Captain Wentworth’s Letter

Captain Wentworth's Letter
“He begged their pardon, but he had forgotten his gloves, and instantly crossing the room to the writing table, he drew out a letter from under the scattered paper, placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her for a time, and hastily collecting his gloves, was again out of the room, almost before Mrs. Musgrove was aware of his being in it: the work of an instant!” Persuasion, Chapter 23

I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen’s Persuasion lately- maybe because autumnal weather puts me in mind of Austen’s most autumnal novel, or maybe because I’m heading to North America’s largest meetup of Jane Austen fans and scholars later this week.  Since I worked on letter-writing this summer, I decided I just had to make my own version of the famous letter that reunites Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliott.

It’s one of my favorite scenes in all the novels: Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville, passionately defending women’s constancy in love – Wentworth covertly writing what he feels while he listens to her words – the sudden change in Anne’s feelings as she realizes that he has understood her and has finally broken his silence about their shared past.

Miss A. E.
“The revolution which one instant had made in Anne, was almost beyond expression.  The letter, with a direction hardly legible, to “Miss A.- E.-,” was evidently the one which he had been folding so hastily.  While supposed to be writing only to Captain Benwick, he had been also addressing her!  On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her.  Anything was possible, anything might be defied rather than suspense.  Mrs. Musgrove had little arrangements of her own at her own table; to their protection she must trust, and sinking into the chair which he had occupied, succeeding to the very spot where he had leaned and written, her eyes devoured the following words . . .”

And of course the letter itself is a joy to read, with unforgettable phrases like ‘I am half agony, half hope.’  Captain Wentworth’s writing is a means of participating in the conversation he overhears, and Austen’s representation of the text suggests that he begins the letter without any of the usual formalities. He just puts his pen to paper and pours out his heart.  I chose a running hand for my version of his letter. It seemed most appropriate for a Naval captain who writes so many logs, ledgers, and official reports.

"'I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. '"
“‘I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. ‘”

I tried to express Wentworth’s speed and furtiveness with my increasingly messy writing- at one point he adds “I can hardly write.” He does finish his letter a little more conventionally than he begins it, with his initials and a post-script.

Wentworth's Letter, Page2
“‘You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.'”

The physical features of the letter itself are only barely described- we only learn that it’s hastily folded, hastily sealed, and almost illegibly addressed. I decided to seal this letter with one of the yellow wafers I made, since that is the hastiest and least conspicuous means of sealing a secret love note.

WentworthWaferI haven’t opened the seal, but when I do I will imagine myself in Anne Elliott’s place, devouring the words of this most romantic of letters.  For now I will tuck it in my writing desk as a little Persuasion keepsake.  Do you have a favorite letter from Jane Austen’s novels? One which you would most like to receive for yourself? Let me know in the comments!

Much Practice Will Good Penmanship Produce

PenVerses1I haven’t shared any of my penmanship practice for such a long time, I thought I’d do so today.  I’ve had my fill of the moral maxims that are usually recommended for practicing English Round-hand, so I was delighted to find a different sort of text in The Accomplished Tutor or Complete System of Liberal Education by Thomas Hodson (3rd ed, 1806).  Most of the chapter on penmanship is nearly identical to other Young Man’s Companion books- plagiarism and piracy were apparently common in this sort of publication! The “Copies for Round Hand” provided for Round Hand practice stands out, however.  Rather than a collection of wise sayings on vices and virtues, it’s a doggerel verse with advice about penmanship practice! Each verse starts with a different capital letter:

From The Accomplished Tutor by Thomas Hodson (3rd ed, 1806). (Google Books)
From The Accomplished Tutor by Thomas Hodson (3rd ed, 1806). (Google Books)

Changing from a large copy hand to a style suitable for letter-writing was a challenge, so I decided to use these verses to practice writing Round-hand at different sizes. Students who made school pieces for showing off their penmanship often demonstrated their versatility with several different sizes of writing.  I followed their lead and wrote the first couplet on each page quite large, then made each successive couplet smaller.

It took me a little bit to understand what that bracket means connecting the three verses starting with I, J, and K.  The rest of the poem is in couplets, but these three lines make a trio!  I suspect that an earlier version of the poem left out a verse starting with J.  That’s pretty common in the alphabetical exercises I’ve seen, perhaps a holdover from a time when J was just a variant form of I.  Someone decided this poem needed a line about J, so they wrote a line that sort of rhymed with the I and K verses and just stuck it in there.


