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What’s in your desk?

By Kelsey Harmon

In 2008, John Fowles’s widow shipped to the Ransom Center 90 boxes of the writer’s manuscripts, books, and personal effects to be added to the author’s extensive papers, the bulk of which were acquired in 1991. Among the items received was Fowles’s writing desk, complete with its contents. On March 31, 2011—Fowles’s 85th birthday—the desk will be placed on display in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room, where it will remain for at least the next two years. It joins the desks of Edgar Allan Poe and Compton MacKenzie, which have been on display since the room opened to researchers in 2003. Fowles’s desk will be displayed with drawers open to reveal a selection of its fascinating contents.

As an undergraduate intern at the Ransom Center, I was given the opportunity to sort through the desk and its contents in preparation for their display. The two-drawer desk is spartan and well-loved, its surface marred by cigarette burns, its left drawer marked with addresses and phone numbers in Fowles’s hand. The contents range from dried seeds and paleontology slides to a pair of brass knuckles. After spending an afternoon sifting through the desk’s contents, I was hooked. Who was this man who kept a pair of brass knuckles next to his slides of Ammonite-Spinokosmoceras?

Unfamiliar with Fowles’s work, I looked to The Magus for an introduction and saw echoes of Fowles’s desk and its contents throughout the novel. A handful of Greek coins in the left drawer recalled the novel’s setting on a Greek island, while one especially suspenseful scene in the first half of the novel reminded me of a mysterious, single black and gold die. As I became acquainted with Fowles’s other novels, I saw reflections of his writing in further items from his desk; among other things, the typewriter ribbon canisters stamped “Lyme Regis” recalled The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The contents of John Fowles’s desk, then, are at once material and literary. The Center’s John Fowles papers are rich with research opportunities, but the desk provides us with something more: a glimpse into the physical objects from the writer’s life that, at times, seem to coincide with moments from his many novels.

Some of the contents of the desk are mysterious and intriguing, and others, like the staples and empty eyeglass cases, are simply the vestiges of any ordinary man’s life. The entire contents of the desk are listed below. I’m still unsure as to whether or not any of Fowles’s novels can explain the brass knuckles, but I’ll keep reading in hopes of finding some clue.

The complete contents of John Fowles’s desk:

Two scraps of paper with appointment times, addresses, calculations, names, notes
Two invitations to “A Tribute to John Fowles, Patron of Town Mill” in Lyme Regis, Saturday 13 December 2003, 6–8 p.m.
Annotated photocopied pages from Fowles’s diary
Two copies of The Mail on Sunday, November 19, 2000, which includes an article written by Fowles about the planned development of the harbor in Lyme Regis
Newspaper clippings announcing the publication of Fowles’s book Lyme Worthies
Copy of an undated newspaper clipping regarding the publication of The Magus
Newspaper clipping, first of a two-part biographical article on Fowles
Two packs of printed self-adhesive address labels for Belmont House in Lyme Regis
Set of blue labels with white string ties
Envelope of photographs inscribed “Photos of Belmont, Lyme Regis, England, 1995”
Five eyeglass cases
Four pairs of eyeglasses
Prescription card from optometrist Guy Hayden
Fourteen typewriter ribbon canisters of various brands (six empty, three unopened, three containing dried seeds, and two containing used cartridges)
Small plastic bag with scrap of paper inscribed “JASPER”
Plant tag inscribed “EUPATORIUM LIGUSTRINUM”
Two paleontology slides from the Yorkshire Museum
Plastic bag of small reddish-white pebbles, stapled closed
Two blending pencils
Three colored pencils
Tin of pastels
Four pens (two fountain, one ballpoint, one felt-tip)
Five fountain-pen cartridges
Two small pencil sharpeners
Two boxes of staples
Loose staples
Two rubber bands
Three binder clips
Two six-inch plastic rulers
Blank notepad, white
Inkpad, black
Bottle of Liquid Paper
Box with Super Glue inside
Four sheets of round, multicolored stickers
Two packs of blank self-adhesive labels, white
Box of self-adhesive company seals, maroon
Paper fan
Seven coins (one Swedish, six Greek)
Small book of holiday gift tags
Pocket knife, Richards Sheffield brand
Medical scissors
Calculator operating manual, Ibico model 122S
Magnifying glass pouch, Magnabrite brand
Three wooden boxes of varying sizes and sources, containing rubber bands and gramophone needles
Descriptive leaflet for a “Handmade Scrimshaw” item
Case for Swatch brand Irony watch
Leather dice shaker
Two carved wooden letter openers
Two pipes
Brass knuckles
Sheet of paper (one side is bright yellow, the other is shiny gold)
Misprinted black die with gold dots
Two stones
Unidentified leaf
Three pieces of unidentified hardware, plastic and metal
Broken decorative piece, painted gold
Green twist tie
A single, white Tic-Tac candy

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: Tippa model typewriter made by Adler. This is one of three Fowles typewriters at the Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.


Julia Munroe Martin

I love this post! I’m a writer, and I recently posted a blog about my writing desk — I now am inspired to post another one on my desk drawers (although I think I may need to clean up a little first and I’m not sure I have time to list the contents!). Thanks for a fascinating post to give us a glimpse inside the mind of a great writer! (And I hope you won’t mind if I write a post — of course I’ll post a link to this blog!)
Find me at:

Jen Bee

Brass knuckles? This guy is ready for anything.

Didn’t realise how much I depended on my handy-desk-draw-of-useful-junk until I spent the last 2 years without one. Now I have a Wall of Stuff, mostly held together with blu-tack and paperclips.


Love it, Kelsey! I’m waiting for the day when the HRC will do a display of various writers’ brass knuckles. There aren’t enough to fill a gallery, but it would be perfect for the small exhibition case outside of the Reading Room.

Zeke Steiner

I read though the list last night. Today I walked into an antique store in Buenos Aires and there was the exact same brand and model typewriter. Maybe not that strange of a coincidence BUT directly behind it – a brass knuckles!

Guy Hayden

Honoured to have known john and to be represented in the desk


I stumbled on this old post. With the rise in technology today, a typical desk would involve having wires, tablets, and a laptop.

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