Thursday, 2 June 2011

Writing at Jane Austen's House

Since I’ve written about Jane Austen’s ink I did not have the opportunity to examine the writings of the famous Georgian author whom I had incorrectly associated with sugary stories of impending or failed match-makings and marriages, handsome Mr Darcy played by Colin Firth and blushing ladies in bonnets. But I have set myself to reading Pride and Prejudice and after the first few pages I admit that I find the writing style – short, humorous, sarcastic, to the point – much to my liking.

I have been spurred into reading-the-classics action after a few days travelling in Hampshire and visiting Jane Austen’s house there. The sparse and labelled interior contrasted with the luscious gardens and the glorious summer day. Her desk much photographed and taking pride of place in the postcards was standing by the window on the ground floor in what was called the dining room. A miniscule glass ink pot with a quill was its only adornment. One does not need much to write after all.

I set out looking for pieces of writing technology or writing implements. In the drawing room a tall secretaire was also used as a writing desk by the author. Another curious desk is the one made for Mary Jane Austen, Austen’s niece (daughter of her brother, Francis): this contraption was used for writing (thus the sloping surface) but also for games like backgammon and for sewing.

More writing implements were to be found in the manly chambers of Francis Austen, Jane’s brother, who had spent most of his life as an officer in the Royal navy and who is likely to have been the model for the character William Price in Austen’s Mansfield Park. In his room upstairs some interesting writing implements are displayed: a letter case and a writing case made of wood, carved by Francis and an ivory round container used to hold pounce powder – a fine substance made of cuttlefish bone or powdered pumice that was sprinkled onto a freshly-written paper to dry ink.
 Letter Case

 Writing Case

 Pounce Box

Found under the floorboards

Lifting the floorboards as part of historic restoration I presume uncovered a host of curious objects but also pen knives and quills that now are displayed under glass. Relics. Historic houses are about relics – confirmation that the past really existed. We read them as we wish. The first edition of Sense and Sensibility (1811) is a striking relic not for what it says but for what it does not: the name of its author. In an era when it was inappropriate for a woman to write Jane Austen published her first novel under the name “A Lady.”


  1. Lito, I had the same experience with "Pride and Prejudice": I picked it up not expecting to enjoy it, then found myself completely swept up in it. It is now one of my favorite books. (Don't tell anyone. They'll kick me out of the Hard-Boiled Writers Club.)

    Oh, and forget Colin Firth. That BBC "Pride and Prejudice" was entirely about Jennifer Ehle. [sigh]

  2. Promise, I won't tell. I'm being swept in as we speak.

  3. I can't imagine using pounce to dry ink! I know that blotters were once used to dry ink.

    I'm a calligrapher and, at least these days, pounce is used to prepare the surface of the paper to receive ink. It is used on paper that is slick or oily when the ink is found to resist or 'bead up.'

    Regardless, it is a lovely pounce pot!

  4. I have to agree with Kim S - Pounce powder has NEVER been used to dry ink. It is a common misconception made the world over even by eminent academics, authors, curators, eminent auctioneers and museums. The powder used was writers sand, which to add to the confusion wasn't sand as we know it, but either mica or silica and was used in a sand-box, which wasn't a box but a cylindrical container with a concave perforated top. The item pictured however, regrettably isn't a pounce pot either - it's far too small and the user would have ended up with more on their hands than on the paper. A pounce pot was like a large pepper shaker with a domed, perforated top and a screw lid. Pounce is used professionally by scribes and calligraphers on all paper, vellum or parchment surfaces (not necessarily defective) to provide a 'key' for writing, irrespective of its original surface.