Without the J verse, the poem would have had an even number of lines because the original writer also left out a line about X.  I can’t blame them, since there’s just no way to write about penmanship with words starting with X! Most other alphabetical exercises resort to names from Greek history: “Xenocrates was learned” or “Xenophon was a great captain as well as a philosopher.”  George Bickham hit upon an odd solution.  He used words that start with Ex- and put a capital X in front of the line: “X, Excess kills more than the sword” and “X Examples sway more than Precepts.”

PenVerses3When I compare these lines to the last time I shared my copy-book hand, I’m happy with my progress!  I can see a lot of room for improvement, however.  Somehow I see many more flaws in the photographs than I did when looking at the pages themselves!


Writing a Running Hand

RunningHand1 copyLast week I shared some 18th century letter-writing advice aimed at ladies which told me that I needed to “learn to write a fluent and ready hand.” I’ve been practicing English Round-hand from copy-books like George Bickham’s The Young Clerk’s Assistant, but that “large copy-hand” is less useful for familiar letters.  So what model should I follow to write more fluently?  I looked to George Bickham, 18th century penman and engraver, and he came through for me again.

Bickham’s most famous work, The Universal Penman, includes not only many spectacular examples of the penman’s art, but also a plate of “Specimens of the Running Hand,” a more flexible, fluid handwriting style that is closely related to Roundhand.   The Universal Penman isn’t available in its entirety online, but a fine paperback reprint is available from Dover (Google Books Preview). The plate I’m working from is numbered 163 in the Dover edition, and was first published in 1739.  Let’s look at how this hand runs!

RunningLowerCase copy

First, my rendition of the lower case letters. Note how many variations Bickham includes! If you look at his models for Roundhand, just a few letters there have variable forms.  In the running hand, most of the letters have options.  This suggests to me that even though Bickham has made a copy-book plate of this running hand, it’s a more dynamic, less rigid style than Roundhand. Different writers can choose different forms for different purposes.  Just look at the three different forms of “r” in the second line!

RunningHand2 copy

Another feature I noticed while preparing this sample was how easily each letter flowed into the next. To get the precise turns and hairlines of Roundhand, I often lift my pen off the paper. The ‘joins’ between some of the Roundhand letters seem a little artificial, like I’m drawing in a connection that doesn’t flow naturally from the writing.  Running hand, however, prioritizes forward motion and more natural connections.  The q, for example, stops dead in Roundhand, but runs ahead to the next letter in this style. The loops in the uprights (like the Ls and Bs in ‘legible’) similarly help the line flow rather than being constrained in sharp angled lines. And although Bickham’s Running hand specimens still have a lovely contrast between thicker downstrokes and thin hairlines, the difference in width is much smaller than in Roundhand. That means a smaller cut of the nib and a lot less careful rolling of the nib when writing.  Nonetheless, Running hand still feels like it belongs to the Roundhand family- the slant is the same, the heavy strokes and hair-strokes are in the same places.

RunningCapitals2 copy

Capital letters also show a lot more variation in Running hand.  I enjoy how flamboyant some of them are, but most of them prioritize that sense of forward motion.  Some of these different capital forms may have special uses in business, since Running hand was often used for writing statements of debt, credit, and other  transactions of money. In fact, a 1799 copy-book I found recently refers to Running-hand as “Currency”!  Where the Roundhand alphabets are followed by moral maxims for practice, the Running-hand plates have phrases like “Borrowed at 4 1/2 Per Cent from Mr. John Connor £512” and “Sold Joseph Champion 2701 Pounds Maryland Tobacco.”

The Academical Instructor- Currency

That copybook, titled The Academical Instructor, is a bit of a puzzle. Although its author is proudly designated as “Duncan Smith of London” and all of the text is in English, the book was printed in Nürnberg in Germany.  The Google Books scan comes from the Bavarian State Library, and not a lot of other libraries seem to hold copies (according to WorldCat).  This is unfortunate for many reasons, one of them being that the Google Books scan is of terrible quality.  I was overjoyed to discover a new copy-book from right in the middle of my chosen time-period, but my joy diminished significantly when I saw how low-res this scan is. 

