Reading Old Letters

Towards the end of Pride and Prejudice there’s an odd phrase. Lydia has gone with the militia to Brighton, as a guest of the Colonel’s wife, and the Bennet family are waiting for her letters,

but her letters were always long expected, and always very short.  Those to her mother, contained little else, than …the library …officers … a new gown… a new parasol …was obliged to leave off in a violent hurry.

Her letters to her sister Kitty are rather longer but ‘were much too full of lines under the words to be made public.’ (vol. 2, ch 19)

The phrase is usually taken to mean underlining as a form of emphasis – if Lydia was emailing today, I just know she would use Comic Sans and too many exclamation marks!!! – but it always puzzled me, and I think I discovered exactly what Jane Austen meant one day back in the 1990s when I was reading some family letters outside Braidwood.

Hugh Gordon (inevitably he’s a Dead Darling) came out to New South Wales in 1835 with Patrick Leslie and bought a pastoral property near Braidwood, which he named Manar after his father’s estate in Aberdeenshire.  It is still owned by his descendants. They have a wonderful collection of family papers, which they allowed me to read and transcribe.

In the early 1840s, already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him, Hugh sailed on a merchant trip to China to visit Patrick’s brother, a trader in Macao – sea voyages were supposed to be good for TB, with all that fresh salty air.  Hugh had just become engaged to Mary Macarthur, daughter of Hannibal Macarthur. His letters to Mary from that voyage are wonderful, and quite a few of them contain passages that are underlined.

I have come across many letters before and since where certain lines and phrases are crossed out so completely that it is impossible to read them. Perhaps they might be read under infrared light? I don’t know, and certainly I don’t have access to such technology, but it’s often clear that the hand / pen / ink doing the crossing out is different from that of the letter writer.  It’s frustrating, and a puzzle too. Then in Hugh Gordon’s letters, I found – I think – the key to such underlinings.

Handwritten letters, especially in the days of quills or steel dip pens, took a long time to write. Paper and postage were expensive. Letter writers therefore expected that a long, newsy letter would do the rounds, read first by the recipient, and then passed on to family, friends, and finally in some cases, a local newspaper.

Yet the letter writer was also writing to his nearest and dearest – sister, fiancée, mother, whoever. How could they express themselves without reserve, while dealing with this expectation of a wider ultimate circulation?

When I looked at Hugh Gordon’s letters more carefully, I realized that the underlined bits contained all the most revealing comments, juicy gossip, and personal references to their friends, those things that he wouldn’t want anyone but Mary to read. He expected her to read those bits, cross them out, and pass on a censored version. As it happens, Mary was in love.  She didn’t want to pass on Hugh’s letters to her sisters so she kept them intact.

If Kitty Bennet had crossed out Lydia’s underlined passages, there wouldn’t have been much left – and a heavily censored letter would have warned the Bennets of trouble ahead.  Good for Lydia, bad for Elizabeth, D’Arcy and Jane Austen!

I wish I could show you an example of Hugh’s letters, but I can’t. This moment, back in the 1990s, is just one of many times when I’ve wished I had a camera! Nowadays it’s common practice to use a camera in libraries but then a cheap digital photograph wasn’t an option. Scans, digital copies, photos – they are all converging, and they have transformed the way we do our research.

Some years ago I wrote an article about a diary kept by Thomas Graham, the assistant ship’s surgeon during a tour of duty on HMS Warspite, which was stationed off Lebanon and Syria in 1845. Graham did a good deal of sightseeing when he had a chance to get ashore, visiting Damascus, Beirut, Baalbek and other places.  His handwriting isn’t too bad, but he mentions a lot of local place names, and as he had no idea of Arabic, he just wrote down what he heard. Even with assistance from Google Earth, I couldn’t make sense of these names, but I had a friend (an ex-student) in America who reads Arabic, and who was working on 19th century Beirut. I sent her my transcript, with the words I couldn’t read inserted in the text as photos, and she was able to decipher most of them for me.

Thomas Graham, Sketch of Baalbek, 1845

Thomas Graham, Sketch of Baalbek, 1845, from Thomas Graham, Logbook of HMS Warspite, in Fryer Library, University of Queensland, F431.

There are more general versions of this technique across the internet, with researchers posting photos of mysterious scribbles in specialist discussion groups in the hope that someone will be able to read them – or perhaps may know the handwriting already.

Some letters still defeat me, of course. Many of the people I’m working on are businessmen, who seem to have been particularly keen on letterpress books, an early office technology where a flimsy sheet of tissue was pressed against a letter to make a copy. The tissue-thin copies were then bound into books, where the ink would leak from page to page. The resultant mess is murder to read – though I suppose I should be grateful they kept copies of their letters at all.

Crossed letters are notoriously awful although they do improve when rotated (as of course they were meant to be when originally written).

An example of a crossed letter from the Leslie Papers, State Library of Queensland

Gurk. From the Leslie Papers, State Library of Queensland. Patrick’s father wrote to say he would prefer to pay more for the postage rather than get any more like this.

Sealed letters were often torn when they were opened, and other letters have been nibbled by – what? Mice? Cockroaches?

Thomas Dowse: Recollections of Old Times

Cover of Thomas Dowse’s manuscript ‘Recollections of Old Times’ OM79-68/21 SLQ 

Some people just have terrible handwriting. Sir Walter Farquhar (Dead Darling: WSD’s uncle) was a society doctor who tended to write his business letters in a carriage on the way home after seeing a patient. The letters combine the traditional terrible doctor’s handwriting with the inevitable slips and slides and splodges of ink in a lurching carriage.

From time to time, we hear tut-tutting about how handwriting amongst the younger generations is deteriorating. My feeling is that it has always been pretty dreadful, though most people once had ‘a fair hand’ they used for special occasions. If they could afford it, they might use a professional copyist.

Reading handwriting is another matter. Today most people rarely see handwriting in the course of a normal day – perhaps the odd shopping list or a travel agent’s notes about a holiday flight, but even these are just as likely to be tapped into a smart phone.

In my experience, handwriting from the early 18th century onwards is readable to any modern researcher today, once you get the hang of a few oddities like the long double S and some rather strange ampersands, but special paleographic skills are needed once you move back to the 17th century or earlier.

But how will a generation with so little experience of reading handwriting cope, when confronted with the handwritten documents of a previous age?

My article on the Log Book of HMS Warspite is in Fryer Folios, December 2010 – the PDF is available to download here
Wikipedia describes the letterpress process in detail here

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7 responses to “Reading Old Letters

  1. Hello again Marion
    This was so interesting to me because of our collection of old letters, and we found a recent article about cursive writing being completely out of date now, and many American teachers do not even use it themselves and feel incapable of teaching it. So my question is this :- what about a signature, are we going to have to go back to X his mark ?

    • I’ve wondered this too, Eunice. On the one hand, we are more and more identifiable through fingerprints or iris scans; on the other hand, our signatures are becoming unreliable because we don’t write often enough to develop a distinctive handwriting. Fascinating to think about.

  2. Pingback: Prison Letter, secret correspondence. | Victorian Policing

  3. You learn something every day.. That was most interesting about the underlining/crossing out. Makes sense. I despair about the future of hadwriting.

  4. Very good. It has certainly changed my mind. The editing factor revered occurred to me. I’ll take it to indicate a letter full of corrections.

  5. Enjoyed this post, a great read, thanks.

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