A Peek at My New Writing Desk

WritingDesk1I am already on my way to Louisville, Kentucky to a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America.  But I’m so excited I just have to share a few pictures of this amazing project that my husband just finished. You may remember that he made me some small tools to help with my historical handwriting. For the past few months he’s been working on a much bigger object- a reproduction writing desk!

WritingDesk2bThis reproduction is based on pictures of Jane Austen’s own desk, now in the British Library. Another important reference is the many detailed pictures on the Hygra website. We chose a green baize writing surface because it was a very common feature of historical desks, although Austen’s now has a leather surface.

Under the green writing surfaces are compartments for holding paper, letters, and other odds and ends, accessed by pulling up on the grey ribbon loops. A network of green ribbon on the flap helps organize the contents.

WritingDesk3Like Austen’s desk, it also has an extra feature. Hidden in that open compartment is a little reading stand which can be pegged into the lid of the box. A brass prop folds up so you can adjust the angle of the book you’re reading.

WritingDesk4My husband not only did all the woodwork, he also fabricated most of the brass parts! The handles, main hinges, and key are the only components he bought ready-made. He even made the lock! If you can’t tell, I’m over the moon and just so impressed with his craftsmanship.  I am itching to use it, but also anxious about the first inevitable scratch or ink-blot- rather like a new car!

According to the records of Ring Brothers in Basingstoke, Jane Austen’s father  bought “a Small Mahogany Writing Desk with 1 Long Drawer and Glass Ink Stand, Compleat” on December 5 in 1794- just in time for Jane’s birthday on December 16! The price he paid was twelve shillings. Now how can I scrape together 12 shillings these days? 

 

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!

Janeites Assemble!

AGM2015In just one week I’ll be attending my first ever Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America!  The AGM takes place in a different city every year, so I feel very lucky that this year the location is just a few hours’ drive away from me in Louisville Kentucky.

I’m very excited by the different talks and presentations scheduled for the weekend. Amanda Vickery, historian and TV presenter, is one of the featured speakers!  Since I don’t have any clothes appropriate to Jane Austen’s era (yet!), I won’t be participating in some of the festivities, like a promenade and ball.

Dear readers, are you joining the Janeites in Louisville?  If so, I’d love to meet you in person! I’ll bring my calling cards!  Or if you’ve ever been to past AGMs, do you have advice for a novice like me?

Sealing with Wafers

Wafers in the Joseph Allen Skinner Museum, Mount Holyoke College. (Wikimedia Commons)

When we think of the romance of Regency letters, we think of sealing wax.  Using it seems like a ritual that brings past times before our senses: the flickering candle, the smell of melting wax, the richly colored puddle impressed with a coat of arms or initials.  But so many of the resources I’ve been looking at refer to two alternative ways of sealing letters in one breath: “wax or wafer.” I had to learn more about the wafer.  I was astonished to learn how ubiquitous sealing wafers once were, and how nearly forgotten they are now!

What is a Wafer?

Wafers are difficult to research for a number of reasons. The word “wafer” can mean many different things in different contexts: a biscuit like a thin waffle, a communion host, or a silicon base for making computer chips, to name just a few. In addition, different methods for sealing letters proliferated over the course of the later 19th century, including embossed and decorated gummed labels or stickers- also often called “wafers”.  Even now, “wafer ‘ is a term for the translucent stickers used to close brochures and sales flyers for mailing! Entick’s dictionary of 1791 gives three basic definitions that illustrate this problem:

Entick'sWaferWhat I want to focus on is the last wafer in Entick’s entry: “paste made to close letters.” This was sometimes called the “common wafer” to distinguish it from fancier variants. The common wafer was very simple: a thin disk of dry paste that becomes sticky when wet.

How wafers were made gives us a sense of their properties. Recipes for making wafers at home are readily available in the many “receipt-books” that borrowed (or pirated?) from each other.  Here’s one from the New Family Receipt Book of 1811:.