George Bickham says that “a legible and free Running hand is indispensibly Necessary in all Manner of Business,” but its fluid lines should also speed my letter-writing. All this business-talk did worry me a little – maybe Running hand isn’t lady-like? So I turned back to The Polite Lady for reassurance.   Her advice was to learn Round-hand first, as I have done, “for when you are a mistress of that, you may, with great ease, learn either a neat running, or Italian hand; but if you begin with the latter, you never can arrive at any degree of perfection in the former.”  A neat running hand it is!

Looking at Letters from Jane Austen’s Era: Online Resources

What do real letters from Jane Austen’s era look like? As I’ve been planning to write some letters for the year 1814, that question has broken down into many very specific ones: What did people’s ordinary letter-writing handwriting look like? How were letters folded and sealed? How were they addressed? What marks did post offices and postal carriers add to the letters?  Did local and international letters look different? To help answer these questions, I’ve been looking at images of actual letters from the period. I’ve found a number of helpful online resources that I’d like to share with you today.

Jane Austen’s Letters

A letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, June 1808. (Source)

Of course I need to start with Jane Austen’s own letters, although the harvest is sparse on the web. While her surviving fiction manuscripts are readily viewable online, Austen’s letters are not as accessible.  The Morgan Library has made a few images available of their collection of Jane’s letters to Cassandra. The images offer tantalizing glimpses, as only one side of each sheet is depicted. Don’t miss a very good introductory essay on the technical details of Austen’s writing- her ink, pens, and paper.

Letters from the Shelley Circle

Letter from William Godwin and Fanny Imlay to Mary W. Godwin (later Shelley) and Percy B. Shelley, May 1816. (Source)

Being a famous writer seems to be the best way to get your letters preserved and readable online, as seen on the website accompanying the exhibit “Shelley’s Ghost” put on by the Bodleian and the New York Public Library.  Both institutions have extensive collections relating to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle.  His circle is quite illustrious- his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wrote Frankenstein as a teenager after all!  Her parents had also been sensational celebrities in their day- Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were both famous radical philosophers, and it was their fame that drew Percy Shelley to Mary initially.

My favorite letter in the exhibit is pictured above. The main part of the letter was written by Mary’s father in May 1816 after Shelley (already married) had run off with Mary and her step-sister to the Continent. Godwin was cold and a bit stern in his letter to the runaways, but then he passed the paper on to his step-daughter Fanny Imlay. She filled in every bit of blank space that remained with her own letter, full of love and hurt at their sudden secret departure. She even wrote on the “outside” of the letter, on the flaps that would get folded in when she closed it, just as Austen did in the letter to Cassandra shown above.  She then sealed it with her own seal, engraved with her name “Frances.” It’s addressed to Poste Restante in Geneva and is pocked with a variety of postmarks picked up on the long journey from London.

The other letters in this online exhibit are just as poignant, ranging from the last letters written by Mary Wollstonecraft before her death in childbed to the heartbreaking suicide note left by Percy’s first wife.  I’m also fond of a letter from one of William Godwin’s female fans in 1800– it’s full of significant underlinings, tears of extasy, and a request to burn the letter (something he obviously didn’t do!). Even if you’re not a fan of Frankenstein or the tempestuous lives of the Romantic poets, these letters have so many details of letter-writing practice to offer!

  • Shelley’s Ghost – There are lots of amazing artifacts to explore in this online exhibit, including Mary Shelley’s drafts of Frankenstein and Percy Shelley’s doodles! The section of the exhibit titled Shelley and Mary seems to have the highest density of letters, but there are gems scattered throughout. Some parts of the letters are transcribed for easy reading, while others you may have to zoom in to read (be patient- the zoom takes a while to load).
  • The Abinger Collection at the Bodleian – A large collection of all kinds of papers related to this family.  Look for “Correspondence” in the Table of Contents, and click through to find links to images of individual letters.

Letters from the War of 1812

An 1808 letter from American sailor John Morrison in Breda Prison to Sylvanus Bourne, Consul General of the USA in Amsterdam. (Source)

And now for something a little different: Indiana University’s Lilly Library has an online exhibit on the War of 1812 which is full of letters written by famous statesmen and ordinary folks alike, mostly from the American side. The ones I’m most fascinated by are a group from American sailors who were impressed by the British Navy, then captured by the Dutch and held as prisoners of war. If you are an American history buff or a reader of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, you’ll know how important an issue the impressment of American sailors was in the lead-up to the war. The sailors wrote or dictated impassioned letters to the American consul in Holland, Sylvanus Bourne, complaining that their imprisonment was unjust since they were not really British combatants and had been wrongly impressed to begin with.  This cache of letters is full of interesting details like different styles of handwriting and spelling. Best of all, it includes images of each page and the outside of the letter, or “cover,” which shows the address and seal.

