Jane Austen and the Modesty of Genius

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!

5 thoughts on “Jane Austen and the Modesty of Genius

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  1. Thanks for the link to the article. I love the Guardian’s Writers’ Rooms series. Jane Austen’s simple table looks no larger than 2 feet in diameter, if that. Just thinking about the means by which she wrote somehow calms me. It must have been so peaceful when she wrote.


  2. Hello Laurel Ann, thank you for this article link and the nod to the writing desk and Claire Tomalin. I have been to Chawton Cottage and it is surreal to be in the same room looking at the same desk that Austen wrote upon….it is a lovely cottage with a lovely tearoom across the street… I also love Tomalin’s biography…she brings Austen to life like no other biographer has before or since. Tomalin was at the JASNA AGM in Winchester and conveyed her love of Austen to all of us who sat in rapt attention. Her biography of Hardy is also a wonderful read. One biography that Tomalin wrote does not get the attention it deserves, so I bring it up here: The Invisible Woman, the story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Knopf 1991)…I highly recommend it.
    Janeite Deb


  3. I just discovered this enhanting site by way of visiting the Bygone Beauty blog. What a wonderful contribution you’ve provided to Austen devotees the world over.

    Rebecca Chamberlain
    Ladies’ Historical Tea Society


  4. Hi, I visited Chawton cottage earlier this year andwas fascinated by the table which I thought at first was octagonal but it actually had more than eight sides. There was a deep scratch along it, too. Maybe Jane got frustrated with the constant interruptions when she was trying to write! Loved the Tomalin biography and I also enjoyed the one by Carol Shields.


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