To make Wafers Take very fine flour, mix it with the glair (or whites of eggs) isinglass, and a little yeast; mingle the materials, beat them well together, spread the batter, being made thin with gum water, on even tin plates, and dry them in a stove; then cut them for use. You may make them of what colour you please, by tinging the paste with Brazil or vermillion for red ; indigo or verditer, &c. for blue ; saffron, turmeric, or gamboge, &c. for yellow.

In other words, a starchy flour paste is combined with other sticky ingredients and colorants to form a thin batter, which is baked as a thin sheet and then cut into small pieces. While I haven’t found detailed descriptions from my period of how the commercial product was made, the encyclopedias of the later Victorian era (a great age for encyclopedias!) fill in the picture. Charles Tomlinson’s Cyclopedia of Useful Arts of 1866 describes a process that sounds like a scaled-up version of the home recipe, using the same ingredients with more specialized tools and techniques:

CyclopediaUAWaferQuote(If you’re interested in the fancy wafers of various kinds, Tomlinson describes some of those too). The toxic “mineral colours” mentioned probably include vermilion, now known as mercury sulfide. It gave sticks of sealing wax (and apparently some wafers) their typical vivid orangey scarlet red color. I can imagine that if you’re making a product out of flour with some grease on your tools (some recipes recommend butter!), it would be convenient to include a toxic ingredient as a kind of preservative to keep vermin away. But, really, if the scraps from industrial wafer production were sold as rat poison, who would want to lick a wafer to stick it on their letter? Apparently, no one was worried!

Once I started looking for wafers, I found mentions of them all over publications from this period. In a tutorial for copying drawings in that same 1811 New Family Receipt Book, wafers are used to stick paper to boards and to other papers. An 1847 book of craft projects for girls describes making rosettes out of bits of wafer to decorate baskets. A 1799 book of home remedies advises using “The common wafer made use of for sealing letters” to remove corns from the feet. The treatment sticks on the problem area by itself! All these different uses suggest that wafers were ubiquitous- the reading public was expected to have them on hand.

BettingerTeaser2
My letters, sealed with sealing wax (top) and a wafer (bottom).

Sealing letters with wafers

To use a wafer, a letter writer folded up the paper as usual (see my post on the Anatomy of a Regency Letter for one letter-folding technique). Then the writer took a wafer from his or her writing desk or the “wafer box” that sometimes stood beside the ink-pot in a desk stand or standish. After licking it well, the writer stuck the wafer to the letter and folded the flap closed.

Once I knew what to look for, I found wafers on many letters from Jane Austen’s era- on letters Jane wrote, no less! Even if you’re looking at images online that don’t show the whole letter in detail, the perfectly round shadow of a sealing wafer is often very distinctive- even expert sealing-wax users rarely make a perfect circle of wax. Another thing to look for is the tell-tale mark of the “wafer seal”. While the wafer was still moist, a cross-hatched tool was often pressed into the paper to help it bite into the softened paste. The waffled seal impressed a distinctive pattern of little points or diamonds in the paper.

Detail of a letter written by Jane Austen, dated Godmersham, 20–22 June 1808, to Cassandra Austen (Morgan Library). This letter was sealed with a wafer. Note the distinctive pattern left by the wafer seal.

Many antique desk seals and seal fobs have this “hob-nail” pattern instead of an elaborate (and expensive) engraved insignia, and sometimes etuis or travelling inkwells were marked with the pattern, like this elegant silver penner. A wafer seal could easily be used on sealing wax as well. Occasionally I’ve seen letters where a more elaborate seal was used to press down the wafer, leaving a faint trace of the initials or arms- this may have inspired the fancy embossed stickers of later years. In any case, even when the letter’s seal has been ripped or worn away, sealing wax and wafers can sometimes be distinguished because of their placement on the page: sealing wax was daubed across the flap of the letter, while the common wafer was slipped under the flap.

When was it socially appropriate to use a wafer on your letter? How can YOU make (or fake!) wafers to use in your own period letters? I’ll cover those topics in upcoming posts!

Wafer Links:

Letter-writing for Ladies

FranquelinDetail
Detail from “La Réponse à la lettre” painted by Jean-Augustin Franquelin, 1827. Musée du Louvre.

“Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female” says Mr. Tilney to Catherine, heroine of Northanger Abbey.  He soon reveals his satirical side, though, when he continues: “the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars. . . A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.”  Ouch! How is a lady supposed to learn to write “agreeable letters”, but avoid those stereotypical pitfalls? Let’s turn to some lady-focused literature to find out.

To start with, I want to turn back to one of my favorite 18th century conduct booksThe Polite Lady.  An epistolary work itself, The Polite Lady embeds letter-writing advice in a long missive on making good use of one’s time and avoiding the pernicious vice of idleness (Letter 28).  At this point in the volume, the daughter, Sophy, has left school and is paying a long visit to her aunt in London. Portia, the mother character, is concerned that Sophy erroneously thinks her learning is complete because her formal schooling is over, and so recommends a vigorous course of revision and study alongside the pleasures of town.  After exhorting Sophy to read history, plays and novels (only the most blameless kind), Portia turns to letters. Such extensive reading will not only entertain,

. . . they will likewise give you a natural, easy, and elegant manner of expressing your self, whether in speaking or writing. This, my dear, though seemingly a trifling accomplishment, is, in reality, a most necessary part of polite education ; and it is as great a shame for a young lady not to be able to tell a story with ease and fluency, or to write an elegant and genteel letter, as not to know how to dance a minuet.

Portia goes on to recommend reading “a collection of familiar epistles,” of which the best examples are in French.  Only then does Portia advise her daughter to try writing to her friends to practice the good style she’s soaked up from her reading.  As in everything, “practice is the only means to arrive at perfection.”

As always, Portia gives very little practical information about how to write a letter. The one hint she does provide echoes oft-repeated advice to write as if you were speaking face-to-face with your correspondent:

There is only one general advice I would give you in this case ; When you are going to write a letter, sit down and compose your mind ; disengage yourself from every other care and concern ; recal[sic] to your memory the idea of your absent friend ; represent her to your imagination, as if she were actually present, and were talking and conversing with you ; and after you have heated your fancy, and warmed your heart, by this imaginary conversation, then give full scope to the natural overflowings of your soul ; take the pen, and write down whatever comes uppermost in your mind, without ceremony or restraint. By this means you will write with greater ease, elegance, and propriety, than if you should sit for hours together, musing, and studying, and racking your brain, for turns of wit, and flights of fancy. 

The Complete Letter-Writer (1772 edition) expresses the same idea thus: “When you sit down to write a Letter, remember that this Sort of Writing should be like Conversation ; observe this and you will be no more at a Loss to write, than you will be to speak to the Person were he present ; and this is Nature without Affectation, which, generally speaking, always pleases.”  Jane Austen, in her Jan. 3, 1801 letter to Cassandra, refers to this ideal: “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth. I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter” (Texts of JA’s letters online).

LamballeDetail
Detail from Portrait of Marie-Thérèse, Princesse de Lamballe, painted by Anton Hickel, 1788. (Liechtenstein Princely Collections)

 

For some more detailed advice about writing lady-like letters, I turn to the long-running periodical, The Lady’s MagazineLetter-writing is the topic of one in a long series of “Occasional Papers Addressed to the Ladies,” attributed to the editorial pseudonym “Nestor.” Other topics in the same year, 1790, often overlap with the ethical concerns of The Polite Lady– the cultivation of virtues and rejection of vices, the benefits of good conversation, proper amusements for ladies.

Nestor muses that letter-writing is especially important for ladies: it “is a very useful accomplishment, and to the fair sex particularly so, because they have not always, or so often, those opportunities of meeting their friends which the men enjoy.” He goes on to contrast the pain and sadness of parting with the happy intimacy that correspondence can foster.  Nestor has several “precepts” to help his “fair readers” write letters easily and pleasantly.

