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Literary Descriptions Of Handwriting


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#1 bcbg

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 12:34

I came across the following passage in Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano , and thought to share it:

At first glance it did not appear a letter. But there was no mistaking, even in the uncertain light, the hand, half crabbed, half generous, and wholly drunken, of the Consul himself, the Greek es, flying buttresses of ds, the ts like lonely wayside crosses save where they crucified the entire word, the words themselves slanting steeply downhill, though the individual characters seemed as if resisting the descent, braced, climbing the other way.

I find it wonderfully evocative and particularly love his description of the Consul's t's.

Does anyone else know of any literary accounts of a fictional character's handwriting ?
bon chic bon genre

#2 doggonecarl

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 14:29

Does anyone else know of any literary accounts of a fictional character's handwriting ?


Not off hand. But it will be interesting to look for such references.

By the way, Lowery was quite the correspondent, writing a lot of postcards and letters. It's been a while since I read his biography, but I think he wrote a lot (if not all) his poetry and fiction by hand.

Oh, and congrat for tackling quite a novel, Under the Volcano.

#3 beak

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 15:49

Two that spring to mind are --

Orwell's 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying' ----

'But the handwriting, where it was not crossed out, was delicate and

'scholarly'. With pain and trouble Gordon had acquired that

'scholarly' hand, so different from the beastly copper-plate they

had taught him at school...'

And Thomas Hardy in 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' where his daughter (or is she!) talks at some length about the effect of her own (and other's) handwriting, and describes it, and how and why she acquired it.

I find that there are plenty of tips and insights about the use of pen and ink in general to be found in period 'fiction'. For instance, in Casterbridge again, there is also a good description of the way an envelope has been sealed, and about how it is normally done.

Happy reading!

Edited by beak, 09 January 2013 - 15:50.

Sincerely, beak. God does not work in mysterious ways he works in ways that are indistinguishable from his non-existence.

#4 bcbg

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 17:56

Doggonecarl - It wouldn't surprise me at all if Lowry were quite the letter writer. I can imagine his missives were quite a treat to read ! As for Under tthe Volcano, well, any effort is amply rewarded, wouldn't you say ?

Beak - it has been so long since I read Keep the Aspidistra Flying and The Mayor of Casterbridge, I can hardly remember those passages. But you're right, one can learn really a lot from such fiction. Great finds.

OK, here's another reference, this time from Maugham's Of Human Bondage (which I recently finished):

[The protagonist has just been handed his friend's translation, which he goes on to describe]

It was written in pencil, in a very fine but peculiar handwriting which was hard to read: it was just like black letter.
'Doesn't it take you an awful time to write like that?' It's wonderful'.
'I don't know why handwriting shouldn't be beautiful'.


Indeed !
bon chic bon genre

#5 doggonecarl

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 19:11

It wouldn't surprise me at all if Lowry were quite the letter writer. I can imagine his missives were quite a treat to read !


His letters, at least a selection of them, have been published:

http://www.amazon.co...y/dp/B0007DEJWU

#6 bcbg

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 19:24

Thanks so much for the link, doggonecarl. It's gone on the 'to read' list.
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#7 doggonecarl

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Posted 09 January 2013 - 19:43

Haven't found handwriting references, but I have found "writing" mentioned a lot (Thanks to Kindle's search feature). This from Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary:

"She had bought herself a blotting book, writing case, pen-holder, and envelopes, although she had no one to write to;"

This is going to obsess me...

#8 doggonecarl

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Posted 11 January 2013 - 20:31

"William had written out a letter of application, couched in admirable business language, which Paul copied, with variations. The boy's handwriting was execrable, so that William, who did all things well, got into a fever of impatience."

Sons and Lovers, by D. H. Lawrence

#9 _R_

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Posted 26 January 2013 - 20:48

Shakespeare wrote:

"I once did hold it, as our statists do,
A baseness to write fair, and labour'd much
How to forget that learning. But, sir, now
It stood me yeoman's service."
(HAMLET, Act Five, Scene Two)


George Orwell wrote:

"Winston found and handed over two creased and filthy notes, which Parsons entered in a small notebook, in the neat handwriting of the illiterate ... " (NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, chapter 5)


George Bernard Shaw wrote:

" ...But the effort that cost her [Eliza Dolittle] the deepest humiliation was a request to Higgins, whose pet artistic fancy, next to Milton's verse, was caligraphy [sic], and who himself wrote a most beautiful Italian hand, that he would teach her to write. He declared that she was congenitally incapable of forming a single letter worthy of the least of Milton's words; but she persisted; and again he suddenly threw himself into the task of teaching her with a combination of stormy intensity, concentrated patience, and occasional bursts of interesting disquisition on the beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny, of human handwriting. Eliza ended by acquiring an extremely uncommercial script which was a positive extension of her personal beauty ... "
-- George Bernard Shaw in his Afterword to PYGMALION


George Eliot wrote:

