|Photograph by Eamonn McCabe|
Writers' rooms: Jane Austen
Clare TomalinSaturday 12 July 2008 15.43 BST
Not long before her death, Jane Austen described her writing as being done with a fine brush on a "little bit (not two inches wide) of ivory". Her novels are not miniatures, but she did work on a surface not so much bigger than those two imagined inches of ivory. 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 after a long period of silence. Her early novels had been written upstairs in her father's Hampshire rectory, and remained unpublished when the family moved to Bath in 1800, where writing became almost impossible for her. Only in 1809, when she returned to Hampshire and settled in the cottage on the Chawton estate of her brother Edward, could she devote herself to her work again.
Chawton Cottage was a household of ladies - Mrs Austen, her daughters and their friend Martha Lloyd - all taking part in the work of the house and garden. But Jane was allowed private time. 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". A creaking swing door gave her warning when anyone was coming, and she refused to have the creak remedied.
From this table the revised manuscripts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice went to London to be published in 1811 and 1813. From this table too came Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. Here she noted down the encouraging comments of neighbours - Mrs Bramston of Oakley Hall, who thought S&S and P&P "downright nonsense", and "dear Mrs Digweed" who volunteered that "if she had not known the author, she could hardly have got through Emma".
Austen died in 1817, and after Cassandra's death in 1845 the table was given to a manservant. Today, back in its old home, it speaks to every visitor of the modesty of genius.