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!

Posture at the Fortepiano, c. 1820

I missed this story when it first came out in July, but I think it’s far too interesting not to share!  The video above was made by Christina Kobb, a Norwegian pianist who has been studying Viennese piano manuals from around 1820.  She noticed that the instructions for the most basic aspects of technique- the posture of the body, arms, and fingers- were very different from those taught today.  Based on her research, she re-trained herself to play piano using those historical techniques. What an accomplished lady!

My childhood piano lessons are far behind me, so I confess it is difficult for me to see in the video above exactly how her historical technique differs from modern styles. It’s clearest at about 10:00 and 15:00, when she plays the same pieces in two different ways.  Dr. Kobb demonstrates that some movements required by early 19th century compositions are much easier using contemporary techniques.  While what her performance gains from the historical practice is interesting, I’m struck by how similar the posture advised by music manuals is to the posture advised by writing manuals. In particular, the upright back with the elbow held close to the body matches the directions given in George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant:

Detail, plate 5 of Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant (Google Books)

This advice is echoed in many of the other educational guides I’ve read from the later 18th and early 19th centuries. For writing as for piano-playing, this posture seems to place focus on the fine actions of the fingers rather than larger movements of the elbow and wrists.  Ergonomic considerations aside, the preoccupation with posture in writing and music manuals is also a reminder of the role these accomplishments played in teaching deportment. The term deportment is usually used now as nearly a synonym for etiquette or manners (at least in the US), but its original meaning has to do with elegant management of the body. In this period, grace, poise, and controlled movements were important signs of a genteel, “well-bred” person.  It’s obvious that dancing might show off how graceful and well-trained a person was, but writing, playing the piano, and even needlework were also opportunities for displaying elegant deportment through posture and the movement of the hands.

Christina Kobb’s research gained wider exposure this summer due to an excellent New York Times piece about the science of music. Rolf Inge Godoy, a musicologist at Oslo University, filmed Dr. Kobb’s piano-playing using motion-capture technology (the same techniques that allowed Benedict Cumberbatch play Smaug in the recent Hobbit movies).  Dr. Godoy will use the data he gained to quantify how historical techniques affect the sound of the music Dr. Kobb plays.


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!


How I Wrote Letters to 1814

BettingerLettersFronts copyA little while ago I teased you with some images of letters I sent to 1814. I thought I’d share more details about my process, both research and production. The goal was to write a letter that might have been sent to a Westphalian milliner’s shop in 1814, so a lovely group of re-enactors can include it in their up-coming presentation.  If you’ve been following the project at Kleidung um 1800, you know that the milliners and their friends at Mme Bettinger’s have quite a large mailbag to read at their event!

This was the perfect opportunity to put my handwriting skills to use, but what could I write about?  Even though my focus is on lady-like accomplishments, the formal, English handwriting styles I’ve been practicing are also suitable for business correspondence.  I decided to write a business letter from manufacturers that might have provided some of England’s famous industrial products to Mme. Bettinger. Of course, that decision meant I had to do some more research to carry my plan out- I don’t know much about British manufacturers, and even less about how they carried out business abroad! In the end, I found enough interesting material to write two quite different letters.

Letter 1: Shipping Muslins to Menden

TurnerBentLetter copyWhen I was looking for inspiration, I found more than I expected at Eunice Shanahan’s postal history site– a letter sent from Mitholm (near Halifax in England) to a Tyrolese tradesman concerning a shipment of cotton goods via Altona in the summer of 1814.  It’s in bad French- apparently the best means of communication between an English businessman and one whose native language was either German or Italian!  The letter seemed so perfect as it was that I borrowed the text, changing only the date, place, and addressee to suit Mme. Bettinger’s context.  The original letter is described here, including a transcript.  Here’s a rough translation of my version, provided by my husband (who has much better French than I do):

Mrs Bettinger, Menden     Near Halifax, 20 May

     We wrote to you the 23d of last month, since which we have not received any of your valued [letters]. This present [letter] we are to submit an invoice & Samples of your order dispatched to Hull to be embarked for Altona to the address of Messrs. H. Vander Smissen & Son with directions to receive them at once and send them on immediately to Menden we have no doubt that you will receive them in good time for your need & we have every confidence that you will approve their qualities, the Samples for the most part are coming in a separate package to be dispatched by coach from Altona to Menden It is always our pleasure to receive your new orders & to serve you as well as possible.                

We send you cordial salutations,                                    Turner Bent & Co..