The whole collection of War of 1812 manuscripts is pretty fantastic, extending from 1776 to 1879. Unfortunately it’s a little difficult to navigate in IU’s Archives Online- new tabs and viewing windows proliferate- but it’s worth clicking around until you figure it out.

  • The War of 1812 – The Lilly Library’s online exhibit is a bit easier to navigate than the Archives Online itself, and places the manuscripts alongside related printed documents. Click on the thumbnails to see the full document in the Archives Online. Here’s a link directly to the Sylvanus Bourne Letters in the exhibit.
  • War of 1812 MSS in Archives Online at IU – Each document is listed by date in the sidebar on the left. I recommend you use the search bar to narrow the field. I searched for ‘letter” to weed out the legal and bureaucratic documents also contained in the archive. A search for “impressment,”  turns up the Sylvanus Bourne letters mentioned above as well as some internal US government letters on the topic.

Postal History and Collectors’ resources

There is an active community of history buffs and collectors who focus just on postal history, especially in the UK. The kind of postage stamp you can collect and put in an album was not invented until 1840.  When looking at earlier periods, the “pre-stamp” era, historians and collectors focus on the written and stamped marks made by postal workers on the “cover” of the letter, the part that faces outside when folded.  Unfortunately for my purposes, they aren’t always as interested in the whole letter!

  • Letters from the Past – This page is an amazing resource, containing pictures and analysis of many individual British letters dating from 1660 to the 1890s – a large number of them from Jane Austen’s era. The author, Eunice Shanahan, has a lot to say about the contents and contexts of letters as well as the post-marks! She also has special expertise in the Regency period, so check out the links at the bottom of the page for more on the postal service of that era.  I’d seen some of this info re-published at other sites like VictorianWeb, so I was very glad to find that the Shanahans are still going strong and adding to their website!
  • Ebay search for “pre-stamp” in the stamps/philately category- Seriously! Postal history collectors and dealers sell a lot of ordinary correspondence from Jane Austen’s era on ebay, and that means there are a lot of informative images available in one place.  Some listings focus on the postmarks on the cover, but others sell and share pictures of complete letters.  Look for listings that say “Letter” or “Entire” rather than “Cover.” It’s a great way to see every-day correspondence from non-famous people.
  • Bath Postal Museum Digital Collection – great images of the outsides of letters from various periods of Bath’s postal history, but almost no information about the interiors of letters.

I hope that gives you a lot to chew on! Have you found any online treasure troves of period letters? Is there something that’s been puzzling you about correspondence from Jane Austen’s era? Let me know- I’d love to hear from you!

Writing with Violets: Parlour Chemistry c. 1800

As fascinating as I find dictionaries and the long s, I was worried that this blog just didn’t have enough color this week.  I decided to change that with the help of my backyard full of violets and a chemistry experiment in the guise of a party trick from about 1800.

I was inspired in part by this blog post about 17th century scientist Robert Boyle and violet syrup.  Violets contain similar pigments to litmus, a lichen-derived dye that changes color in the presence of acids and bases. I remember using litmus paper in long-ago chemistry classes, but violets? It’s true! Violet syrup and violet juice have similar properties as pH indicators and were readily available to chemists (and amateurs) of the 18th and 19th centuries, at least in spring-time.

From Select Amusements in Philosophy and Mathematics by M. L. Despiau, translated from French by C. Hutton, 1801. (Source)

This “receipt” for a spectacular color-changing ink comes from an 1801 book with the charming title Select Amusements in Philosophy and Mathematics: Proper for Agreeably Exercising the Minds of Youth.  It’s an English translation of a French book with “additions and improvements,” so it’s hard to know where this ‘amusement’ originated.  Certainly the concept of changing the color of violet juice with acidic and basic substances is much older. In any case, this same recipe was later disseminated widely in collections with titles like A Manual of Useful Knowledge and  The New Family Receipt Book as well as copycat collections of scientific amusements. Since I’ve been working on my English Roundhand handwriting, it’s the perfect amusement for me to try.

