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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

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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Temps Perdu

Posted by Dirck on 9 November, 2010

It is officially too late for me to think about getting any books bound for Christmas.  This, added to the end of Winter’s remission (the sky is a grey somewhere between Battleship and Slate and we’re promised snow at any moment, after a Sunday which insisted on short sleeves) and a cold that will neither commit to battle nor quit the field (just a very slight discomfort at the nose/throat junction) has got me in a rather mopey mood today.  I also find one of my regular stations on the bloground, Mobilis Ink Mobili, appears to have struck a reef and foundered. 

I was reading elsewhere this morning a reference to Dickens’s Bleak House, and this as much as anything got me in the dumps about binding.  I can’t, you see, recall if I’ve actually read it, despite being rather familiar with it.  This familiarity comes from having spent a lot of hours skimming the text while getting it formatted for binding  up as a Christmas present for my mother… not long ago, but long enough to be uncomfortably un-recent.

The difficulty, you see, in lifting texts from The Gutenberg Project for binding, is that they’re not particularly well laid out for the purpose.  There are a lot of hard-returns in odd places, which hardly make an impression when reading on the screen, but when run into a word-processor for printing rather stand out.  Stand out to a human eye, at least.  I’m not aware of any way of automating the search for that sort of thing, and one needs therefore at least skim the entire document to spot them, as well as do some little tricks like separate out chapters one from another.  I believe I missed one unexpected line-break in my wife’s Persuasion, and given that the Dickens worked out to rather more than 1300 pages I can’t imagine there’s absolute perfection in the formatting there, either.

I don’t, I’m afraid, have much of a point in this entry.  Like so much of the internet’s ‘content’, this is pretty much just a self-indulgent whine about a constraint which previous generations would have counted as a freedom if not an astonishing power– “Good heavens, you can print a whole book yourself, and see it bound?”  Well, yes, when I can scrape together the needed time.  Time, that bugbear of the modern age, which we can measure to the trillionth part of a second yet cannot seem to wrestle into a useful form.  Physics insists that time is a fixed dimension, and our perception of its passage is nothing more than a foible of our mental architecture.  That’s fine, but since our perceptions inform our reality (something I wish The Matrix had pursued a little more carefully, Yuen Woo Ping’s coolness notwithstanding), we are rather stuck with a present belting past us like a fat man on skis and a past full of things that might have been done better if more consideration were available.

The funny thing is, that difficult labour of formatting Persuasion, Bleak House, and several other gift-books I’ve spun ot of raw Gutenberg, counts as a fond memory.  Difficult, perhaps even on the outer surface tedious, but pregnant with the knowledge of what it would all come to and, cursory as it may have been, a chance to acquaint myself with some literary classics.  I wouldn’t change it for the world, and I wish I could be at it right now.

Any craft binders got an opening for a relatively elderly apprentice with a family to support?  I have my own backing irons and can do pretty competent headbanding.

Today’s wistful pen:  Sheaffer Admiral Snorkel
Today’s ink, trying to be cheery: Lamy Blue

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Posted by Dirck on 12 March, 2010

My usual dashed-off Friday note, and I want to pose a question to the diverse smart people of the internet, some of whom I know occasionally stick their heads in here.

I have what I pretend is a decent breadth of reading (we’ll not mention depth, thanks). In some items which are either from or about the early 19th century, the Napoleonic period if I may, I find an odd thing. One sibling addressing another regarding their shared paternal person, will say, “My father did thus; my mother will be late to dinner,” as if there was no family connection between them whatever. Why is this?

I speculate a little, and have two baseless possibilities. It may be some kind of proto-Victorian concern for bringing up the delicate subject of procreation– bad enough to use the word for a parent, but to make even a tangential implication to sharing one and thus hint at the whole unspeakable business of birth? Have a footman fetch salts, I feel a swoon coming on!

I discount this somewhat, as “proto-Victorian” isn’t really a thing, and the whole Victorian penchant for keeping a lid on things didn’t really get its feet under it until Albert’s death. My other speculation, equally groundless and likely to be wrong, is that the notion of a collective parent was so strongly conntected with the Christian deity that it seemed pretentious to apply “our father” to any tangible, mortal creature.

The comment line is open. Feel free to speculate right back at me.

My pen: Sheaffer 2440
Our ink, which art in bottles (yes, I know the verb’s not right): Pelikan 4001 blue-black.

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The longest day of the year

Posted by Dirck on 31 December, 2009

Time is a relative substance, isn’t it? It is possible to measure it objectively, and the German subcomponents of my own make up revel in the working of a nice, accurate watch, but our experience of it is highly variable depending on context and mood.

Two minutes can seem an eternity or an instant, depending on whether getting on the roller coaster was your idea or not. The same can be said of five seconds (a lover’s bed or a torturer’s rack), three hours (how do you feel about hobbits?), or a year (sent to jail/doctor’s prognosis).

A day, of course, is subject to this effect as well. “Day” in itself is a very floppy concept. The duration of sunlight where you’re standing? That changes constantly. A twenty-four hour period? Even allowing for the not-quite constant speed of the planet’s rotation, there’s still the question of when do you say it starts? Midnight is the current vogue. I understand noon was the beginning of the naval day in the reign of George III. A work-day is frequently eight hours, sometimes twelve, and I hear for medical students it can be as much as a hundred forty.

