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Jane Austen's Writing: A Technical Perspective

Read more: Intro | Pens and Ink | Papers | Watermarks | Glossary

Paper played a critical role in Austen's daily life, especially as a vehicle for written communication, as is obvious from her frequent references to letter writing and the eagerly awaited arrival of the postman. In her writings, one finds descriptions of paper that would be immediately recognized by her contemporaries as bearing significant meaning. For example, the small dimensions and smooth texture of stationary described in Pride and Prejudice immediately indicates that its sender was a woman: "The envelope contained a sheet of elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well-covered with a lady's fair, flowing hand . . . " Likewise, the appearance of a letter in Sense and Sensibility hints at its writer: "... its size, the elegance of the paper, the handwriting immediately gave her a suspicion." Austen's contemporary readers would immediately visualize the notebook that Harriet, in Emma, constructed by hand for her collection of riddles: "a thin quarto of hot-pressed paper." Sometimes, these descriptive terms in common parlance in the nineteenth century have lost their meaning for today's readers. For example, in Sense and Sensibility, when Mr. Willoughby purportedly kissed and then folded up a lock of Marianne's hair in a piece of "white paper," Austen's contemporaries would not only have noted the paper's color, but also its high degree of refinement, which would have been in keeping with its precious contents.

Several of the letters on display in A Woman's Wit are "crossed" or "cross hatched," a common convention of the time if a writer ran out of writing space. Rather than use another piece of costly paper, Austen would turn the page sideways and continue writing at right angles. The resulting densely spaced writing is described in Emma as "checker-work". For example, Emma's aunt apologizes for Jane Fairfax's letter, which is "so short . . . only two pages you see, hardly two, and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half." Fine paper was a highly prized commodity in Austen's day. It was used not only for writing, but also manufactured specifically for artists and the burgeoning popularity of watercolors, as well as for young ladies' handiwork, described in Mansfield Park as "making artificial flowers or wasting gold paper."

Austen's letters were composed on both laid and wove papers and are all cream colored, thin, strong, and most likely composed of recycled cotton and linen rags. Because they are almost exclusively writing papers, when manufactured they are tub sized after drying with gelatin and hot pressed to produce a smooth, non-absorbent surface, ideal for receiving ink.

Austen's letters display an array of watermarks, indicating that she purchased papers produced by various English paper mills and distributed through local stationers. This is logical considering that Austen traveled only in England and corresponded with her family frequently from every locale she visited. At that time, England was an important source for high-quality paper, with many paper mills located in Kent.

A Woman's Wit: Jane Austen's Life and Legacy exhibition page »

Read more: Intro | Pens and Ink | Papers | Watermarks | Glossary

Hot-pressed – A smooth-surfaced paper created by pressing a finished sheet of paper through hot cylinders. Quarto – A quarto is made by folding a sheet of Royal-sized (20 x 25") paper into quarters. The resulting pages will thus measure approximately twelve by nine inches. White paper – Papers made from the highest quality white rags, sometimes bleached during the papermaking process. White papers varied in quality from superfine, to fine and coarse. Laid – Paper made on a screen with narrow horizontal bands (laid) and thicker vertical bands (chains) that produce a pattern of thick and thin lines when held up to the light. Wove – Paper that exhibits a pattern of fine mesh when held up to the light. Tub-sized – The paper sheet was dipped in a tub or vat of hot sizing and then pressed and dried.
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The programs of The Morgan Library & Museum are made possible with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.