In 1794 Jane Austen’s father gave her this portable ‘writing-box’. When open, it provides a slope on which to rest paper while writing. Its various compartments include a space for an ink pot and a lockable drawer for paper and valuables. Between 1795 and 1799 Austen produced first drafts of what would later become Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, perhaps using this very writing desk. While travelling through Dartford in 1798 she almost lost it – and her savings of seven pounds – when it was accidentally placed in a horse-drawn chaise heading for Dover.
When Austen died in 1817, aged 41, the desk was inherited by her sister Cassandra. It was later passed down through her eldest brother’s family. In 1999, Joan Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s great-great-great-niece, generously entrusted it to the care of the British Library. Among the items that had been stored for generations in the desk drawer were three pairs of spectacles which, according to family tradition, all belonged to Jane Austen. The desk also contained a glass ink pot and a penknife.