"When Fred went to the office the next morning, there was a test to be gone through which he was not prepared for. 
Now Fred," said Caleb, "you will have some desk-work. ... . How are you at writing and arithmetic?" 
Fred felt an awkward movement of the heart; he had not thought of desk-work; but he was in a resolute mood, and not going to shrink. "I'm not afraid of arithmetic, Mr. Garth: it always came easily to me. I think you know my writing." 
"Let us see," said Caleb, taking up a pen, examining it carefully and handing it, well dipped, to Fred with a sheet of ruled paper. "Copy me a line or two of that valuation, with the figures at the end." 
At that time the opinion existed that it was beneath a gentleman to write legibly, or with a hand in the least suitable to a clerk. Fred wrote the lines demanded in a hand as gentlemanly as that of any viscount or bishop of the day: the vowels were all alike and the consonants only distinguishable as turning up or down, the strokes had a blotted solidity and the letters disdained to keep the line-- in short, it was a manuscript of that venerable kind easy to interpret when you know beforehand what the writer means. 
As Caleb looked on, his visage showed a growing depression, but when Fred handed him the paper he gave something like a snarl, and rapped the paper passionately with the back of his hand. Bad work like this dispelled all Caleb's mildness. 
"The deuce!" he exclaimed, snarlingly. "To think that this is a country where a man's education may cost hundreds and hundreds, and it turns you out this!" Then in a more pathetic tone, pushing up his spectacles and looking at the unfortunate scribe, "The Lord have mercy on us, Fred, I can't put up with this!" 
"What can I do, Mr. Garth?" said Fred, whose spirits had sunk very low, not only at the estimate of his handwriting, but at the vision of himself as liable to be ranked with office clerks.
"Do? Why, you must learn to form your letters and keep the line. What's the use of writing at all if nobody can understand it?" asked Caleb, energetically, quite preoccupied with the bad quality of the work. "Is there so little business in the world that you must be sending puzzles over the country? But that's the way people are brought up. I should lose no end of time with the letters some people send me, if Susan did not make them out for me. It's disgusting." Here Caleb tossed the paper from him. 
... "I am very sorry," were all the words that [Fred] could muster. But Mr. Garth was already relenting. "We must make the best of it, Fred," he began, with a return to his usual quiet tone. "Every man can learn to write. I taught myself. Go at it with a will, and sit up at night if the day-time isn't enough. ... "



#10 penrivers

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Posted 26 January 2013 - 21:21

I came across the following passage in Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano , and thought to share it:

At first glance it did not appear a letter. But there was no mistaking, even in the uncertain light, the hand, half crabbed, half generous, and wholly drunken, of the Consul himself, the Greek es, flying buttresses of ds, the ts like lonely wayside crosses save where they crucified the entire word, the words themselves slanting steeply downhill, though the individual characters seemed as if resisting the descent, braced, climbing the other way.

I find it wonderfully evocative and particularly love his description of the Consul's t's.

Does anyone else know of any literary accounts of a fictional character's handwriting ?

I remember that letter, he found it inside a volume of Elizabethian works in "El farolito" it was if I remember well from his wife, the night the infernal dance began, DO YOU LIKE THIS GARDEN THAT IS YOURS?...
What I most liked from him was that reference to a place in Oaxaca where when as the women Works the men swim on the river.(Dark as the tomb where my friend lies).
Beak, glad to read you again, you were missed.

#11 bcbg

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Posted 27 January 2013 - 08:02

Thanks for the wonderfully humorous additions, doggonecarl and _R_.
The Eliot and Orwell quotes had me laughing.
I'm amused by how often the adjective 'execrable' (v Lawrence quote )is used in reference to handwriting. I wonder how many old school reports it appears in ?

Edited by bcbg, 27 January 2013 - 08:03.

bon chic bon genre

#12 doggonecarl

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Posted 31 January 2013 - 16:34

An hour or so later he received a note from Odette, and at once recognised that florid
handwriting, in which an affectation of British stiffness imposed an apparent discipline upon its shapeless
characters, significant, perhaps, to less intimate eyes than his, of an untidiness of mind, a fragmentary
education, a want of sincerity and decision.

--From Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way"

#13 bcbg

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Posted 02 February 2013 - 09:56

I think I remember that passage from Proust, doggonecarl. It's been so many years since I read la recherche, though. I started with an English translation and finished with the French. Still not convinced it was worth the effort !

Perhaps we could broaden the scope of this thread a little to include works of art (literary or otherwise) in which letters or writing play a significant role.
I say this because last night I saw a wonderful production of Onegin - the ballet based on Pushkin's novel.
In it, the playboy protagonist receives a love letter from the besotted Tatiana, whom he cruelly rejects. By the end however, the roles are reversed and it is Tatiana who rejects Eugene Onegin by returning his love letter.

Can you imagine such a drama being played out over email or text message ?
bon chic bon genre

#14 penrivers

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Posted 04 February 2013 - 03:21

I came across the following passage in Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano , and thought to share it:

At first glance it did not appear a letter. But there was no mistaking, even in the uncertain light, the hand, half crabbed, half generous, and wholly drunken, of the Consul himself, the Greek es, flying buttresses of ds, the ts like lonely wayside crosses save where they crucified the entire word, the words themselves slanting steeply downhill, though the individual characters seemed as if resisting the descent, braced, climbing the other way.

I find it wonderfully evocative and particularly love his description of the Consul's t's.

Does anyone else know of any literary accounts of a fictional character's handwriting ?

I remember that letter, he found it inside a volume of Elizabethian works in "El farolito" it was if I remember well from his wife, the night the infernal dance began, DO YOU LIKE THIS GARDEN THAT IS YOURS?...
What I most liked from him was that reference to a place in Oaxaca where when as the women Works the men swim on the river.(Dark as the tomb where my friend lies).
Beak, glad to read you again, you were missed.

Well, in second toughts, aparently the letter was from the cnsul himself. I need to check.

#15 bcbg

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Posted 04 February 2013 - 10:23

Penrivers: The letter was indeed written by the Consul (as the passage says), and was read by M.Laruelle.
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#16 penrivers

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Posted 04 February 2013 - 18:30

Penrivers: The letter was indeed written by the Consul (as the passage says), and was read by M.Laruelle.

Thanks bcbg.

#17 bcbg

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Posted 17 February 2013 - 20:05

Veering slightly off-course again, here is an article from the Royal Opera House's site, about the plot device of letters in opera:
http://www.roh.org.u.../youve-got-mail
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