Sunday, April 29, 2007

Two Inches of Ivory


I just finished reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. As with all of Austen's novels, I loved it. Miss Austen, to me, is the premier author of 'chick-lit'. I have a tendency to read heavy tomes full of useful information, but every now and again I need to let my brain rest by reading a novel. I try to limit my novel reading because I get too engrossed in the good ones and can't seem to put them down. This can lead to sleepless nights and/or unfinished chores - not a good example to the little hobbits!

One phrase that I come across several times in reference to Miss Austen is her speaking of writing on two inches of ivory. I could never figure out what this meant, and thought perhaps it was some saying from a hundred years ago that had gone out of use. Not satisfied with this supposing, I decided to do a google search and see if I could come up with a clear answer. I was delighted to find the following write up on another site:

Culture Corner:Jane Austen's Laptop Word-Processor

On Wednesday I paid a visit to Jane Austen's house at nearby Chawton in Hampshire. Unfortunately she wasn't in but a nice lady in the front parlour selling souvenirs allowed us to look around on payment of £2 each. It was very strange looking over this modest little cottage where Miss Austen spent the last years of her short life, and where she completely revised and finally agreed to have published the most-read and best-loved novel in the English language.

One of the many items on display that belonged to Miss Austen caused me considerable astonishment. My mother-in-law died ten years ago and among the odds and ends in her writing box, that had belonged to her grandmother, was what we, including my mother-in-law, had aways assumed to be a fan. A somewhat clumsy fan because it consists of a swatch of ten thin rectangular ivory panels held together with a single rivet. Each panel measures approximately five-inches long by two-inches wide.

It isn't a fan, it's a late 18th-/early 19th-century word-processor. Paper was expensive, therefore those who used a good deal of it first composed their paragraphs on these wafer-thin ivory panels before making fair copies on paper. Pencil could be erased with one's fingertip, ink erased with a damp cloth. The order of paragraphs or sentences could be changed depending on which panels were exposed from the main swatch. Other advantages were portability -- it could be carried in a pocket and used on one's lap because the wafers were sufficiently rigid to make a desk unnecessary.

The fan explains a paragraph in one of Jane Austen's letters to her sister, Cassandra, which has always puzzled me, in which she refers to `The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work ...'

Out of curiousity I composed this entire post on the fan using a pencil. The efficiency of the device is remarkable. Each of the above paragraphs is written on an individual wafer. The post actually started with the second paragraph with the opening:
`An item on display in Jane Austen's house at Chawton caused me considerable astonishment ...'
I moved it from first to second place simply by switching the wafers around. Longer paragraphs were continued on the reverse. I've taken to carrying the `fan' with me and jotting notes on it. Although it's 200 years old, I think it'll last out my lifetime. If it inspires me to write a tenth as well as Jane Austen I shall be well pleased. -- James Follett

1 comment:

somyaa said...

liked your free flowing style of writing as well as the content about Austen...
just wonderful her - "small , square two inches of ivory " :)
-somyaa