Step One: Juice the Violets


The receipt offers no information about making violet juice, so I improvised. First, I gathered a lot of violets from my backyard- I estimate about two hundred flowers(1). Then I plucked the purple petals from the flowers(2) and rubbed them on my ceramic ginger grater(3). A mortar and pestle would probably be more appropriate, if I had one. Then I squeezed the mashed violets in a small square of muslin(4) to produce a little bit of intensely purple juice(5).

With the addition of a few drops of gum arabic, my violet juice became a beautiful purple ink.

Step 2: Prepare the paper


Next, I washed one section of watercolor paper with an acid and another section with a basic substance.  The acid recommended by my receipt is “diluted spirit of vitriol,”  now known as sulfuric acid.  Not having any on hand, I tried using distilled white vinegar.  I didn’t have any basic “salt of wormwood” (aka potash) either, so I used baking soda mixed with warm water. I used a watercolor brush to lay down a generous stripe of each chemical, washing my brush carefully in between. I let the paper dry, then brushed off some baking soda that remained on the surface of the paper.

Step 3: Amaze your friends!

Time to get out the quill pen and write with violets! First, I wrote an appropriate moral maxim on a plain, untreated section of paper. Then I continued writing on the paper treated with chemicals. As promised, my purple violet juice changed colors “immediately” when it contacted the treated paper.

Look at all the pretty colors! My substitute ingredients did not give exactly the same results predicted by my receipt. Instead of a “beautiful red colour,” the vinegar turned my purple violet juice blue. It’s difficult to see in the picture (purple doesn’t show up well in digital photos), but in person the difference is more marked.  It’s much easier to see the “beautiful green colour” the violet juice took on when written over the baking soda solution.

WWVDetailHere’s a detail. The little pen flourish at the top crosses the boundary between plain paper and paper washed with the baking soda solution, so it’s partly purple and partly green!

I hope your mind is agreeably exercised by this philosophical amusement- I know mine is! I feel ready to deal with black-and-white topics again next week.

Rules for Writing: Long and Short S in Jane Austen’s Era

If you’ve spent any time with 18th century literature as it was printed in the period, you’ve probably stumbled over the “long s” or ſ. In some typefaces, it looks so much like a lower case f that when I read it my mental voice sounds like it’s lisping. One reason the long s can be puzzling is that there are two rules in effect during this period, one for handwriting and one for printing.

Long S in Print

In printed books during most of the 18th century, ſ appears at the beginning and middle of words, while the now-familiar ‘short’ or ’round’ s only appears at the end of words. The Complete Letter-writer of 1778 expresses this rule slightly vaguely as:

Detail of page 22 of The Complete Letter Writer, 1778 edition (Source)

The 1798 edition of The Polite Lady displays this use of long and short s, as you can see in the image below. The long s appears in the middle of words like “blush,” “modesty,” and “pleasing,” and at the beginnings of words like “smile” and “so.” The short s only appears at the end of words like “virtues” and “perhaps.”  The word “possessed” has two sets of double long s, but when the double s ends the word, like “confess”, the first s is long and the last s is short.

Detail of page 163 of The Polite Lady, 1798 edition. (Source)

But that edition of The Polite Lady was behind the times- the long s was already going out of fashion. Some London printers in the 1790s were already using new typefaces that lacked the long s, and by the early years of the 19th century it was disappearing rapidly.

Long S in Handwriting

However, handwriting from the 18th and early 19th century follows a slightly different rule, as do engraved plates that imitate master penman’s writings (like those in George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant).  In writing, the long s is only used as the first letter of a double s, at any point in the word.  The following image is from George Bickham’s Moral Maxims in Roundhand. Wherever there is a double s, it is composed of a long and a short s (happiness, blessing).  Every other lower case s, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of the word, is a short s (choicest, modest, is, finds).

Detail from plate 18 of The Young Clerk’s Assistant. (Source)

To see these rules in real handwriting, I turned to Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts, which are all viewable online in a “digital edition.” Here’s a short passage from Austen’s 1813 “Plan of a novel, according to hints from various quarters,”  now in the Morgan Library.

