Image courtesy of Clark Young on Unsplash
Here is an activity for you: grab a piece of paper and write down your name, the date, and where you are right now. Here’s mine:
Now really have a think about what you’ve written down and how you’ve written it. Do you print, or have you carefully maintained your primary school cursive? How specific have you been about your location- have you written out a full address, or perhaps just written down where you are sitting in your house? Have you included the year in your date? Is there anything unique about your handwriting you’ve never noticed before- do the descenders on your Gs loop around, or do you dot your Is with little circles? How you’ve chosen to complete this task could enlighten a palaeographer or cause them quite a headache.You can see that my school cursive has become a lot more scrawled and loopy over time; most egregiously, I've elided the 'h' and 'u' of 'Thursday', so it looks like it reads 'Thirsday'. I have certainly caused some trouble for researchers who would be looking for the 'provenance' (previous ownership and documented history, in simple terms) of this piece of paper- I haven't given the year, or a very specific location.
What’s a palaeographer?
Palaeography, in short, is the study of historical handwriting. Unsurprisingly, handwriting has changed significantly over the centuries, from the practically unreadable 15th and 16th century secretary hands, to the flowing calligraphy of the Regency Period, to the rounded letters taught to those of us who learned write in the 90s and 00s by the Magic Pencil. For palaeographers, our handwriting can reveal a lot about how we’ve been educated, when we were writing, and what we were writing for.
Recently, Barbara Heller has been using palaeography to reverse engineer the handwriting of some of our favourite characters, in her new epistolary edition of Pride and Prejudice, which includes 19 removable “replicas” of letters exchanged by the characters. In Pride and Prejudice: The Complete Novel, with Nineteen Letters from the Characters’ Correspondence, Written and Folded by Hand, Heller aims to create “a visual, tactile connection across time.” In an article by Atlas Obscura, Heller speaks about the time she spent studying Austen’s written correspondence at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, picking up features she thought would fit each character nicely. One of the calligraphers she worked with describes Caroline Bingley’s ‘excessive flourishes, and the upright, evenly spaced writing of level-headed Jane Bennet. Read the full interview with Atlas Obscura here.
Image by Chronicle Books. Pride and Prejudice: The Complete Novel, with Nineteen Letters from the Characters’ Correspondence
With letter correspondence being so key to the action of Austen’s novels, this new edition is an exciting experiment in historical and narrative immersion, offering an opportunity to perhaps glimpse the world that Austen envisioned when she first sat down to write Pride and Prejudice. I would certainly be interested to see her other works reimagined this way. What would other characters’ handwriting look like; would Catherine Morland’s be an excitable, youthful scribble? Could we receive a carefully penned social invitation from Emma Woodhouse? It would be wonderful to hear what our blog readers imagine their favourite character’s handwriting would be like!
Ellen White is editor of the Jane Austen Centre blog. She would love to hear from you! Check out our Submission Guidelines and get in touch.