The History of Jane Austen's Writing Desk

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THE TWO-HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY of the start of Jane Austen's creative literary life in Chawton Cottage is July 2009, and October 2009 is the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of JASNA and the tenth anniversary of Jane Austen's writing desk being placed in the care of The British Library by Joan Austen-Leigh and her family.

Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, on Wednesday, 24 October 1798, from the Bull and George at Dartford:

   I should have begun my letter soon after our arrival but for a
   little adventure which prevented me. After we had been here a
   quarter of an hour it was discovered that my writing and dressing
   boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing
   off as we came in, and were driven away towards Gravesend in their
   way to the West Indies. No part of nay property could have been
   such a prize before, for in my writing-box was all my worldly
   wealth, 7l.... Mr Nottley immediately despatched a man and horse
   after the chaise, and in half an hour's time I had the pleasure of
   being as rich as ever; they were got about two or three miles off.

The little portable writing box rescued by Mr. Nottley unfolds to reveal an elegant sloped mahogany writing desk with an inlaid-leather top. The desk, now a well-visited display at the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, was purchased by Jane Austen's father, the Reverend George Austen, from Ring Brothers at Basingstoke in December 1794, in time for Jane Austen's birthday or her twentieth Christmas at Steventon. It was at Steventon Rectory that the foundations of Jane Austen's later fame were laid. There, in 1796, she began the first draft of a novel, completing it in just ten months. "[M]y own darling child" was later "lopt & cropt" at Chawton (29 January 1813) and published in 1813 as Pride and Prejudice.

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It was at Chawton that Jane Austen created Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. The quiet literary life at Chawton Cottage is described by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh in his Memoir: "In that well-occupied female party, there must have been many precious hours of silence during which the pen was busy at the little mahogany writing-desk, while Fanny Price, or Emma Woodhouse, or Anne Elliott was growing into beauty and interest" (129). …