Posts Tagged With: Jane Austen

Writing Desks: Inspiration for a Reluctant Writer

 Def: Desk.  A piece of furniture with a flat surface, often made of wood, at which a person can write or do other work.

Over the years of visiting literary homes, I’ve always been drawn to the rooms and desks where authors wrote. Though the kitchens provide insight into their daily lives and the doorways elicit images of people who visited, the desks and studies are the highlights of the tour.  This is where the authors penned or typed their words.  Where the impetus to create became incarnate.  Where . . .

It would be easy to go on and on about high-minded ideals of the creative work that took place at these pieces of furniture and in these rooms.  In reality, I’m drawn to them because I find it so difficult to stay at my desk.  It’s the discipline of writing that attracts me.  So in the spirit of desiring to sit at my desk in this new year, here’s a look at a few of the desks that have inspired me.

  • The latest desk I stood near was the lap desk of Jane Austen in the British Library.  From one perspective, it was just a simple box of wood with a lid.  Inside were pens, ink, and paper.  However, from another viewpoint, it was the place where Austen recorded her observations of society, shared her trenchant humor, and, unknowingly, created the sources of many well-loved films and mini-series.  All this within carefully wrought stories that continue to draw people into her world.
  •  Though I’ve seen many desks, I always return to the first desk I remember, that of Louisa May Alcott.  In her second story bedroom at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, there’s a built-in desk at the window that overlooks the Lexington Road.  Here she penned Little Women and other novels, while she saw the daily traffic walking and riding before her.  Sitting at her desk gave her one view onto the world that she eventually shared through her novels.
  • IMG006At Monks House, the final home of Virginia Woolf, there is a wonderfully cozy sitting room and library.  However, this is not where she did most of her writing.  Instead, her work desk was in a re-purposed shed in the garden.  In this small space, her desk looks out upon the gardens and the Sussex Downs.  Here she had that “room of her own” in which to leave behind the stories in her daily life and focus on her task at hand – exploring new avenues to express the consciousness of her characters.
  • In Jean Stratton-Porter’s offices at her two Indiana homes, she placed the desks in the middle of the room, interrupting traffic flow from one door to another.  But her focus was not on movement, but on vision.  She wanted to sit at her desk and see out of the house in all directions.  The environment was vital to her work and in this place she brought together narrative and nature.
  • Earlier this year, spending time at C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns, near Oxford, England, I didn’t get a chance to see his actual desk which is in a museum. Instead, a desk from that period was in the common room looking out the window to the rose garden.  Even though I didn’t see the actual desk, I was struck by this one of many spaces where he wrote.  This was a place of writing in the midst of life and community.

Each of these writers had different practices, different desks, different rooms.  Still each desk and room represented the place where they put the ideas in their minds into physical form.  In each of these homes I didn’t realize a mystical transfer of inspiration.  Instead, I was encouraged that these authors, too, needed to be disciplined in their writing.  Austen kept writing while people came in and out of the sitting room; Alcott worked tirelessly on her novels, writing in what she described as a vortex; and Lewis spent hours answering letters even though he did not enjoy it.  They didn’t run from the blank page but were drawn to it, or at least stayed in front of it.

As I begin a new year and a new resolution to write, these and many more desks inspire me to sit down at my desk.  Not recreating their space, but creating one of my own.


Categories: Literary Pilgrimages, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking at Ruins with Jane Austen’s Wit/Wisdom

Each time I trek to England I’m amazed by the number of religious ruins across the country, from Stonehenge to Fountains Abbey.  I’m particularly struck by the abbeys.  They retain the basic structures of cathedrals, but with a few items missing – like ceilings and walls.  Walking on the grass that now serves as the floors for these immense, decaying structures, I imagine them at various times in history: filled with religious men and women in prayer and work; closed and stripped of valuables by a king’s edict; used as inspiration for the musings of Romantic poets; and now visited by many believers on pilgrimage.

On my latest journey I again found myself standing in the middle of one of these structures – the Priory on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in the northeast.  As usual I entered this space with a certain solemnity in my walk and gaze.  Shortly afterwards I read a small pamphlet Jane Austen penned in 1791, “The History of England by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian” in which she comments on ruins like these, and their reason for being.

 The Crimes & Cruelties of this Prince [Henry the 8th], were too numerous to be mentioned & nothing can be said in his Vindication, but that his abolishing Religious houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of Time has been of infinite use to the Landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it, since otherwise why should a Man who was of no Religion himself be at so much trouble to abolish one which had for Ages been established in the Kingdom?

With a jab of humor she intimates that the then growing appreciation for these structures as ruins had eclipsed the painful history behind them.  Continuing to reflect along these lines, I wondered if these sites are visited more in their ruined state than they would be if they had continued as places of worship and ministry.  Eventually some of them would have ‘naturally’ been left empty as religious orders decreased and congregations shrank. Instead of being ‘martyred’ for the fancies of a king, they would have been closed and forgotten.  Without a story to tell, I would imagine that future generations would easily bypass them. Just another casualty of an ever changing society.

Nevertheless these ruins are truly a part of the English landscape now, as Austen observes. Maybe for some visitors a significant piece of history is merely another well-placed tree.  However, for many people the scaffolding of stones that remains allows them to infuse these places with meaning.

IMG_1919Before heading to Lindisfarne I spent time in Bath where I walked around and worshiped in Bath Abbey.  Since 757 AD a Christian church has stood at this site.  As with the dissolution of other monasteries it was closed down and stripped of all valuables in 1539.   Yet, unlike some of the other abbeys, the Anglican Church eventually rebuilt it when in 1572 the son of Matthew Colthurst, who then owned the shell of the abbey, presented it the the citizens of Bath to use as a parish church. Since then it has undergone several significant renovations and is now a place of history, art, and a living congregation. The soaring stone vaulting above my head, the stained glass, and the art throughout helped direct the worship beyond my small self.  I was rising up with the words spoken and sung for Evensong.  However, the experience connecting with the holiness of God seemed to be contained within the space.  Walking outside into the mass of tourists in front of the Roman Baths I was quickly brought back into my own frantic world.

IMG_1969Two days later at Lindisfarne Priory, where the walls are slowly crumbling and any soaring ceiling is long gone, I experienced a more organic interaction with the sacred and secular.  As I and others walked around the land we saw the sky through openings where stained-glass once shared stories from the Bible; passed partial staircases that used to continue up to the second floor and a sleeping area; and touched crumbling walls that used to divide the spaces that separated monks and villagers. Here I recognized even more than at Bath the limits of humans on this earth in the erosion of this building.  I saw the grandeur of God as my sight didn’t have a ceiling to limit the gaze upward.  Unlike the abbey in Bath, there was no enclosed space that I entered or left.  Instead there was a constant conversation between the building, the land, and the visitors. I found that in this space my internal reflections did not so quickly leave, as I continued to reflect on God’s majesty and humankind’s humility of which this place is evidence.

I, like Austen, would caution people to see these sites as more than pleasant landscapes to observe from a distance of time and space. Through their layers of story they provide means for people to stop; to recognize our own limits on this earth; perhaps to sense a different presence of God; and then to return to the temples of today with a more humble heart.

Categories: Pilgrimage Sharings | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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