Detail from page 1 of Jane Austen’s “Plan of a Novel” (Source)

This snippet reads “The Heroine a faultleſs Character herself —, perfectly good, with much tenderneſs & sentiment, & not the least  Wit-”  Austen uses the short s at the beginning of “sentiment” and in the middle of “least,” and only uses the long s in the double s of “faultless” and “tenderness.”   I find the written long s much less confusing and f-like than the printed version.  And when I practice my English Roundhand writing, I relish a double s!  It’s very satisfying how the swooping loops of the long s resolve into the compact curl of the little s.

Learning these rules has helped me parse 18th century sources more easily, and I hope they will help you too. However, I still  have to concentrate very hard to keep my mental voice from saying “f” when I see “ſ”!

Read More:

Rules for Writing: Learning to Spell in Jane Austen’s Era

Although I appreciate “a fine disregard for convention” in writers from the period, for my own project of learning to write like an accomplished young lady I feel the need for some guidance. The rules for writing in Jane Austen’s era were not as strict or uniform as they are in ours, but there were conventions (even if they shifted over time) and there were authoritative books to guide the learner. This week I’ll be looking at some of the aspects that puzzle modern readers most:  the long s, capital letters, and today, spelling.


The Polite Lady, one of my guides to polite education, advises to learn spelling along with handwriting. In a letter exhorting her daughter to practice writing carefully, the mother says,

I have sent you Entick’s dictionary, to assist you in spelling: for, before you put pen to paper, you must resolve not to indulge yourself in the wrong spelling of a single word : and if you faithfully observe this rule for a short time, you will soon be able to spell any word without the help of a dictionary. Nothing indeed is more unworthy the character of a gentlewoman, than false spelling : and yet, in this respect, I am sorry to say it, most of our sex are shamefully guilty ; and some of them too, whom I know to be persons of excellent good sense and distinguished abilities : but this must have been owing to bad habits contracted in their youth, of which they were never afterwards able to get the better. It is therefore your part to prevent, what it is so extremely difficult to correct.

Title Page of Entick’s Dictionary, 1791 London edition. (Source)

Many parents and students must have been of this opinion, for Entick’s New Spelling Dictionary went through several editions in both Britain and the American colonies after its debut in 1764. Many other dictionaries also rubbed shoulders with it. I have a particular fondness for browsing dictionaries of all kinds, and the various editions of Entick’s dictionary that are available on Google Books are no exception.  I love seeing earlier definitions of words (chocolate: A nice liquor made of the cocoa-nut) and learning new ones (Shoulderclapper: one who affects a familiarity).

As you can see on the title page, Entick’s Dictionary advertises its usefulness for both writing and pronouncing correctly.  In so many of the educational texts of this period, reading aloud is an essential accomplishment just like writing is, and pronouncing badly is just as grave a faux pas as spelling badly. 2015-04-19 14-21-42
Detail from page 343 of the 1791 edition of Entick’s Dictionary. (Source)

Because the focus is on spelling, Entick’s definitions are sparse- they usually consist of one short line. Many words and definitions are crammed onto the small pages, presumably to make it easier to find the word you want to spell- after all, if you don’t know how to spell it, how are you supposed to find it in an alphabetical list? In Entick’s dictionary, if you have some notion of what the first letters are you’ll be likely to come across the word you’re looking for within a page.

Detail of a table of homophones, page xxvii of Entick’s Dictionary (1791 ed.) (Source)

Perhaps that same difficulty led to the 1791 London edition including a list of homophones- words that sound the same but mean something different, and are often spelled differently as well. These lists suggest that a persistent problem for learners is the tendency to spell phonetically, or to transfer one known spelling to a similar-sounding word.


Examining these dictionaries, it becomes clear that while there is an ideal of good spelling, variations are more acceptable to Jane Austen’s contemporaries than to spelling sticklers of today. The 1791 edition of Entick’s dictionary gives two different correct spellings for many words, including “choose,” “scissors,”  and “show.” Jane Austen often preferred the alternate spellings “chuse,” “scissars,” and “shew.”   Conventions evolved in English-speaking countries over the course of the 19th century, and multiple spellings fell by the wayside as dictionaries became more prescriptive and intolerant of variation. In some cases, UK/Commonwealth English adopted one alternative and US English the other, as in the case of “grey”/”gray.” The London 1791 edition of Entick’s dictionary accepts both, but today the ‘correct’ spelling is “gray” in the US and “grey” in the UK and the Commonwealth.

Now that I’ve spent some time with spelling, I’m going to turn next time to a particularly baffling feature of 18th and 19th century writing- the long s.

