A few years ago, I had lunch with five women who had been at high school with me. Some of them were in touch with each other, others not, but as a group we hadn’t all been together or seen one another since we were about 13. In between, some of us had worked at jobs we’d be hard-pressed to describe, were married to husbands whom the others had never met and had children whose names the rest of us didn’t know.
Over lunch, somewhere between appetizers and entrées, Claire reached into her bag to get her notebook and pen. Instinctively, all five of us fell silent and leaned in to watch her write. It was a shock to see handwriting that I not only recognized but knew well—and yet that at some level I’d forgotten I knew at all. That applied not only to all of us round that table, but probably to a dozen more girls whom I used to see writing on the blackboard each day or swop silly notes with.
I now live with someone whose handwriting I rarely see. I recognize his wry, one-line text messages, and the voice I read in our daily email exchanges is entirely his, but if I were asked to identify his longhand—cursive handwriting—I’d make a poor witness.
Is what was once a part of us disappearing?
Two novelists—one an American copy editor, the other a British columnist and arts critic—have written similarly quirky books about handwriting. Kitty Burns Florey is a self-confessed “penmanship nut” who says she wrote Script and Scribble after realizing that schools today teach keyboarding, not handwriting—which she feels was an important piece of our lives. “At some level the way you wrote was a part of you, and was judged,” she says of a disappearing generation and skill. Hensher claims that his motive for writing The Missing Ink was when he realized that he didn’t know what one of his closest friend’s handwriting looked like—and that because of this, something essential was missing from their friendship.
Different (pen) strokes
A moment’s glance at both books reveals the different approaches: Burns Florey shows us the story of handwriting; Hensher tells it, albeit eccentrically. Script and Scribble is a well-produced mini coffee-table book, whereas Hensher’s large-format paperback seems a more traditional read (although it’s hardly chronological), interrupted with occasional illustrations. Curiously, both authors approach their subject by looking quite specifically and prominently at their own handwriting, as if they couldn’t quite keep their personal stories out of their pages—curious, that is, until you realize why.
Whether we’ve been taught to write or not, whether we mimicked our teacher’s hand or that of an English queen, our handwriting just is. We can influence it a little here and there, but, essentially, we’re stuck with what we’ve got—which is perhaps why it’s so fascinating. Our handwriting offers us a glimpse of who we really are. “What makes humans different from other animals is our interest in ourselves,” says Burns Florey of our fascination with our own writing, “and we love anything that provides clues about who we are.”
Palmer vs. Richardson
This act or art of handwriting possess a series of conflicts: it’s intimate yet public, unconscious and self-conscious, functional yet vain. No wonder teenagers spend hours writing their names in their diaries—not just to remind themselves who they are or will be, but what sort of person their As and Bs and Cs will define. Both authors recognize this enduring intimacy: Burns Florey’s first three chapters, in fact, are the story of her own handwriting—and of her husband Ron’s, her mother’s and father’s, and her best friends’, Eileen and Rosamond. She’s a baby boomer who claims that all Americans over the age of 35 learned to write, as she did, using the Palmer Method. The patented method of Austin Palmer (1860–1927) was designed to be the perfect script for the world of commerce and was based on taking advantage of muscular movement, that is, minimizing the effort of holding and moving the writing pen to create a legible no-nonsense script where speed was the governing factor. The ascenders and descenders of Palmer’s method looped in a continuous way as if the pen never leaves the paper. Mastery was achieved through a series of rigorous drills, which, when practiced daily, along with constant vigilance about posture and movement, were supposed to be guaranteed to maintain his script. But perhaps there’s not much room for personality clues here.
A few years younger than Burns Florey, and from across the pond, Hensher, in his own chapter (5) on his handwriting development—“What’s my handwriting like?”— succinctly demonstrates his influences in ten witty bullet points. Under point 4, he describes the development of the joined-up writing he learned in primary school in the 1970s, where he was taught Marion Richardson’s rounded letterforms—known to many teachers as “ball and stick,” for its two basic strokes. The artist, author and educator Richardson (1892–1946) was the dominant influence on British schoolchildren’s handwriting in the second half of the 20th century. Unlike the Palmer Method, Richardson’s approach aimed for a free action using only easy movements of the hand and arm, and she warned against imposing an “adult sense of correctness” on children. “If this book has a hero,” says Hensher, “it’s the proponent of child-centred art and writing, Marion Richardson.” Stripped of “obfuscating ornament,” Richardson’s letters use limited lifts of the pen to achieve her rounded cursive—not that limited, in fact, as it involves none of the continuous looping seen in Palmer’s method.
