In December 1794, the Reverend George Austen bought a gift for his second daughter Jane. Her birthday was on the 16th, and she was to turn nineteen.
As the loving and generous father he was, he was keen to get her the perfect present – never an easy task, even less so where young women are concerned. With that in mind, the Reverend entered the Ring Brothers store at Basingstoke. Little did he imagine that his purchase would one day become a revered museum display.
From an early age, little Jane had shown a keen interest in writing. Cheered on by the Austen clan, full of witty and vivacious characters, she was a precocious and gifted storyteller, as her Juvenilia attests.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the item her father chose for her was writing-related. He picked a portable “writing-box”: a mahogany box that opened to reveal a sloped, inlaid-leather top that essentially turned any surface into a desk.
Jane Austen’s Faithful Writing Desk
Young Jane began using the desk straightaway. We know that only two years after being gifted the little desk she began the first draft of what would become Pride and Prejudice. Many more would follow.
In fact, the little writing desk and Jane rarely parted ways. Its compact size and portable nature meant that she could take it with her wherever she went, so it was there that she produced much of her work.
A British Library Treasure
I came across Jane Austen’s writing desk only a few days ago. I was in London, and the National Portrait Gallery (where I like to go to admire Jane Austen’s portrait by her sister Cassandra) was closed for refurbishment.
On a whim I decided to visit the British Library, which wasn’t far from my hotel, and followed the sign to Treasures of the Library. I entered a dimly lit room with displays all around it. It was a treasure trove indeed, with notes, manuscripts and letters from some of the biggest names in British literature.
I began to marvel at one display after the other. And then I saw it.
Much More than a Writing Box
Right next to a missive from Scottish poet Robert Burns (of Auld Lang Syne fame) there was another letter.
I recognised the handwriting immediately. It was Jane Austen’s! Jane’s missive, in her distinctive and elegant hand, was to her brother Frank, congratulating him on the birth of his son. But it was the writing box that really stole the show.
The portable desk was neat and orderly, with compartments for an inkwell, penknife and quills. It also had a long drawer and, according to the signage next to it, a compartment with additional storage space, which is where she must have kept her manuscripts.
Reader, I got goosebumps.
I have now added the British Library’s Treasures room to my list of favourite exhibits in London, the places I like to return to whenever I have the chance. It is a privilege to see it up close, and it is wonderful that it is an opportunity afforded to everyone.
So, if you happen to be near King’s Cross next time you’re in London, do pop in – goosebumps guaranteed!
Were you familiar with the story of Jane’s little writing box? How much of an impact do you think it had on her career as author?