27 December 2011

Jane Austen's Writing Habits

Jane Austen's Writing Box
(Courtesy of the British Library) 
Yesterday was a 'Jane Austen Day' on BBC2 with Doug McGrath's version of Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow)  followed by the excellent Becoming Jayne Austen (Anne Hathaway) and finally an intriguing documentary Jane Austen: The Unseen Portrait.

As usual with Jane Austen the programmes raised interesting questions and made me want to find out more.

Jane's Writing Habits

Most of Jane Austen’s best known writing was done at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, where she revised Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey and wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.

Jane would try to write every day, close to a window for the light, using an amazingly small walnut table (which survives at the Chawton Cottage Museum) and a 'writing box' thought to have been a gift from her father. This can be seen at the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library and was donated in 1999 by Joan Austen-Leigh, a direct descendent of Jane Austen's brother James. Described as 'a small chest which opens to reveal a writing surface and storage space for inkpot and writing implements' this was a convenient way to make sure she could quickly start writing.  (I wonder what she would have made of modern lap tops which take an eternity to 'boot up')

She wrote initially on small slips of paper, which fitted easily into her writing box. (This may have given rise to the story that she would quickly hide her writing if she heard the door creak - now thought by some experts to be unlikely). As her style developed, Jane's manuscripts were mostly written on 'booklets' of about 190 x 120 mm, probably made by cutting down half sheets of ‘post’ writing paper to form quires of up to eight leaves (16 pages) which were assembled inside one another to make fatter booklets.

Jane wrote using a quill pen that she dipped in a small inkwell. I have tried writing with a quill and found it quite satisfying, once you become used to it. The ink used by Jane was made from iron gall, which was tannin mixed with iron sulphate, some gum arabic and a little water. As well as being indelible, it was cheap and readily available.  When exposed to the air the ink would change from a pale gray to a rich blue-black then gradually turn brown as the iron oxidises.

Her way of writing was to mane an initial draft, often crossing out phrases or whole sentences until she was happy with them, then revise the whole work. It seems that reading the draft aloud to her friends and family was an important part of the process, particularly to her sister Cassandra.

Looking at the surviving manuscripts it is easy to see that Jane was not troubled by perfecting the grammar or punctuation as she wrote.  Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University studied over a thousand original handwritten pages of Austen's unpublished writings and points out that they feature blots, crossing outs and "a powerful counter-grammatical way of writing".

 Draft manuscript of Jane Austen’s
unfinished novel 
The Watsons
(Courtesy of the Bodleian Library)
Other posts about the habits of famous writers:

5 comments:

  1. Whatever 'counter-grammatical' means it sounds great, very free.. Just writing in the flow and not worrying too much about commas and apostrophe's!

    Best wishes, @radiantlady

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  2. Yes - I never believed "Everything came finished from her pen" see this Guardian article:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/23/jane-austen-poor-punctuation-kathryn-sutherland

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  3. This is great stuff! I love JA and I love this post.

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  4. Somehow, I can't see that draft ms making it from slush pile to publication now. Interesting blog, Tony. There's hope yet. :)

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  5. You are so right - but she had a great editor!

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