Neatness Counts in Crossed Letters
Updated: Feb 28
It’s rare to get “real” mail, something handwritten that arrives in the mailbox. Not junk, not a bill, but words put to paper for my eyes alone. It’s been replaced by texts and social media and FaceTime but I think there’s an inherent value in receiving a handwritten card or a letter fro someone who cares about you.
Miss Bates and Mrs. Bates in Emma feel the same way about any letter from Jane Fairfax:
[...]but, first of all, I really must, in justice to Jane, apologise for her writing so short a letter -- only two pages, you see, hardly two, and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. My mother often wonders that I can make it out so well. She often says, when the letter is first opened, 'Well, Hetty, now I think you will be put to it to make out all that chequer-work'[...]
What is Miss Bates talking about when she says that Jane typically “crosses half”?
It means that the writer wrote top to bottom, and then turned the paper 90 degrees to write perpendicularly across the same page. Some people might have even turned it again 45 degrees to write diagonally.
Could you easily read this? I volunteered at a county historical society to catalogue their family letters collection, but I never had to battle a crossed letter. The 19th century style of writing and letter formation was sometimes hard enough. There were more letter writers like Bingley than those with Darcy’s even lines.
Even if their contemporaries could read this easily, why would anyone cross their letters?
Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates, and Jane Fairfax were on limited incomes, and stationary was expensive. It was sold in different quality grades, the finest being the hot-pressed white paper that Miss Bingley uses. That paper was smooth and glossy, and was first made for books. A housemaid might make 10 guineas a year, or about 4 shillings a week. Even if it wasn't the finest grade of paper, two quires of paper (48 sheets) might cost a housemaid a weekly salary.
Postage was another expense. Outside of London, the recipient paid the postage based on the weight of the letter and how far it traveled. Local delivery in London was one penny until 1801 when it went up to two pennies for a 4 ounce letter, and deliveries were made six times a day. It was a kindness to the pocketbook of the receiver to use less paper.
Crossing letters remained acceptable and, in some cases preferable, until postal reform in 1840. The reforms gave more people greater access to mail service at a time when there were increasing literacy rates and greater social mobility with improved roads. Along with this, a simplified system of pre-paying the postage and applying a stamp to the envelope was put into pace. The Uniform Penny Post saw use of the UK mail double in its first year.
As the cost of paper and postage fell, so did the need to cross one's letters. It probably spared a lot of people from needing reading glasses too soon!
There was something you could do to make a crossed letter a little more readable. On November 6, 1813 Jane Austen wrote to her sister:
I have a nice long black and red letter from Charles, but not communicating much that I did not know.
The courteous sender would write in one direction, top to bottom, in black ink, and then rotate the page and write the other way in red ink. See if this one is a little more readable:
This is the first paragraph of Darcy's letter in black, and the second paragraph is in red ink crossed in the other direction. Darcy, so we hear, contrives to write evenly, and Elizabeth says he has a very close hand. I shudder to think how unreadable it would have been for her if he had crossed his lines, and not changed the ink, and had a messy hand to start with.
It might've looked like my attempt to do the above by hand. My printing is neat, but my cursive is dreadful. I might've written more of the letter, but my hand was hurting by the time I got to this point. Let's all be glad that my typing skills are good.
Could you easily read these crossed lines? Do you send handwritten letters through the mail any more?
Adkins, Roy and Lesley, Jane Austen's England (2013)
Shapard, David M., The Annotated Pride & Prejudice (2003)