THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

23 January 2018

The good, the bad, and the cross-hatched

Today is National (and possibly International) Handwriting Day, and we thought we would take a quick look at some examples from recently-catalogued papers in our Modern Archives and Manuscripts collections.

The good (and improving) 

Luckily for our manuscript cataloguers, the recently acquired letters of Princess Charlotte Augusta to her tutor George Frederick Nott (1805-1808) posed little difficulty. In the series of 31 letters and notes we get to see the development of her handwriting.

Charlotte Prayer 2
Charlotte Prayer 2

Early prayer, Add MS 89259/1, Papers relating to the Royal family within the correspondence of John Fisher, Bishop of Salisbury

By the time of this second undated example her hand is progressing nicely – and thankfully neatly – with the help of guidelines penciled on to the paper to keep her lines straight.

Charlotte 2Add MS 89259/2

By 1807 Charlotte’s handwriting is well formed and regular, with nice little flourishes, and written without the aid of guidelines.

Charlotte 3Add MS 89259/2

 

The bad

Unless they have been very lucky in their research, most archive users will have experienced frustration when trying to decipher a difficult hand. It can be tempting to conclude that some lives will remain untold because they are recorded illegibly, and some famous lives have been delved into despite their terrible handwriting – Charles Darwin is a name which springs immediately to mind.

CD2Charles Darwin to Alfred Russell Wallace, Add MS 46434, f 230

CD4Charles Darwin to Alfred Russell Wallace, Add MS 46434, f 75v

(Darwin was well-aware of the general assessment of his handwriting. In a letter to John Murray, 31 Mar 1859 he wrote “I defy anyone, not familiar with my handwriting & odd arrangements to make out my M.S. till fairly copied”. A transcription of this letter can be found online at the Darwin Correspondence Project).

The cross-hatched

The Grimaldi correspondence features letters written by Louisa Frances Edmeads to her brother William Grimaldi , as well as a small number of letters from Stacey Grimaldi to other family members. Lurking in these letters are examples of the dreaded (or keenly anticipated, if you’re feeling up to the challenge) cross-hatching, where the writing is continued at 90 degrees across the page.

Crosshatch 1

Crosshatch 2Add MS 89258

Combine cross-hatching with bleed-through from the verso of the folio, and you have a recipe for a research headache.

If we’ve whet your appetite for handwriting, why not head over to the Digital Scholarship blog to read about the Library’s work with the Transkribus tool, generating and testing automatic Handwritten Text Recognition models for the India Office Records.

Alex Hailey

Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts