Jane Austen’s Desk

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

Jane Austen and the Pen

A pen has come in many forms throughout history. Quills were the dominant writing equipment from the 6th to the 19th century. The biro ballpoint pens, created by Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro, are now the more commonly used writing instrument in modern times. Authors made use of such devices to create some of the most popular novels which are still studied in schools today as literary marvels. One such author is Jane Austen with her most popular novels being Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Austen may have produced the firsts drafts of such famous novels on her portable writing desk, this is now held in the British Library.

A Gift From Her Father

Jane Austen’s Writing Desk held at the British Museum (ref Add MS 86841)

The portable writing desk was given to Austen by her father in 1794. It was a box shape which had several interesting features as part of its design. Paper could be rested on the sloped lid when the box was closed. There was a long drawer to keep documents and papers, this stored some of Jane Austen’s letters and family items for generations. Austen was writing in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, so the quill would have been her pen of choice to write the novels. Many writing boxes during this time would have been made with pine, however Austen’s was made from mahogany. The writing box accommodated for the dominant pen of the time and so had a slot in the mahogany for the inkwell and quill. The versatile nature of the portability of the writing box made it a popular item, with the ability for it to be placed on a table or on a lap if utilising whilst travelling, for example. When writing at her home in Chawton, Jane Austen placed her writing desk on a small round table next to a window in the sitting room.

Jane Austen’s Portable Writing Desk

In Jane Austen’s memoir her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh speculated that Austen most likely spent many hours sat at this very writing desk, bringing her most beloved characters to life. According to the British Library, Austen once almost lost her writing box and savings of seven pounds when travelling through Dartford in 1798 because it was accidently placed in a horse-drawn chaise which was heading towards Dover. It appears the portability of the writing box, although a very useful aspect of the device for authors as it gave them the ability to write anywhere with ease, could sometimes cause issues such as this.

When Austen died in 1817 it became a family heir loom as it was first inherited by her sister Cassandra and was then later handed down through her eldest brother’s family. It was given to the British Library for preservation in 1999 by Austen’s great-great-great niece, Joan Austen-Leigh. When given to the British Library, the writing desk contained three pairs of spectacles that, according to the family, all belonged to Jane Austen.

To find out more about the history of the pen listen to our podcast!

By Amy Stokes

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