Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Jane Austen, her Pen, her Ink

Today’s pen and ink extracts come from Jane Austen. High-quality images of her manuscripts are gathered together in the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition, where they can be examined closely. I admit that I delight more in the description of the manuscripts than in Jane Austen’s actual writings, which I have not got around to reading yet.

“The manuscript is written into a shop-bought late 18th-century quarto stationer’s notebook impossible to date precisely. It is bound with quarter tanned sheep over boards sided with marbled paper. The edges of the leaves are plain cut and sprinkled red.”

“The parchment cover is faded to yellow and heavily stained with ink.”

“The manuscript is written and corrected throughout in a variety of brown iron-gall inks and with some variations in the hand.”

“There is a pencil inscription at the head of the left pastedown ‘To my brother, Frank’.

If I was ever offered a job as chief descriptor of manuscript, I would accept. Take note, if anyone’s listening.

Jane Austen, like her contemporaries, wrote with a quill pen and used iron gall ink. The Jane Austen Centre has just the recipe for latter provided by Jane Austen’s sister-in-law:

Take 4 ozs of blue gauls [gallic acid, made from oak apples], 2 ozs of green copperas [iron sulphate], 1 1/2 ozs of gum arabic. Break the gauls. The gum and copperas must be beaten in a mortar and put into a pint of strong stale beer; with a pint of small beer. Put in a little refin'd sugar. It must stand in the chimney corner fourteen days and be shaken two or three times a day. 

A quote from Pride and Prejudice is also presented: I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me cut it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.

In her letters to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen occasionally despairs about the quality of her quill pen.

“I must get a soften pen. This is harder. I am in agonies. ... I am going to write nothing but short sentences. There shall be two full stops in every line.” (Sept. 15, 1813)

“... as my pen seems inclined to write large I will put my lines very close together. ... The day seems to improve. I wish my pen would too.” (Nov. 3, 1813)

I agree.

Letters of Jane Austen published by the University of Virginia Library. See her writing desk in Jane Austen’s World blog. Portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, in pencil and watercolour.


  1. I think that we are on the same brainwave: the day you posted your Mallarme entry, I was re-reading his seminal poem, "A Throw of Dice." And just yesterday, I was admiring Jane Austen's writing "desk"---a tiny little wooden table placed in a corner near a creaking door. Her paper consisted of relatively small sheets---it would have to have been small, as her writing surface was so limited. She likened her act of writing to limning, or painting on a miniscule piece of ivory with an extra-fine brush. I was so amazed by the simple economy of her work space and tools. She needed so little to create her immortal novels, the bare basics. This lead to me to look at her manuscripts, which are indeed breathtaking.

  2. The beauty of handwriting cannot be surpassed. Thanks for sharing this site.

  3. Adair: Isn't it wonderful how brainwaves meet. I am also admire simple workspace economy.
    Eric: Unless the handwriting is... bad.

  4. That’s true, that’s why I practice :)