I would not let Martha read First Impressions again upon any account, and am very glad that I did not leave it in your power. She is very cunning, but I saw through her design; she means to publish it from memory, and one more perusal must enable her to do it. Letter to Cassandra Austen, 11 June 1799
Jane Austen’s Biographer Claire Tomalin has a nice article in the Guardian today about how modesty and secrecy fueled Austen’s genius. Tomalin’s bio Jane Austen: A Life was published in 1997 and is one of my favorites. It’s good to see that she is still interested in writing about Austen after the publication of her book over ten years ago. It’s a short piece, but packed full of historical nuggets of Janeisms, and centered around Jane Austen’s now famous small writing table.
This fragile 12-sided piece of walnut on a single tripod must be the smallest table ever used by a writer, and it is where she established herself as a writer…having no room of her own, she established herself near the little-used front door, and here “she wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper”.
Reading her insights made me reflect on Jane Austen’s unique writing environment, and the odds of anyone ever producing anything of merit under such restrictions. It is amazing to think that the majority of her writing and re-writing transpired on one small wooden table, and that upon her death it passed to her sister Cassandra, and then out of the family to a servant. How it made its way back to Chawton Cottage intact must be a very interesting tale indeed!
I have not had the pleasure of seeing Jane Austen’s writing table personally, but for those of you who have made the pilgrimage, I would love to hear your story of your visit to Jane Austen’s last home in Chawton, how it felt to see her personal environment, and gaze upon the biggest little table in literary history.
Writer Claire Tomalin is an English biographer and journalist who was educated at Cambridge University. She has written several biographies; notably Thomas Hardy (2007), Samuel Pepys (2002), The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1992) and Shelley and His World (1992). She is married to playwright Michael Frayn and lives in London. Of course, her most important work to date is Jane Austen: A Life!