A living essence
Both these books are personal, but the eccentric structure of The Missing Ink frees Hensher to follow what interests him and ditch the rest. “I thought originally that it could go a lot further back in history, to show the shift between incunabula and manuscripts and what happened when print took over,” he says. “One of the interesting aspects of this is people trying to write in the style of print. But that just turned into too enormous a subject.” He wanted to have some sense of what he was writing about, not just its historical status, but, as he says, “some kind of living essence”—such as, for instance, the copperplate we still see around us, not in living hands so much, but preserved in such unlikely places as Pepsi-Cola’s iconic logo.
Scattered throughout Hensher’s book are what he calls “witness” chapters, short monologues or conversations between unnamed characters who are identified only by their profession or status—“literary agent,” “retired librarian,” “financier”—and who tell tales of home, school, library or office handwriting incidents or memories. They touch on the very personal stories he collected while researching the book. “These grew out of stories that eventually began to overwhelm me,” says Hensher. “Only in a couple of cases did I arrange formal interviews; many of the stories I gathered were at dinner when people started talking about handwriting. I’d just get out my iPhone and switch it on.”
“From string onwards”
“I wanted to give some sense of how old writing is,” says Hensher. “That moment when cuneiform—a system of pictographs that lasted 2,000 years—becomes writing isn’t altogether clear. Was it writing in our sense? Is it handwriting? Could they tell one scribe from another?” Scribes certainly had lessons to learn how to write cuneiform neatly, he says, but he is less sure that there was any notion of producing an individual style.
From here, Hensher’s section on “A History of Handwriting, from String Onwards” wraps up the subject in 11 succinct bullet points. He adds two distinct chapters that look at the history and influence of handwriting through the work of two great literary figures. “When I went looking for witnesses—not necessarily specialist handwriting witnesses—I wanted to see how handwriting struck people in the middle of the 19th century,” he says. “I wanted to go to somebody who is by nature is very observant, and I don’t think that anybody in the 19th century was more observant than Dickens.” Hensher found that handwriting was just one of many external things that Dickens used repeatedly to read a character or “to erect a plot over,” such as the scene in Bleak House where Lady Dedlock’s recognition of her lover’s handwriting leads her to say “Is it what you people call law-hand?” “He was a natural choice, really,” Hensher continues. “The publishers liked it and asked for another, so Proust came to mind quite naturally.” Another author suggested to Hensher was Iris Murdoch, who was apparently very interested in handwriting (her own was notoriously difficult to read). Hensher’s tendency to ramble off into such excursions occasionally gives the reader a sense of perusing a diary or term paper rather than a book on a lost art, but in its own way it’s somehow appropriate, given the intense individuality of the subject matter.
A losing battle?
Both books deal with graphology, and Burns Florey in particular discusses it in great detail, as she subjects herself and three friends to various graphological analyses of their handwriting. But both agree it has no scientific value, although Hensher says he’s changed his mind about it somewhat since writing his book. “I decided there was more to it than I first thought,” he says, although he adds that he hasn’t changed his mind in any systematic way: “It is more or less nonsense, but I do think you can read quite a lot about a person from their handwriting”—one of those things, like a person’s home or clothes or the way they carry themselves, that they don’t have complete control over but that in fact reveal quite a lot about them.
The endgame is that both authors hope their books will inspire readers to pick up pens and write. Burns Florey wants to encourage us “to wield both a pencil and a mouse with ease, with skill, with pride—and with pleasure.” Hensher mounts a convincing case as to why handwriting is good for us. “It involves us in a relationship with the written word that is sensuous, immediate and individual,” he says. His book ends with another 10-point manifesto suggesting hands-on ways to put handwriting back in our lives. And, as he points out, when he first told his class he was writing a book about handwriting, one rather rude student said, “Who’s going to be interested in that?” The answer is, well, everyone.
Kitty Burns Florey, Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting
Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn, New York
Philip Hensher, The Missing Link: The Lost Art of Handwriting
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York; Faber and Faber, London