I figured that if Altona, near Hamburg in modern Germany, was the sea-port of choice for a package going all the way to Bolzano (now in northern Italy), it would be the right port to send a package destined for Menden, only 340 km distant. I wonder if Turner Bent & Co. used Altona as a shipping hub during the long war with Napoleon in order to detour around hostile France? Peace was settled in the spring of 1814, but more direct trade-routes may not have been re-established to places like Bolzano by the time the original letter was written.

The first page is an invoice for goods shipped from Halifax to Menden via Hull and Altona, as described in the body of the letter. Most of the invoice is nonsense, I’m afraid, since I couldn’t find many complete models to follow. Please don’t check my math- I am totally baffled by non-decimal currency! I need to add arithmetic to the list of accomplishments to acquire in the future. In place of Thicksett and Velveret listed in the original invoice, I put in some fabrics more suitable for fashionable summer ladies’ gowns.

TurnerBentInvoice copy

Since the letter mentioned accompanying samples, I pinned a few pieces of fine cotton to the invoice- but forgot to take a picture before sealing them up in the letter. I had written some picturesque color-names on the invoice before I realized I didn’t have any samples of those colors to include, so we’ll just have to pretend that the jonquil and cocquelicot samples will be in the package sent by coach!

The postal marks on the outside are based on the ones on the original letter with the dates adjusted (see the image at the top of this post). Some of them were hand-written in ink or pencil, and so were easy to copy.  If anything, I should have made them rougher and harder to read! Next time, I’ll use my most-worn quill and scrawl more haphazardly.  Other marks were stamped on at the post office and required some ingenuity and modern materials to replicate. If you’re interested, I may post more about that technique another time.

Letter 2: Regarding Your Bill . . .

HobdayLetter1 copyThis letter is not based on any particular letter from the past, but I did borrow phrases from 19th c. letter-writing manuals.  I was also inspired by something I read on a website about 18th century Birmingham manufacturers and their continental trade.  Some letters are known which document a 1763 trip through Europe by a travelling agent for hardware merchants Glover & Chamot: “Wherever he went, he took orders for goods which he sent back to Birmingham, checked out what the competition was doing, sent back market research, ran status checks on new customers, cajoled old customers whose accounts were overdue (being careful, of course, not to offend them so that they did not place a new order) – all the tasks generally associated with a sales job then and now, in fact.” (Shena Mason at

I don’t know for certain that English manufacturers were still using travelling agents like that almost 50 years later in 1814, but I liked the idea so much I made this letter focus on the upcoming visit of a similar agent.  It was fun trying to strike a balance between “Pay the rest of your bill” and “We’re nice, please buy more from us.” I wanted to leave the re-enactors free to decide what goods Mme. Bettinger bought from this Birmingham manufacturer, so I didn’t mention any specific products in the letter. I got the name of the company (Hobday Biddle & Ryder) from a trade-card in the V&A’s collection that also doesn’t mention what the company actually traded in! Since my French is even worse than the clerk’s at Turner Bent & Co, I left this letter in English. Here’s a transcript:

Mesdames,                            Birmingham, May 16

I duly received your favour of the 27th ultimo inclosing a payment of 100 pounds, for which I thank you. I have no wish to be troublesome to any customer, and so I propose the following arrangement concerning the balance of your account, which I trust you will find both convenient and expedient.

Our agent Mr. Ryder, who gave such a good report of the flourishing state of your business at his visit last October, is at present on the Continent again and will return to Westphalia at the end of June. The uncertain state of the roads do not allow me to name the day of his arrival in Menden more exactly. Be assured, however, that he will not fail to call on you with my best compliments and those of Mr. Biddle. Mr. Ryder carries with him samples of our latest manufacture, which I flatter myself you will find to be the most elegant ever yet produced at the price. Should these samples meet with your approval, Mr. Ryder will be most happy to take a new order, provided you will be so good as to settle the balance of your account with him directly. I remain, Mesdames,

your humble servant,

Tho[ma]s Hobday

I used similar postal marks on this letter, adjusting the dates and the costs. Let’s pretend that both letters were placed in the same mail bag in the Foreign Section of the General Post Office in London and made their way to Menden together.