1. A fluent and ready hand

Nestor1 copyUh-oh, I’m already in trouble! The English Roundhand writing style I’ve been working on is definitely “a large copy-hand,” that is, a hand modelled on copy-books like The Young Clerk’s Assistant.  When copying moral maxims, I do “spend so much time on a word” that I “forget the thought!”  I’ll have to work on adapting what I’ve learned to “the pen of a ready writer.”

2. Learn to Spell

Nestor2 copy

Nestor sounds a bit like Henry Tilney here when he says “the great objection that has been made time out of mind to the letters of women” is “that they are wrong spelt.”  I’ve already spent some time thinking about the slightly more flexible spelling rules of this era, so with some luck I won’t embarrass the fairer sex in the eyes of censorious gentlemen!

3. Respond Immediately

Nestor3 copy

Oh dear. I’ve often been guilty of procrastinating in the past even when corresponding via email, a spontaneous medium mercifully free of inkwells that need filling and quill pens that need mending.

4. Never delay

Yes, Nestor, I heard you the first time!  He make some good points about the perils of procrastinating in the age of postal delivery: ‘when the post is just going out’ it is much better to have only to fold up your letter, than to write it.”

Nestor4b copyJane Austen mocks the use of this sort of excuse in “Amelia Webster,”  an epistolary spoof in the first volume of stories she wrote as a young girl.  After one short sentence, the heroine concludes her letter: ” I have a thousand things to tell you, but my paper will only permit me to add that I am yr. affect. Freind, Amelia Webster” (JA’s Fiction Manuscripts Online).

5. Conversational Subjects

Nestor 5 copyJust as The Polite Lady, The Complete Letter Writer, and Jane Austen herself advised, Nestor also compares good letters to conversation, in this case the “infinite variety” of subjects that both admit.

6. Avoid Imitation

Nestor6 copyI’m so glad Nestor diverges a little from The Polite Lady here. While Portia considered letter-writing primarily as a way of practicing the style one has absorbed through copious reading, Nestor urges his readers to cultivate their own genius, “no matter how small or great.” He still suggests that we should read “the best letters” in English and French, but only to learn “how neatly and elegantly these authors begin and close their letters” and not in order to copy them.

7. Practice, Practice!

Nestor 7This “Occasional Paper” closes on a note of encouragement that once again echoes The Polite Lady: “Frequent practice, so far from exhausting, will increase your resources.”  You won’t be sorry, old Nestor assures us!  Armed with this advice, I feel a little closer to writing a letter that Henry Tilney would not sneer at. I’ll let you know how I progress!

Pssst: Do you want to know more about The Lady’s Magazine? You’re in luck!  There’s an ongoing research project at the University of Kent called “The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1818): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre.”  Check out the project blog or follow it on twitter!

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:

YMBC&GUKOnEnvelopes

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.

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!

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:

CLW1778
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.

PoliteLadyP163
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.

JAPlanNovel
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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Jane Austen Festival 2014

Locust Grove

I went to the annual Jane Austen Festival in Lousiville Kentucky this past Saturday.  It’s held at Historic Locust Grove, which was built around 1790. The house has been restored and is open as a museum, and served mostly as a backdrop for the Festival.

The Regency Promenade

One of the center-pieces of the event is the Regency Promenade. I didn’t find out whether the attempt was successful to beat the world record for number of people gathered in Regency Dress, but it was an impressive group. I was just an observer, as I don’t have any Regency attire (yet). Maybe next year I’ll join the throng!
The Sedan ChairDowager

I was particularly struck by this stately lady- she had all the poise and grandeur of a Lady Catherine De Bourgh or a Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple!
Promenading

The Duellist

After the promenade, two gentleman attempted to settle a matter of honour. Too bad their powder was damp- only two shots were successfully fired, and none found their mark (to the relief of all the ladies present, I’m sure).
The Injured PartyJolly Tars

The bar for authentic kit was set high by the Royal Navy re-enactment group, H.M.S. Acasta, who held the duel and had an encampment at the festival.

Springhouse at Locust Grove

The Locust Grove estate has the perfect ambience for a Jane Austen event, and luckily the weather was cool and overcast.  I enjoyed the shopping, and picked up a few books that will help me become more Accomplished.  I missed out on some of the activities that required advance tickets and appropriate attire- there’s a Grand Ball in the evening that must be quite a sight.  The enjoyable day left me mulling over plans for next year!

