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If only Jane Austen had had a laptop!

As I sit tapping away on my keyboard, with the ability to save and delete, cut and paste, move paragraphs back and forth, I cannot imagine how I would have coped with a quill and ink! Not only does handwriting take longer (and all that ‘lopping and cropping’ of Pride and Prejudice presumably meant Jane Austen had to write out new versions of the manuscript every time), but it was hard work. Here’s Jane in a letter to her sister Cassandra, written in 1813:

“I must get a softer pen. This is harder. I am in agonies. …I am going to write nothing but short sentences. There shall be two full stops in every line.”

In Jane’s time, the feather quill was the favoured writing instrument. Metal nibs had been invented but were rare and much more expensive. The feather quill has the ability to hold a little ink, allowing for less dipping time than using a reed or fine brush, which accounted for its huge popularity. Only the primary wing feathers of a large bird were suitable and goose, turkey, and swan (even peacock) were highly prized.

But you couldn’t just pluck a feather out of an unsuspecting bird, dip it in ink and go! It had to be stripped, dried, hardened and then cut to create the perfect bespoke nib. Because of the curve of the feather, left-wing feathers were deemed best for those who wrote right-handed and vice versa. It all sounds difficult, time-consuming and hard to get right. Luckily, prepared quills could be purchased in quantity from an apothecary, stationer or general store and I do hope Jane did not have to make her own!

I’ve written with pen and ink (nice blue fingers at school!) and had a go at calligraphy with a metal nibbed pen, but I’m told writing with a quill demands an extremely light touch. The delicate point of the feather can’t take the pressure of a heavy hand. A soft cushion under the paper prevents the point from wearing too quickly and Jane’s famous “writing box”, a portable folding desk (was it as de rigueur then as a laptop is today?) that she could place atop a table, had a felt cushion on its surface to preserve her quill’s point.

Jane’s famous little table, her writing desk, is on display at Chawton House in England and the photograph shows it with a quill atop. In reality, Jane probably would have had more than one quill available as, in the course of writing, the pen gradually absorbs ink, softens and has to be replaced. The old quill would be wiped and allowed to dry for reuse later. Generally, one could get a week’s worth of work out of a quill before it wore out.

Pens did have to be mended though, just as pencils have to be sharpened. Miss Bingley, fussing around Darcy at Netherfield, offers her assistance in this regard.

“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”

Darcy’s response? “Thank you—but I always mend my own.”

Fair enough, writing is a personal business. Mending the point was maintaining the point of a previously cut quill. It was easy to do, and writers used a “pen knife”. A pen knife! Who knew!? We use all the word all the time, but not for fixing pens!

I find it all rather fascinating but I am not envious. I'd still be writing What Kitty Did Next (published next month by Red Door books!) if I'd had to use a quill! I wonder how many more novels dear Miss Austen might have written (rather than penned) if she had had access to a laptop and a ready supply of electricity. Perhaps she would have finished Sanditon, at least!

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