Spelling and Misspelling

Last year I read a fascinating book that touches on HRfA’s areas of interest, although it deals with an American family from a generation before Jane Austen: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore (Google Books Preview). Based on the evidence of letters and manuscripts, it tells the long-hidden story of Jane Franklin, younger sister and devoted friend of Ben Franklin.

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore, published by Knopf, 2013. (Google Books Preview)

Born into a poor Boston family of soap-boilers in 1706, Ben Franklin ran away, educated himself, and became the nascent United States’ most famous man of letters. Meanwhile Jane (born 1712) worked, raised and buried children and grandchildren, and struggled to find time to read her beloved brother’s writings.  Jill Lepore made the editorial choice to preserve not only the 18th century quirks of Jane and Ben’s writing (lots of capitalization, abbreviation, and variable punctuation), but also Jane Franklin’s extremely idiosyncratic spelling, a product of her scattered and scrappy early education. As a result, not only the differences in education of these two siblings but also their distinct voices came alive on the page. For Lepore, “Spelling is part of the story.” In contrast, the 19th century historian and editor of Ben Franklin’s letters, Jared Sparks, had “cleaned up” the letters so thoroughly that dirty jokes and slangy turns of phrase were tossed out along with quirky spelling and punctuation- none of it was dignified enough for Sparks’s reverent image of the founding fathers and their families.

Along with thoughts about women in history and the writing of history (Lepore quotes Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion on the lack of women’s voices in contemporary history writing), Book of Ages inspired me to think more about 18th and early 19th century rules for writing. To twenty-first century eyes, writing from those periods can seem anarchic- some words vary in spelling and some Words are capitalized, seemingly at random. Punctuation is sometimes bafflingly thick on the page, sometimes absent.  Some modern editors regularize punctuation of authors like Jane Austen so that quotations marks and commas are where we expect them to be.  Sometimes they go further and ‘correct’ Austen’s original spelling choices so modern eyes don’t stumble over words like “scissars” or “chuse.”

Joseph Banks, painted in 1773 by Joshua Reynolds. Image Source

I tend to prefer a light editorial hand. I would rather learn something by stumbling over an unfamiliar spelling or ambiguous punctuation.  When “Spelling is part of the story,” it becomes easier to see that rules grow and change over time, and the system we learned in school isn’t the only option.  It also becomes clear that education and intelligence don’t always lead to good spelling. Last year I also read a biography of Joseph Banks (naturalist, explorer, and long-time president of the Royal Society) written by Patrick O’Brian of Master and Commander fame.  Banks, born 1743, was a prolific writer of letters and journals and arguably the most learned man of his day, and yet O’Brian writes,

Banks had a highly personal approach to writing, with a fine disregard for convention in the use of capitals, spelling, and punctuation; but unhappily almost all his editors and copiers  . . . have seen fit to put him right.

I was relieved that O’Brian chose to let Banks’s idiosyncrasies stand in the quotations he included in his biography. The lives and writings of Joseph Banks and Jane Franklin are worlds apart, but both deserve to have spelling as part of their stories. Next time I’ll take a look at the conventions they flouted, and apply some order to the seeming anarchy.

Maxims and minums

I reached a benchmark of sorts in my English Roundhand practice the other day- I used up a whole pad of paper!  I’ve been using a Rhodia graph paper pad, pulling out each perforated sheet to dry as I fill it up with wet, inky writing. That’s 80 sheets of principal strokes, letters, minums, words, and model sentences.  I’ve done a good deal of practice on other papers too, but still there was something especially satisfying about pulling off that last sheet of paper and adding it to the stack of completed pages.


Eighty pages full of penmanship practice!

I used the last 20 pages or so of this pad faster and faster as I worked on minums in earnest and then moved on to real actual words in sentences!  In the Young Clerk’s Assistant, George Bickham helpfully includes moral maxims starting with each letter of the alphabet for the learner to practice.  There’s also a page of sentences which manage to include every letter of the alphabet and a moral message- “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” just isn’t high-minded enough for Bickham!

The Alphabet in Single Copies, from George Bickham’s The Young Clerk’s Assistant. (Google Books)

After I wrote out enough aphorisms to cover the whole alphabet, I felt very much like Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. “Beauty’s a fair but fading flower,” I announced to my husband, “Indolence is an inlet to every vice.” He answered in the best way possible: “You have delighted us long enough.”