One Book, Three Circulating Libraries

Cancelled bookplate from Mrs. Hill's Circulating Library.
Cancelled book-plate from Mrs. Hill’s Circulating Library.

I came across this book when I was wading through some search or other on Google Books. The book itself, titled The Oppressed Captive, is not very remarkable, but it contains no less than THREE book-plates from different circulating libraries!  This little volume must have made its way all ’round Ramsgate, a resort-town in Kent on the east coast of England. Pride and Prejudice fans will recognize it as the seaside spot where Wickham seduced Georgiana Darcy.

Bookplate from Witherden's Circulating Library, Ramsgate; dated 1791.
Bookplate from Witherden’s Circulating Library, Ramsgate; dated 1791.

The free public libraries we are familiar with only became widespread in the later 19th century. These circulating libraries were private, for-profit ventures that resembled modern boutique gift-shops more than modern libraries.  Two of the three bookplates in The Oppressed Captive advertise the many other wares besides books to be bought or rented there. Sackett’s Marine Library (book-plate pictured below), sold everything from silverware to insurance! They also rented out “Piano Fortes, Harps, &c. . . . by the week, month, or year,” a service which must have been calculated to appeal to the accomplished (and moneyed) gentlefolk who visited Ramsgate for health or for fun.  Whether an Accomplished Young Person needed a writing desk, beads for a fancy purse, needles for sewing, or the latest collection of poetry, circulating libraries would provide!

Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, set in an up-and-coming sea-side resort, mentions a circulating library. Its subscription book functions, like the Pump-Room book in Bath, as a record of fashionable visitors currently in residence (Chapter 6), but it’s also a place to buy “new parasols, new gloves, and new brooches” (Chapter 2). Guidebooks to sea-bathing places describe libraries as one of the amenities genteel tourists need to know about. Mrs. Witherden’s library is mentioned along with another Ramsgate library run by a Mr. Burgess in A Short Description of the Isle of Thanet: Being Chiefly Intended as a Directory for the Company Resorting to Margate, Ramsgate, and Broadstairs (1796 edition, expanded 1815 edition). Add those to the two other libraries recorded in The Oppressed Captive, and we find  there were as many as four libraries in Ramsgate, although perhaps not simultaneously!

Bookplate from the Marine Library, Ramsgate.
Book-plate from the Marine Library, Ramsgate.

The circulating libraries did not only make money by selling other products, they required subscription fees for the privilege of borrowing books.  Fanny Price, the quiet heroine of Austen’s Mansfield Park, revels in her membership in a library in Portsmouth and shares its bounty with her younger sister Susan:

 There were none [no books] in her father’s house; but wealth is luxurious and daring, and some of hers found its way to a circulating library. She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one’s improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself.

Mansfield Park, Chapter 40

I just love the image of timid little Fanny feeling “luxurious and daring” because she spends money on a library subscription! I certainly remember feeling a certain amount of power when I got my own library card as a child, and could choose my own books and check them out by myself.

Title Page of The Oppressed Captive, 1757.
Title Page of The Oppressed Captive, 1757.

I doubt that The Oppressed Captive would have appealed to Fanny- it’s a sensational autobiography by the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish gentleman that focuses on his ill-treatment by his father and his subsequent sufferings. The title page prominently announces that the author, Robert Nugent, wrote the book while in the Fleet Prison! He thinly veils his story behind classical-sounding pseudonyms and calls it a “Historical Novel,”  a term meant to suggest that it was a story based on facts- it’s not historical fiction in the modern sense of the term. If you’d like to know what the patrons of three of Ramsgate’s circulating libraries found so attractive about this book, you can read the full text at Google Books. If you’d like to read poor Robert Nugent’s story with a little more context, a biography of his father was written by a descendant in 1898- it’s also available on Google Books.

Read more about Circulating Libraries in Jane Austen’s Era: