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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Handwriting in the Regency

"Oh!" cried Miss Bingley, "Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest."

"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them – by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents."

I've used Bingley's notoriously bad handwriting and inability to express his thoughts as both a major and minor plot device: in Two More Days at Netherfield where it leads Darcy to think Elizabeth has married someone else and in my latest mystery An Appearance of Goodness where Bingley mistakes the day he intends to arrive at Pemberley and also Darcy makes some assumptions about what Bingley means when he says "his sisters" are coming. Chalk it up to his years of experience in Bingley being a careless writer.

Handwriting entered into every event and transaction in regency life and it was the only way to communicate non-verbally. Being able to conduct business and communicate with absent friends and family could only be done if you could write legibly.

Cutting a quill took a lot of skill and they were not expensive. Quills were store bought with a carefully shaped nib so the flight feather’s hollow core could hold ink and flow to the tip by capillary action. As one wrote, the quill absorbed ink and softened. A writer would typically start with a few sharpened quills ready to be swapped out as the quills softened and bent out of shape so they wouldn’t have to stop writing. A quill could absorb ink and dry out a few times before it became dull and had to be mended.

An inkwell usually had slots to hold a few quills and Darcy’s canon letter to Elizabeth might have used 3 quills since it was four pages plus the back of the envelope.

"You write uncommonly fast."

"You are mistaken. I write rather slowly."

"How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of the year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!"

"It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours."

"Pray tell your sister that I long to see her."

"I have already told her so once, by your desire."

"I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well."

"Thank you -- but I always mend my own."

Any adult would have known how to sharpen a pen. People typically really did prefer to mend their own. Mending isn’t the same as cutting a nib; mending was just maintaining the point of a previously cut quill and men, women, and even school-aged children would have their own pen-knife.

Silver penknife c 1800

Pressing too hard with a quill—as hard as we write with a ballpoint or fountain pen—would cause the ink to not release smoothly. It would also wear the quill faster or even tear the paper. Bingley’s style of leaving lots of blot implies that he has a heavy hand. Bingley probably wrote heavily and too quickly, unlike Darcy’s slow, even lines. The need to blot shows Bingley is hard on his quill and is spraying ink as he writes.

His posture might be a problem, too. You can’t lean forward with a quill—your back has to be straight—and your elbow near your side and the pen pointing straight to your shoulder. Your writing hand also can’t roll out to the side to rest on the paper because you would end up writing with the side of the pen, wearing it unevenly and needing to mend it more often. Bingley might also be holding his pen wrong. He should hold it with thumb and first two fingers, with the thumb and index finger not touching and the fingers nearly straight. This might explain why his writing is too small and he’s not able to move his pen steadily enough to release the ink smoothly.

Bingley doesn’t have a flowing, neat running hand like his friend Darcy does, but rather a scrawling, illegible one with blots and missing words. In Pride and Prejudice it just leads to some teasing, but it's a fun plot device to wreak a little havoc on his unfortunate correspondents.

An Appearance of Goodness is available now.

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