Materials and Techniques

I tried to make each of these letters a little different- in part to disguise that these letters were both written by one person!  I used two different papers that have a textured “laid” finish, like many writing papers of the time. I’ve fallen in love with one of them, a soft creamy text-weight sheet made by Hahnemuhle. I got it at John Neal Booksellers, but it’s available elsewhere too.  It is soft but strong and has a pleasing texture that reminds me of old paper.  The other paper I used is called Canson Ingres (also from John Neal). It is a very pretty brighter white, but I found the surface felt harder and the laid texture much more pronounced. On the textured side of the paper, my quill snagged and skipped over the laid lines. The sheets I bought were large, and I considered trying to match the dimensions of early 19th century writing-paper. But in the end, there were so many variables and choices among those sizes I decided to cut each sheet into quarters to get the most out of each one.  The resulting “quartos” are well within the recorded size range of writing papers for the period.

I used quill pens and iron gall inks to write both letters. I wrote with a “Running hand”, but I made slightly different choices on the two letters to help suggest that they were written by two different people. For example, I used rounded capital Ms in one letter, and pointy Ms in the other. The English letter had lots of terminal ds which I finished with exuberant swoops!

Finally, I used slightly different letter-folds and I sealed one letter with sealing wax and the other with a wafer.  Wafers have come up alongside sealing wax over and over again in descriptions of letter-writing- I shall have to write more about them soon!

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!

Miss Bingley’s Envelope

Two Young Women - Henri-Francois Riesener
Detail from Two Young Women, painted by Henri-François Riesener. (Source: Sotheby’s)

Envelopes as we know them- ready-made paper enclosures for cards and letters- were not in use until much later in the 19th century. But Jane Austen uses the word  ‘envelope’ in Volume 1, Chapter 21 of Pride and Prejudice, when Caroline Bingley sends a farewell letter to Jane Bennet after the Netherfield Ball:

   Soon after their return a letter was delivered to Miss Bennet; it came from Netherfield, and was opened immediately. The envelope contained a sheet of elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well covered with a lady’s fair, flowing hand. . .

What does she mean? I came across this definition for the noun envelope in Sheridan’s dictionary, 1804 edition: “A wrapper, an outward case.”  It seems that the word did not yet have the very specific definition it has today.  Austen probably meant us to imagine a separate sheet of paper wrapped around the letter.  Why would Caroline Bingley bother to wrap her letter with an extra sheet of paper when so many letter-writers of this period work so hard to keep their letters to one sheet?

No detail in Jane Austen’s novels is superfluous- that envelope adds an important, if tiny, nuance to the scene.  The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge gives some helpful context:


In other words, English letter-writers are caught between etiquette and the postal system- if they are writing a formal, respectful letter, they can signal their intention by adding a “cover” to their letter. But that additional sheet of paper doubles the entire charge for mailing it.  Since ordinarily the recipient of the letter pays the postage, an ‘envelope’ condemns the addressee to pay an exorbitant price for that respect.

Miss Bingley’s entire letter is a carefully crafted statement. Her “elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well-covered with a lady’s fair, flowing hand” shows off her wealth with its expensive paper and her accomplishments with its refined handwriting.  The letter’s contents celebrate her exalted social circle in the city, far beyond country-mouse Jane’s reach.  Miss Bingley’s use of the formal envelope may be ‘respectful,’  but it is not friendly.  The letter is designed to show Jane that they will not be intimate in the future. That extra piece of paper, as much as the contents of the letter itself, leads Jane to say “Does it not expressly declare that Caroline neither expects nor wishes me to be her sister. . .?”

That leaves me with the question- was Miss Bingley so cruel as to send this two-sheet letter by post, making the Bennets pay double for the privilege of breaking Jane’s heart? Austen’s wording isn’t explicit, but it suggests to me that even Miss Bingley did not stoop so low- she had her servant deliver this poisonous little missive from Netherfield by hand.

Letters for Mme. Bettinger

Letters for Mme BettingerThis week I was busy getting these letters ready to mail to 1814! I just took them to the post office this morning (swaddled in a boring modern envelope).  I’ll share more details about the research and materials that went into them soon. I started doing some research on letter-writing in Jane Austen’s era last summer, so I jumped at the chance to dust it off and make something tangible with it. I may have gone a little overboard!

There’s still some time to write a letter of your own to the milliners and their friends at Mme. Bettinger’s shop in 1814- the cut-off date for mail is May 15. You don’t need to study period handwriting to participate- I did because that’s my thing! Also, I am over-the-top nerdy about this stuff.

Learn more at Kleidung um 1800: Letters Part ILetters Part II

Letters For Mme Bettinger Back

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”!

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