The Miseries of a Bad Pen

MiseriesPenFail2Learning about common every-day activities in the historical record can be a challenge.  People who wrote with quill pens every day didn’t often bother to write down the details of their practice- they assumed that everyone else already knew those details. I was researching a writing-related topic in Google Books when I came across a source that dwells humorously on the minutiae it’s so hard to recapture- the 1806 book The Miseries of Human Life by James Bereford.  The first volume, subtitled “The Groans of Samuel Sensitive and Timothy Testy with a Few Supplementary Sighs from Mrs. Testy” was so immensely popular that Beresford quickly followed it up with a second volume with the subtitle “The Last Groans of Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive. . .”

Both works are testament to the enduring pleasure to be got from stories that begin “Don’t you just hate it when. . .”  Each chapter takes the form of a dialogue between Messers Testy and Sensitive on just such topics. Dialogue was a favorite format for Georgian and Regency literary works of all stripes, and these probably sounded hilarious when read aloud in the drawing room of an evening. But for me the best bits are the individual “groans” that punctuate the conversations. Many of them have the pithiness and immediacy of tweets- if James Beresford lived today he’d have a large following on twitter and Tumblr!

There are dialogues, groans, and sighs covering a wide variety of subjects, but right now I’m especially taken with the sections on “Miseries of Reading and Writing” in both volumes. Some of the situations are timelessly relatable, like this groan about writing:

14. As an author –  those moments during which you are relieved from the fatigues of composition, by finding that your memory, your intellects, your imagination, your spirits, and even the love of your subject, have all, as if with one consent, left you in the lurch.

And this one, which takes me back to writing exams in graduate school next to a fidgety colleague:

32. Writing at the same ricketty table with another who employs his shoulder elbow and body still more actively than his fingers 

But many are so specific to their context in Regency material culture, I feel transported back to a world of leather-bound books, quill pens, and wafer seals. The top image illustrates this groan from the second volume:

28. A pen (your only one) so perversely shaped, if not broken towards the bottom, that it will not accommodate itself to your fingers in the proper position for writing, but is for ever obliging you to write either with the side, or the back.

I’m glad to know that contemporary readers were as bemused by the poetry in period newspapers and magazines as I am:

16. Reading news-paper poetry; – which by a sort of fatality which you can neither explain nor resist, you occasionlly slave through, in the midst of the utmost repugnance and disgust. 

A common sigh when erasing was commonly done with a knife:

30. Attempting to erase writing – but, in fact, only scratching holes in the paper.

After my adventures in feather-ruining, I understand this reference! (see, a quill needs more than a moment’s worth of cutting to make it into a pen):

29. Sending in great haste to borrow a pen, and after staying till you have just one moment left to use it in, receiving at last –  a quill.

And this image reminds me a bit of my first attempts to cut a pen:

MiseriesPenPoints copy

This is why my handbooks are always urging me to use a good sharp pen-knife:

19. Mending a pen, on a desperate push, with a case knife – unless you should prefer a pair of scizzars!

It took me some thought to understand this one- I think “outside sheets” must have been the top and bottom sheets or perhaps the wrapper of a ream of paper, which would get soiled and ripped in transit:

26. After having made some progress in writing through a blank-paper book bought at a petty stationer’s, suddenly finding that its interior is entirely composed of outside sheets, of which every leaf that is not torn, atones for that defect by being either dirty, or greasy.

– A young lady’s misery supplied by Thomas Rowlandson, not in Beresford’s text: “As you are writing drowsily by the fire, on rousing and recollecting yourself, find your Guardian in possession of your secret thoughts, which he never ceases to upbraid you of.” (Image Source)

Beresford was a fellow of Merton College Oxford, and his many literary works include translations from Latin.   You can read his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine here, which includes a list of his works and accolades.  His university career explains why the Miseries are peppered with mock-serious Latin tags and classical allusions- they must have made the other fellows roar on the floor with laughter! Apparently a modern reprint of the book left out both the Latin and the dialogue segments, keeping the focus on the pithiest portions. If you’d like to experience the original groans (and supplementary sighs), both volumes are available on Google Books:

The Miseries of Human Life; or the Groans of Samuel Sensitive, and Timothy Testy; with a Few Supplementary Sighs from Mrs. Testy. (9th edition, bound together with the 3rd edition of Vol. 2) By James Beresford. London, 1807.

P.S.- I’m posting funny images from The Miseries of Human Life all week on my Tumblr!  Check out posts tagged Miseries of Human Life here.



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