Knight, Ellis Cornelia, 1757—1837
by Benjamin Colbert
Ellis Cornelia Knight was the daughter of Rear-Admiral Sir Joseph Knight (d. 1775) and Phillipina Knight, née Deane (1726-1799). Under her mother’s supervision, Knight received a rounded education in modern and classical languages, history, geography, and mathematics, and through her mother’s acquaintance with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s sister, gained access to circles that included Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Joseph Baretti, and Elizabeth Montagu.
After her father’s death in 1775, her mother sought unsuccessfully a pension from the crown. To economize they moved to the continent the following year, touring France before settling in Italy, where they resided principally in Rome and Naples. Initially, they had planned to remain abroad for three years, but after nine they were still in Italy, moving in the first society. In May 1786, they left Naples for a renewed visit to France, and by spring 1787 took up residence in Vienna for two years. During the return journey in 1789, the Knights saw rioting in the South of France, the prelude to the Revolution that broke out by the time they had taken up residence in Genoa.
In Genoa, Knight wrote a continuation of Johnson’s Rasselas published in 1790 as Dinarbus; a Tale, and translated into Italian the following year. Back in Rome, she drew upon her classical studies in writing a historical novel, Marcus Flaminius; or, a View of the Military, Political, and Social Life of the Romans (1792). As French revolutionary politics encroached increasingly on Italian affairs, Knight turned to more contemporary subjects with loyalist poetry: Lines Address’d to Victory in Consequence of the Success of Lord Cornwallis and His Army against Tippoo Saib (Parma, 1793) and The Battle of the Nile. A Pindarick Ode dedicated to Sir William Hamilton in September 1798 and published in Vienna in 1800.
As the French occupied Rome in February 1798, the Knights like many other English residents departed for Naples. There they formed a close friendship with Sir William Hamilton, the British minister at the Court of Naples, and Lady Hamilton. They soon followed their friends (and the Neapolitan royal family) to Palermo where her mother died on 20 July 1799. At her mother’s last behest, Knight turned to the Hamiltons for protection, and accompanied them and Lord Nelson to England in 1800, but soon left them to avoid being implicated in the scandal surrounding Nelson’s and Lady Hamilton’s open affair.
Until March 1805, when she became companion to Queen Charlotte at Windsor, Knight moved in high social circles in London, forming a particular attachment to the elderly poet Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806; ODNB) and her family. While her travel account, Description of Latium (1805), appeared with Longman during the first year of her appointment, her subsequent efforts were printed with less fanfare at Windsor for the benefit of members of the Royal household (not until 1833, did she return to the mainstream with a last novel, Sir Guy de Lusignan. A Tale of Italy, under the imprint of Saunders and Otley). In 1813, Knight left the Queen’s service to become companion to Princess Charlotte, the heir to the throne, a move that angered the Queen; a year later, Knight lost the post amidst a general housecleaning provoked by the Princess’s refusal to marry her father’s choice, the Prince of Orange.
The long Napoleonic wars concluded, Knight returned to France in May 1816 and celebrated the anniversary of Waterloo in Paris. She was back in England by July, but not for long. Another sojourn lasted from spring 1817 to May 1819 (she was in Rome when Princess Charlotte died, November 1817). After 1821, Knight relocated more or less permanently to the continent where she had spent so many of her formative years. Though she visited England frequently, she never returned for any long period of time. She died at Paris on 17 December 1837.
Bond, R. Warwick, ed. The Marlay Letters, 1778-1820. London: Constable and Co., 1937. Print.
Garnett, Richard, and S. J. Skedd. 'Knight, (Ellis) Cornelia (1757–1837), author and courtier'. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 Sept. 2004. Oxford University Press. Web. 9 Oct. 2017.https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/15718
Knight, Ellis Cornelia. Autobiography of Miss Cornelia Knight, Lady Companion to the Princess Charlotte of Wales. With Extracts from Her Journals and Anecdote Books. Comp. and ed. J. W. Kaye. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: W. H. Allen, 1861. Print.
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