We’ve all heard the famous quotation from Jane Austen’s letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh:
By the bye, my dear E., I am quite concerned for the loss your mother mentions in her letter. Two chapters and a half to be missing is monstrous! It is well that I have not been at Steventon lately, and therefore cannot be suspected of purloining them: two strong twigs and a half towards a nest of my own would have been something. I do not think, however, that any theft of that sort would be really very useful to me. What should I do with your strong, manly, vigorous sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?
The “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” was a metaphorical reference; Jane was describing a pocket diary that was made of sheafs of ivory bound together. The owner would write little notes to herself in pencil, which could later be erased after being transferred to a more permanent medium. She meant that her works were on a smaller scale; in another letter she talked about her novels being about “four or five families in a country village.” In a time when romantic novels on the grand scale, what Walter Scott referred to as “the big Bow-wow strain,” were in vogue, no doubt Jane’s novels would seem to many to be impossibly small in scope; however, we submit that Jane purposely worked on that intimate scale, and not because she felt herself incapable of more; she simply preferred it, and felt it best.
Interestingly, many years ago when the Editrix was studying fiction writing at an Institution of Higher Learning, the students were encouraged to fix their works on that very intimate scale. In that, as in many things, Jane Austen was ahead of her time.
In any event, now you can buy a pocket diary with “bits of ivory” for your own. It’s spendy, but if you can’t afford it, the photos are wonderful, and you can understand exactly to what the “bits of ivory” referred.