If I get bored of the moral maxims in Bickham’s book, there are many alternatives. Other instructional books print alphabetical lists of “copies” for handwriting practice, even if they don’t have Bickham’s engraved plates to model how the writing should look.  John Jenkins’ 1813 Art of Writing has four pages full of “Exercises for Writing in Single Lines,” so students have a choice of sentiments for each letter of the alphabet.  The Young Man’s Best Companion or Self Instructor provides two lofty sentiments for each letter, but also conveniently adds a selection of “Short lines for Text Hand,” similarly righteous.  The first of these, “Abandon whatsoever is ill,” sounds like a first draft of the phrase Michael Hayes copied over and over in his borrowed book: Abandon every sin.  Perhaps Michael’s writing master had a book like one of these, full of alphabetical mottos.

Short Lines for Text Hand from The Young Man’s Best Companion or Self Instructor. (Google Books)

I have a fresh new pad to fill with all these practice texts, and a sheaf of freshly cut quill pens. Someday soon I’ll be ready to write my school piece!

Minums for handwriting practice

Minums copyAs I’ve been practicing English Round-hand, a Regency era handwriting style, I’ve worked on lower case letters, joining letters together, and Capital letters. Just lately I’ve been doing a handwriting exercise that lets me practice all those elements at once!

The exercise comes from a page of George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant titled “Minums in Round-hand and Italian.” What is a minum? In this case, a minum appears to be a nonsense word that includes several forms of a letter, with m in the middle to practice spacing and joining. I haven’t found a reference anywhere else to this kind of minum, but I imagine the word derives from the writing term “minim,”  which refers to the small basic stroke – a dotless i –  that makes up the letters m, n, i, and u in many historical European hands.

In the plate from Bickham’s book, shown below, each minum begins with a capital letter followed by the lower-case form of the same letter, then m and one or two additional lower-case letters. This series allows the learner to practice all the slightly different ways a letter might be formed when it falls at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Take a look at the Round-hand minum for S: the first lower-case letter shows the word-initial form, while the double s at the end shows how the long s is used as well as the word-final form of the letter. Some letters, like d and g, have an extra swooping flourish when they come at the end of the word. Others, like e and p, just have a little additional curl.

Minums, plate 15 of George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant (1787 edition, Google Books)

Comparing this plate with the other Bickham plate I’ve been working with, titled “Learn Round-hand without a Master,”  some of the Capitals are formed quite differently. M and N on this plate are much more like the lower-case versions. It’s another sign that the “Learn Round-hand” plate was inserted into the book at some point after original publication, and possibly engraved by a different person. The Young Clerk’s Assistant seems to have been reprinted many times since its debut in the 1730s, and the 1787 edition digitised on Google Books has some differences from the 1733 edition reprinted by Dover Books.   Variations in letter-forms seem to be the rule rather than the exception among the different writing masters, so I’ve been practicing lots of the different capital letter-forms found in my sources.

I was getting a little frustrated with my capital letters until I started practicing with minums. I like how they work a little more like actual words, so my hand feels the familiar slant and spacing of the lower case letters in between each capital. In most cases, capital letters need to work closely with the lower-case letters following them, so it makes sense to practice them together.  Unlike real words, though, they’re short and have no potentially distracting meaning.  Doing each minum in order gives each letter a thorough “work-out,” too.

Bickham’s plate contrasts “Round-hand” with “Italian” handwriting. “Italian” hand is very similar to Round-hand, but is slightly more sloped (like Italic fonts), uses a narrower downstroke, and less contrast with thicks and thins. Throughout The Young Clerk’s Assistant, Round-hand is associated with young men and Italian with women.  There are two sets of moral maxims with heavily gendered content, one “for the Practice of Youth in the Round-hand” and the other ‘For the Practice of the Ladies in the Italian Hand.”  While ‘youth’ are given the sentence “Fortune’s a fair but fickle mistress,”  ‘the ladies’ are to copy out “Fame once lost can never be regained.”  I should probably follow Bickham’s suggestion and learn the more lady-like Italian style one of these days, so I can express such high-minded sentiments in the most feminine hand! In the meantime, I’ll stick to my nonsense words.

From a scrapbook of engraved plates on handwriting. (Bibliotheque Nationale de France)