Let’s get extremely subjective. Let’s say a day starts and ends with waking and sleeping. Different for each of us, and the length of that period, in keeping with my opening remarks, may seem fleeting or protracted depending on the length and quality of the preceding sleep.

This is not a non-sequitur: Tonight my whole nuclear family is going to a friend’s house for a New Year’s party. A costume party, one is to dress as a literary character. My son reprises his Poe costume from Hallowe’en, my wife goes as one of the women from Poe’s works, and I go as the given name-free father of Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.

Sounds like fun, yes?

Well… my son decided that today should start at 3:20am. His parents are not entirely in a party mood, and the party isn’t for another seven hours, as of this 1:00pm posting.

Today’s sleepy pen: Parker 45 Flighter
Today’s bleary ink: Lamy blue-black

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Be of Good Cheer

Posted by Dirck on 16 December, 2009

I wonder how many of these seasonal phrases I’ll be able to come up with?

Good cheer indeed– I discovered in the mail yesterday a Quo Vadis “Business” daily planner, sent me by the much-storied Karen of Exacompta for review. The review will come once I’ve been able to drive it around my own, much quieter version of the Top Gear test track, but on first glance it seems a very fine example of the breed.

Good cheer to be ensured tonight. The baking’s preliminary phases begin, with the preparation and chilling (just nip it in the basement!) of short bread dough, and hopefully the initial phases of egg nog. I had previously mentioned I would share recipes, and so I will in a very sideways manner– both are taken from The Joy of Cooking, a resource no home should be without. If you haven’t got a copy, start pestering loved ones to get you one for Christmas; if they haven’t got you something by now, they’ll appreciate the suggestion.

One of the best things about Joy is that it doesn’t give a damn about the state of your organs. I won’t give exact amounts, but there’s roughly equal portions of eggs, cream, rum and brandy, and a substantial load of milk– you can with a single recipe do away with friends and relatives who are lactose intolerant, diabetic, who have high cholesterol, or whose livers are at all sensitive. A batch my brother made a few years ago was still safe to drink didn’t kill anyone who drank it the following May, so it keeps well, too.

The shortbread isn’t quite as destructive, but I still love it, as its the recipe my grandmother used.

Today’s nostalgic pen: Sheaffer Statesman
Today’s ink which is likely a wiser beverage than my egg nog: Pilot Fuyu-Syogun

Post Scriptus: The visions of sugar/rum fairies are so distracting, I neglected to wish the shade of Jane Austen a happy birthday.

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Of a Feather.

Posted by Dirck on 21 October, 2009

My super-secret stats page gives me a sense I may have given offence on Monday. I’ll climb down off my soap-box for a little while and return to the contemplation of pens.

I use contemplation in the very most academic form, too. I was started on this road by a conjunction of two events that shouldn’t be particularly connected. I was fixing a Parker “51” this past weekend. I was also (but not at the same time) reading Pride and Prejudice.

The connections come as follows– in chapter 10, Mr. Darcy is writing a letter while being jabbered at by Miss Bingley, she thinking that keeping his attention as much as possible upon her will necessarily bring about a proposal, or at least keep him from settling his interest upon Elizabeth Bennet. At one point in the flow, she offers to mend his pen, which he declines, claiming to prefer to mend his own.

This all takes place, of course, in the era of the quill pen (‘pen’ itself being etymologically related to the Latin word for ‘feather’), when a long writing task would see the implement slowly worn to nothing by the acidic ink, the relative hardnesses of paper and feather-shaft, and the knife weilded in an effort to keep something like a sharp point. Plenty of opportunity for pen mending.

“Wouldn’t he be happy to have a steel pen?” I thought, and read on, while a small corner of my mind mused with the fashioning of pens in that era. Yes, I have made a few, from curiousity, and if you want to try it there’s some decent directions here. As the memory unrolled, I kept getting inserted images of the “51”.

The traditional fountain pen point is shaped to mimic the finished shape of a quill, which is shaped as it is to get a combination of strength and flexibility. For all that, what more closely mimics a feather shaft is the point of a “51”– both are tubular, right?

Even more interesting, given the century and more of pen development between the appearance of the steel point (and thus the slow waning of feather pens) and the introduction of the “51”, is the shape of the modern pen’s hood. Withdraw or ignore the point and feed, and the profile of the hood is very much that of the end of a feather awaiting conversion to pen. It’s three or four times the size, but the shape it there.

Conscious decision? Subconscious influences in Parker’s designers? Pure coincidence? I cannot tell.

Today’s Pen: Sheaffer Stateman vacuum filler
Today’s ink: Skrip blue-black

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Posted by Dirck on 29 July, 2009

We had a friend over last night– it was her birthday, and it looked like we were the only ones taking note of it (as it turned out, after the plan was made, other friends filled her day with anniversal diversions). We had a picnic, watched a movie based on a work of Jane Austen, listened to an unbroken 45 minute jazz scat by my son (who still hasn’t quite got consonants in hand, so the work was entitled Top Lung Screeches with Growl Variations, and was extremely painful), and handed out presents.

But not a pen. She’s left-handed, and despite using any other writing implement in a deep underhand which would suit fountain pens nicely, she can’t come to terms with the demand they make for little or no rolling (these also dislike, within broader limits, pitching or yawing). I’ve tried her on some very forgiving modern pens, and they just don’t get along.

It was a happy birthday, all the same. Baffling!

Today’s pen: Sheaffer 800
Today’s ink: Skrip Blue

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