Jane was born on the cold frosty night of December 16, 1775 in Steventon, near Basingstoke in Hampshire. She was the seventh of eight children and the second daughter. The next morning her father Revd George Austen wrote to his sister-in-law Mrs Walter in Kent with the exciting news,
We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny, and seems to me as if she would be as like Henry, as Cassy is to Neddy.
A few days after Jane was born, a blizzard struck the south of England, which caused the naturalist Gilbert White to note that the trees in Selborne were looking ‘quite naked’. It was one of the harshest winters ever to be recorded, and this cold snap lasted through until the following Spring. Only then could Jane be taken out of the house. She was baptised by her father at St Nicholas Church on April 5.
From Jane’s novels, her surviving letters, and other pieces of writing there seems little mention of Birthday celebrations, although there is one birthday that does stand out.
It was Jane’s 19th birthday. It was a significant one as she received from her father a portable writing slope he had purchased from Ring Brothers in December 1794. It would have been an expensive purchase at the time, costing 12 shillings.
The Austen family had bought a number of household items from Ring Brothers, which was a kind of shopping emporium in the town of Basingstoke. They mainly supplied furniture and household goods. You can read the Austen family purchases in the accounts ledger which still survives today.
Jane’s father George had noted the purchase himself in his own pocket book,
A Small Mahogany Writing desk with 1 Long Drawer and Glass Ink Stand Compleat. 12s. December 5, 1794.
It was small, light, and portable, and meant that Jane could continue writing her letters and novels wherever she went. A lock and key secured her papers, and an inner compartment was used to safely store her glasses and the early drafts of her novels.
Once placed on a table, it could be opened up to reveal a sloped leather writing surface, with a small storage place for ink and quills.
It was almost lost when Jane was returning from a visit to her brother Edward at Godmersham Park at Kent. Whilst staying overnight at the Bull & George Inn at Dartmouth, Jane wrote about this traumatic event in a letter to her sister Cassandra dated October 24, 1798.
I should have begun my letter soon after our arrival but for a little adventure which prevented me. After we had been here a quarter of an hour it was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing off as we came in, and were driven away towards Gravesend in their way to the West Indies. No part of my property could have been such a prize before, for in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, 7l… Mr Nottley immediately despatched a man and horse after the chaise, and in half an hour’s time I had the pleasure of being as rich as ever; they were got about two or three miles off.
Jane’s writing desk containing her letters and her savings of seven pounds would have been lost without Mr Nottley’s quick thinking.
Jane Austen’s Portable Writing Desk at the British Library
The writing desk had been passed down through Jane’s brother James family, and his son James Edward Austen Leigh wrote of the desk in his memoirs,
This mahogany desk, which has done good service to the public, is now in the possession of my sister, Miss Austen”
The desk had found its way to Canada where it had been stored in an old suitcase. On October, 29 1999, Jane’s great-great-great niece Joan Austen Leigh entrusted the desk to the British Library. It contained a glass ink pot, a penknife, and in the desk drawer were two pairs of tortoiseshell spectacles, and one pair of wire framed spectacles. According to Jane’s family, they all belonged to her.
Jane’s desk is now a popular attraction that attracts many visitors to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery at the British Library in London.