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Napoleon’s Terrible Secret

Posted by Dirck on 14 June, 2012

At one point in the less-than-distant past, it has come up here that I engage in a little fictional correspondence set in the early part of the 19th century, a literary role-playing exercise. Despite, or perhaps spurred on by, the very nice comment on the linked post, I spend a great deal of mental energy on trying to get the thing to look right.  How, I am constantly asking, would the handwriting of a person in Regency England look?

…and of course, because I’m a product of my time, I allow myself to be seduced and misled by Hollywood.  Elegant copperplate with a quill pen, my inner voice shouts back.  Go mug a goose for a couple of feathers, the park’s full of ’em.  I’ll bet right now every non-paleographer reading this is picturing writing somewhere between the Declaration of Independence and a wedding invitation.  Me too.

We are, of course, forgetting that really nice writing was the province of people whose lives were devoted to writing really nicely, just as it had been from pretty much the invention of writing until even this present day.  Scrivener, scribe, clerk, penman, whatever you wish; professional writers of quality text.  Those who were just cranking out the content were generally content with mere legibility, as many of us are today.  What reminded me of this was an item of news recently, about the sale of a letter written by that Napoleon fellow we hear so much about, which he’d written to his English teacher (for those who praat geen Nederlands, there’s a story in English here, but the pictures aren’t as good).  I’ll grant that “Corsican-born General writing in a second language” isn’t necessarily synonymous with “good example of the writing of the time”, but even notable writer of English words Jane Austen wasn’t a lot better.

The Napoleon letter lacks all but a small hint of any flex in the tines of his implement, which was almost certainly some kind of feather-based object; this suggests that while he might have been a little heavy-handed in his approach to Austria, he was an extremely light touch with the pen.  You’d hardly know, if you weren’t told and the sepia tones weren’t a giveaway that it wasn’t a modern document.  But it is legible, and so I can allow my occasional lamentations about the state of modern written communication stand as not entirely exploded by evidence.  However, the point I’m chewing on here is that even in an age in which handwriting was the primary means of communication at distances beyond the utility of shouting, extreme elegance was not a strict requirement.  That’s something we should all keep in mind, especially those of us attempting to counterfeit two hundred year old correspondence.

The gloating egomaniac in me, who is generally not allowed a say, gleefully notes that in my own efforts at counterfeiting, my d is shaped just as it appears in Napoleon’s letter.  I suppose a little egomaniacal gloating is allowed, now and again.

Today’s non-fowl-based pen: Noodler’s Nib Creaper
Today’s ink, not derived from copperas, sea-creatures, nor walnuts: Diamine Majestic Blue

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