The Notorious "Creaking Door" and "Sofa" from James Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoir

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The circumstances of Jane Austen's life revealed in the following quotes from James Edward Austen-Leigh's 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen have been seized upon by recent biographers:

The "Creaking Door"

`The first year of her residence at Chawton seems to have been devoted to revising and preparing for the press "Sense and Sensibility," and "Pride and Prejudice"; but between February 1811 and August 1816, she began and completed "Mansfield Park," "Emma," and "Persuasion," so that the last five years of her life produced the same number of novels with those which had been written in her early youth. How she was able to effect all this is surprising, for she had no separate study to retire to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming. She was not, however, troubled with companions like her own Mrs. Allen in "Northanger Abbey," whose "vacancy of mind and incapacity for thinking were such that, as she never talked a great deal, so she could never be entirely silent; and therefore, while she sat at work, if she lost her needle, or broke her thread, or saw a speck of dirt on her gown, she must observe it, whether there were any one at leisure to answer her or not." In that well occupied female party there must have been many precious hours of silence during which the pen was busy at the little mahogany writing-desk, while Fanny Price, or Emma Woodhouse, or Anne Elliot was growing into beauty and interest. I have no doubt that I and my sisters and cousins, in our visits to Chawton, frequently disturbed this mystic process, without having any idea of the mischief that we were doing; certainly we never should have guessed it by any signs of impatience or irritability in the writer.'

The "Sofa"

`...the progress of the disease became more and more manifest as the year [1816] advanced. The usual walk was at first shortened, and then discontinued; and air was sought in a donkey-carriage. Gradually, too, her habits of activity within the house ceased, and she was obliged to lie down much. The sitting-room contained only one sofa, which was frequently occupied by her mother, who was more than seventy years old. Jane would never use it, even in her mother's absence; but she contrived a sort of couch for herself with two or three chairs, and was pleased to say that this arrangement was more comfortable to her than a real sofa. Her reasons for this might have been left to be guessed, but for the importunities of a little niece, which obliged her to explain that if she herself had shown any inclination to use the sofa, her mother might have scrupled being on it so much as was good for her.'

A photograph of Jane Austen's writing table at Chawton (her ``writing desk'' would have been a small portable blunt-wedge-shaped affair, that would have been placed upon a table to provide a raised and slightly angled surface for writing things on, and which would have had a compartment inside for storage of writing materials, manuscripts, etc.):

[Chawton Table JPEG]

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