“A person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill.”- Jane Austen
In Miss Austen Regrets, Olivia Williams as Jane Austen is seen at her sloped writing box writing her novels or composing letters during her visits to Chawton House. While portable writing desks similar to Jane’s were popular all through the 19th century, they did not become widespread until travel became more convenient for the middle and upper classes in the late 18th century. Writing boxes were versatile and portable and could easily be carried. They were placed on a table or one’s lap, and were as personal as a diary, containing paper, pens, ink, and hidden compartments.
Today, Jane Austen’s writing box, spectacles, and the History of England and two cancelled chapters of Persuasion can be viewed at the John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library. Jane was a careful and meticulous writer, and the two chapters that have survived in her own hand show her creative mind at work. Crossed out lines and revisions and margin notes are quite evident. At Chawton, Jane placed her writing slope on a tiny round table next to a window in the sitting room. (View images here and here on flickr)
Austen did not like to write in front of other people, and would hide her work as soon as the squeak of her door announced the presence of a visitor. She wrote Persuasion on very small pieces of paper so she could easily conceal the pages when interrupted. Jane Austen in London
Jane’s father most likely purchased the writing slope for her in December of 1794. I have wondered if he gave it to her on her birthday.
Hidden for generations, the desk resurfaced in 1999 when Joan Austen-Leigh, the great-granddaughter of Jane’s biographer and nephew, James Austen-Leigh, donated it to the British library. The desk had been kept by the family for over 40 years in a suitcase in a closet in Canada. (Jane Austen for Dummies)
The wood rectangular box opened to reveal a sloped writing surface embossed in leather. Compartments stored writing implements like paper, pens, ink, stamps, sealing wax, etc. From the black and white image of Jane’s writing desk, hers seems to be a simpler model than the Sheraton writing box depicted above.
- Antique Writing Boxes: Images of how one opens and works.
Image of Jane’s writing slope from JASA