Crossed-writing makes cross Reading

January 30, 2017 at 2:22 pm (books, history, World of Two Teens) (, , )

A delightful little booklet by Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) accompanied his invention of the Wonderland Stamp Case. From 1890, it makes amusing observations, which will strike the funny-bone of collectors and readers of Old Letters.

The title of this post comes from Carroll’s Ninth Rule of writing: “when you find you have more to say, take another piece of paper — a whole sheet, or a scrap, as the case may demand: but, whatever you do don’t cross! Remember the old proverb,’Cross-writing makes cross reading‘.

The booklet is entitled, Eight or Nine Words about Letter Writing – though, as you might guess by there being nine “rules”, the nine words should not be taken literally!

His GOLDEN rule (rule No. 1) is one the Mr. Bingleys and Lord Northamptons of fiction and life (respectively) should take to heart: Write legibly.

“A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly. Of course you reply, “I do it to save time.” … but, what right have you to do it at your friend’s expense? Isn’t his time as valuable as yours? Years ago, I used to receive letters from a friend – and very interesting letters too – written in one of the most atrocious hands ever invented. It generally took me about a week to read one of his letters! I used to … puzzle over the riddles which composed it – holding it in different positions, and at different distances, till at last the meaning of some hopeless scrawl would flash upon me, when I at once wrote down the English under it…”


Highly recommended, if your funny bone needs some tickling OR you (like me) read Old Letters that are CROSSED and in an “atrocious hand”.

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The Case of the “Noble Torso”

July 2, 2015 at 11:30 am (diaries, history, news, people, research) (, , , , )

Research can be exhilarating…

Research can be frustrating….

And some days, there’s a little bit of BOTH the ‘high’ and the ‘low’!

bright star_letter

When a letter was delivered, it was all nice and tight in its “wrapper”. By the time it’s gotten into an archive (perhaps after being at auction, or in the hands of some seller not family), envelopes are opened, letters are categorized, and sometimes… separated. Thus: the Noble Torso, as I am now calling such little widows and orphans.

As a for-instance: letters in a folder marked “Unidentified writers” => which can be due to illegible signatures or missing signatures. In here I found an interesting letter, all about the Smith’s LAST VISIT (in 1835 – puzzlingly; that was a good 7 or 8 months after they moved to Mapledurham House!) to Tring Park. I transcribed, relishing the tale of the garden (seen in May, and quite flourishing). Then – bang! – it ended in what seemed mid-thought.

I dipped into another folder, for there were two to choose from: one “dated” and another “undated”. I wasn’t having much luck “dipping”. So I decided: GIVE UP! Just start transcribing from the Beginning! and I opened the first image I had photographed in a “dated” file: and there IT was: the Noble Torso that finished a highly interesting story of a Young Buck, out shooting Rooks, whose shot (or shots?) was rather wild and wide off the mark: Poor Maria (Emma’s youngest sister) wasn’t sure he wasn’t going to shoot her!

FINALLY: a united LETTER!! (though, as a new “find” I still have to contact the archive, so physically, they are still apart…).

I then looked for the widow of yet another orphaned Noble Torso: and THERE its companion was (though not as *dramatic* a moment as that first “find”).

I must confess here, that in England I grew rather fond of Emma and (especially!!!) Mamma = for theirs were the letters (and diaries) I brought home in 2007 (and have worked with since). Fanny, the middle sister, I was giving a lecture on that summer, so she too I grew to know more about — yet it was different to being immersed in her thoughts and feelings via letters. Now, with an influx of more correspondence – and from the likes of Fanny (or to her) and Maria and even dear Spencer – I feel as if I’m getting to know each of them. A tight family unit, and yet still individuals, with quirks & foibles, passions & set-backs, all their own.

Frustrating … and … EXHILARATING!


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Letter Writing – two Fab Blogs!

May 3, 2015 at 12:00 pm (entertainment, history) (, )


Can one — in 2015 — send letters to 1814?!? A couple of Bloggers are telling their tales – Lady Smatter, at Her Reputation for Accomplishment; and Sabine at Kleidung um 1800. Letter-reading was a very “social” event; the Smiths & Goslings exchanged letters, read them aloud, copied out news, anything to keep everyone in the picture. So please join these ladies in hearing more about the Art of Letter Writing.

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Lost Letters…

August 22, 2009 at 9:42 am (books) (, , , , , , )

I am reading (a library copy) Katherine Sutherland’s Jane Austen’s Textual Lives. She has much to say about the Austen-Leigh Memoir with which _I_ would disagree, but I want to comment on the “Cassandra Controversy” Sutherland and everyone writing on Austen sooner or later bring up. Why is it, I ask myself this morning, everyone cares ONLY for the letters of Jane written to Cassandra?? Is it because we know they once existed? Does the imagined ‘bonfire’ ignite the passion for the “lost letters”?? (They were Cassandra’s property to do with as she pleased…) My indignation (rather too strong a word, but I will use it) comes from the fact that no one cares – or at least writes about – the lost letters of CASSANDRA! If Jane wrote to her, she wrote to Jane. They existed, though are a bit more ephemeral from the perspective of not being divvied up, not being knowingly burned, not being by the famous sister.

Jane Austen did not live in a vacuum. My own researches into the letters of the Smith family prove that each member of a family wrote — in turn — to other members of the family. Therefore, not only would there have been Jane’s letters to the likes of cousins like Eliza, Jane would have written her mother, her father, her brothers, her friends (Martha Llloyd, the Bigg sisters); and oh! what ever happened to the letters to Miss Sharp.

Cassandra, too, would have had a circle of correspondents. Never mind the brothers, with their wide circles of acquaintance.

The volume of family letters known as the Austen Papers, which I make no bones about saying “collate ALL the known Austen letters, Jane’s and her family’s, into a volume” are easily dismissed by Austen scholars: They should not be! That would be like presenting Mozart’s letters without those of his father.

An interesting point, to get back to the “circle” of correspondents a singular writer would have had: Emma writes to one of her sisters a letter already addressed to another sister! The opening line apologizes, claiming that although the letter was written to one it is “by rights” the turn of this sister, whose name was inserted near the crossed out name of the original recipient. Did the sister mind? Evidently not! Did the sister desire a letter, any letter, rather than that it went to the original sister? – Evidently! That was of more importance than the crossing out and substitution! After all, most letters were read aloud. (I have only come across ONE letter, one written by Mary Smith, in which the writer designated the letter ‘private’ = which therefore would NOT have been read out or passed around to other readers.)

There is much, in this age of phone calls and emails, that people do not think about concerning the age of letter-writing. I sincerely wish the laments for the “lost” Austen letters extended to the “lost” letters that were either also later destroyed (the niece’s destruction of letters to her father comes to mind), but also perhaps were never kept.

There has long been the question in the back of my mind as regards keeping correspondence. This came up when reading about Mozart’s many, many moves in the years of his marriage: All those letters from Papa Mozart were hauled from house to house to house. Imagine the *desire* to keep such items!!

Through this blog, I have met several people who have some snippet of surviving family correspondence. How lucky they are! All I have of my family are a handful of sepia photographs – which I treasure, I must confess, because of the rarity of their survival.

In short, we should be grateful for what we have, and stop harping on what was lost (through whatever means: destruction, carelessness, or cutting up for souvenirs). I am, for the Smith letters, even while I hope there is more to uncover!

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