Imagining ‘an author’ means first of all imagining them as a body, and then in a landscape, and then ‘at home’. It also entails imagining the origin and act of writing. This has resulted in the fetishization of writers’ desks. This is inflected very variously in relation to different authors. I’ve chosen to feature four desks which describe the nature and importance of writing in four ways.
Jane Austen’s writing-table, Chawton Cottage
This table is reputed to be that on which Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. It is a lady-like parlour table, rather than a business-like desk. Note that it is marked as a writing-desk for an imaginative writer not just by the quill but by emptiness.
Its long-standing fame makes a statement about Austen as an author – describing her as amateur rather than professional, provincial rather than cosmopolitan, writing from personal domestic reality rather than from within a library. The sense of it as an ordinary domestic piece is amplified by the story that has ever since the second half of the nineteenth century gone along with it; that Austen would hide her writing whenever anyone came into the room, warned by the door which she refused to have oiled so that it would creak and warn her that someone was coming. If you are wondering how she could have hid any writing on such a table, the answer is that she would have had a fold-up writing-desk, nowadays on display in the British Library.
Also on Chawton Cottage see https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=179
Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk, Haworth Parsonage.
This is Bronte’s portable writing ‘desk’ and, like Austen’s writing-table, again speaks of the woman writer as writing at the edges of professionalised literary culture. Staged here as a letter-writing aid rather than a novelist’s desk, it asserts privacy, secrecy, the personal, and the lack of ‘a room of one’s own’.
Also on Charlotte Bronte and Haworth see https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=136 and https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=195
Victor Hugo’s Desk, Paris
This piece of furniture, known as ‘The Table of the Four Inkwells’, is a peculiar instance of the fetishization of the writer’s desk. It’s a pushy object, specially commissioned as a fund-raiser. It celebrates four major 19-century French writers (Victor Hugo, George Sand, Alphonse de Lamartine and Alexandre Dumas), displaying their autographs and their pens/inkwells. Despite this, it proved a white elephant and unsaleable, conjecturally because it was in fact nobody’s desk – that is to say, it had not grounded and witnessed the act of writing particular literary text.
Burns’ Desk, Alloway
By contrast, this desk was really used by Burns, and it is shown in the entrance exhibition at Alloway. It is displayed as though it were being carried away on the winds of poetic inspiration and as though it were an extension of the plough driving across a field. It tackles a critical problem in imagining Burns at a desk. His mythos is not as a pen-pusher but as a poet at the plough, singing at his work, turning up the field-mouse’s nest in ‘To a Mouse’ (see my previous post on the Burns’ mausoleum https://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/literarytourist/?p=124).
|WEE, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,|
|O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!|