One last follow-up on the signature thing, which is really just a ramble about handwriting.

I was thinking thinky thoughts about handwriting, of course, during that whole affair, and fortuitously happened across an article in Slate about the difficulties of deciphering various people’s scripts. Man, I pity the folks having to wade through that kind of stuff.

Which brings me to Elizabeth’s handwriting. One of the books I got out of the library while working on the contract language was a collection of her letters, poetry, etc. The book I was looking for was checked out, unfortunately, but I went to the appropriate section anyway, and sure enough found another one I could use. Not until I got home did I realize that fate had handed me a little gift: while the book I’d been after had modernized her spellings, this one consisted of direct transcriptions of every document we have that’s verifiably in Elizabeth’s handwriting. Not only did that mean her idiosyncratic spellings (which can be used, in part, to reconstruct her pronunciation!), but also strike-outs, marginal insertions, re-drafting of speeches . . . and a few photo images of the documents themselves.

First of all, that means the contract is written wherever possible with the spellings Elizabeth favored. (Geekiness, yes, yes, we know.) But it also means I got to look at her handwriting.

The first image is of a translated poem written either by Princess Elizabeth or her tutor. Nobody can tell which, because she, like many students, was copying her tutor’s hand scrupulously. It’s a very nice, clean italic hand, but lacking in personality, as you would expect. Later on they show a letter to Edward Seymour, and there you can see her developed italic, with various flourishes and personal touches that make it distinctively Elizabeth’s handwriting, and nobody else’s. If we’d had more time on the contract thing, I would have been supremely tempted to try and make a font out of it, so we could print the entire document in Elizabeth’s actual hand. But that’s neither here nor there.

The third document gets me right in the gut. Shortly after Mary ascended the throne, she sentenced Elizabeth to imprisonment in the Tower. Elizabeth, stalling for time, asked her guards for leave to write a letter to Mary; she took long enough over it that the tide changed on the Thames, and so her imprisonment was delayed by a day. The image shows the two pages of that letter: in that same italic hand, but messier, less artfully controlled. The lines slant upward, the letter-forms are sharper, and on the second page, uneven diagonal lines cross out the white space between the conclusion and the signature, so that no one could insert additional material that could compromise her already precarious position. The evidence of her worry and fear is breathtaking; looking at her handwriting, I see Elizabeth as a person, not as the much-mythologized Gloriana. She was young and scared and desperate not to be imprisoned. It’s a priceless glimpse into the past.

Aaaand then <snicker> there’s the fourth and last image. The introduction to the book had talked about the distinct shift in Elizabeth’s handwriting after she became Queen, as she adapted her style to her position. Honestly? I though at first that they meant it had become more ornate and regal.

She developed doctor handwriting.

The letter to Sir William Cecil is a nigh-illegible scrawl only vaguely recognizable as italic, or even as Engl — oh, wait, it’s Latin. <g> You can’t even tell at first glance what language it’s in. But (looping back around to that link up above), I understand now why people working on her manuscripts nowadays run into trouble. The letters m and n become vague horizontal wobbles; a’s might be caret marks or o’s. Often they can’t tell her n’s from her u’s, which leads to real trouble in her French letters; whether a word is “us” (nous) or “you” (uous, i.e. vous) can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Throw in the abbreviations and idiosyncratic spelling of the time, swirl it all in a blender (which I think she did), and you’ve got another powerful statement of personality. Elizabeth herself referred to it as “skribling” in a letter to James of Scotland, and a court secretary called it “Queen Elizabeth’s running hand.” It looks like she wrote while running.

It’s an incredible gift, being able to see her handwriting. Whether you buy into graphology or not, certainly our writing expresses our personalities very powerfully.

0 Responses to “handwriting”

  1. tltrent

    Truly fascinating! Thank you for talking about that–I find these things so interesting b/c they really do allow us to draw close to history and peer behind the veil…Ah, to be imprisoned in a library. That’s my dream! 🙂

  2. faerie_writer

    I gotta tell you, I’m a big Elizabethan history fan and just *love* the idea of your new book! Can’t wait to read it! 😀

  3. diatryma

    I’m only really conscious of my handwriting when it changes. At Alpha last summer, I started playing with cursive Js– the swoopy ones, not the printy ones. Then all last semester I drew extra-loopy ys and gs in the margins of my notebooks. J crept into my handwriting with a story; the gs and ys are creeping in now.

    I like the idea of a running hand rather than cursive, though I know they are the same thing and the same meaning.

    • Marie Brennan

      . . . you know, it never occurred to me that “running” and “cursive” are the same thing?

      It fits, though. Elizabeth’s running hand wouldn’t look out of place next to some people’s modern cursive.

      As for changing — yes. I copied my f’s from my next-door neighbor, who had fun swoopy ones. My g’s and y’s keep waffling, but I’m trying to develop them.

      • diatryma

        I’m trying to break myself of the bulbous g and y. They’re only good when they’re neat, and even then the tangle the line. My handwriting changed some more when I started doing a roleplaying game involving letters. I knew how my character should write, and now my fs have descenders and I swoop my Ls under their letters. It makes everything look a bit more dynamic and arabesque. Arabic. Arabicine.

        I’m never going to have legible handwriting; the best I can aim for is neat and visually striking.

  4. scottakennedy

    By way of comment and introduction: I stumbled over here from Jim Hines’s page and had to add you to my friends list so I don’t miss any future posts as fascinating as this. Thanks!

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