Our Writing

The Handwriting’s on the Wall


Tolstoy was a lousy writer. The manuscript of War and Peace, on which he made a start soon after his return for the Crimean War, is almost illegible – so much so that he often found it impossible to read what he handwriting2had written. The novel would never have emerged but for the indefatigable efforts of his wife and editor, Sophia Andreyevna Tolstoya. She spent months on end struggling to ‘decipher this sorcerer’s spellbook covered with lines furiously scratched out, corrections colliding with each other, sibylline balloons floating in the margins [and] prickly afterthoughts sprawled over the pages.’ To add to her labours, Tolstoy was never satisfied with his first attempts and the entire novel went through numerous re-writes.

handwriting 3Jane Austen was much neater. You can see some of her manuscripts online at www.janeausten.ac.uk. They are tightly spaced but perfectly legible once you are accustomed to the long ‘s’ which was still fashionable in her day. Her punctuation, however, was haphazard. Not for Jane  the pedantry of full stops and semi colons; a new sentence was signified by a simple dash to hurry on the story. In fact, like many 19th century authors, she expected her publisher and printer to deal with punctuation, just as the servant girl would be expected to clean out the grate.

Thomas Grey, famous for his Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, wrote to the Foulis Press, ‘Please to observe that am I entirely unversed in the doctrine of stops, whoever therefore shall deign to correct them will do me a friendly office.’ Byron similarly thought that punctuation was best left to others and wrote to his publisher John Murray, ‘Do attend to the punctuation: I can’t for I don’t know a comma – at least where to place one.’ Again, Charlotte Brontë, whose handwriting was impeccable, wrote to Smith, Elder & Co, ‘I have to thank you for punctuating the sheets before sending them to me as I found the task very puzzling.’

Handwriting 1Charles Dickens, who was fond of blue ink and blue paper, went to the opposite extreme and was described as ‘an extravagant scatterer of semi colons.’ His writing is legible and rapid, but often heavily corrected, the deletions signified by disconcerting squiggles. For this he was unapologetic, having learned from experience that a demanding manuscript was generally entrusted to the most experienced typesetter. Arnold Bennett, on the other hand, took particular pride in his handwriting; the manuscript of the Old Wives’ Tale was written when he was teaching himself calligraphy.

And today? Handwriting is probably as bad as it ever was and nobody now learns to write a ‘commercial hand’. But punctuation is back in fashion, following publication of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss (Profile Books, 2003), Making a Point, by David Crystal (Profile Books 2015), and, for the real enthusiast, Shady Characters by Keith Houston (Particular Books 2013), which devotes no less than 22 pages to the hyphen and  further 20 pages to the dash.

Malcolm Knott