna di Roma’ (1805, 4to), with etchings by the author, a work of considerable value in its day, and interesting even now. T. L. Peacock says, writing to Lord Broughton, 22 Feb. 1862: ‘I have read Miss Knight's autobiography. I have not for a long time read anything that pleased me so much; but I am not sure how much may belong to the book and how much to old associations. Her “Latium” has long been a favourite book with me.’

[Autobiography of Miss Cornelia Knight, 1861; Quarterly Review, vol. cxl.]

R. G.