The lost art of reading other people's handwriting

Detail from "A Lady Writing A Letter" by Johannes Vermeer Image copyright Alamy

There are many things to be learned from deciphering the handwriting of others, says Sarah Dunant - but it's a dying skill.

I was attracted by the title. Amore e dolore (love and Sorrow), written in ink on a card pushed into the back of a shoebox - only the rain had got in and streaked the words a bit. Fitting, I thought. Inside was a pile of old letters.

My local flea market in Florence is a rich affair. From dusty glass chandeliers to the everyday detritus of living - entire houses cleared, including private correspondence. Here were someone's emotions going cheap. The paper was thin, crisp with age, densely written on both sides. The date, November 1918. The challenge was two-fold. First they were in Italian - of course. While I can negotiate markets even hold my own in a one-to-one about history, letters written in dialect 100 years ago would be tough.

But bigger than that was the hurdle of the handwriting. It was tiny with hardly any room between the lines, as if a conscientious ant had climbed out of the inkpot then wound its way across every millimetre of the page. Not even any crossing out. If this was love, he (and I could make out enough to know it was a he) was very sure about it.

Image copyright iStock

Back home, I managed to decipher some words, common verbs, the odd pronoun, but even then the script was so tight knit that the letters often merged. So I gave it to a friend - a native-speaker. "Oh but this is impossible," she said after a while. "This man is writing to a woman from Turin and… well, I can barely make out a thing."  

"He loves her, right?" I asked, ever the novelist in search of a story. "Well, he misses her,'' she said. She went back to the text. "Yes, he misses her. He doesn't have much else to say." So many words to say so little. Maybe it was an Italian thing? Either way, my slice of history was a bit of an anticlimax.

A few days later I got an email from a historian friend working in the state archives in Rome, with an amazing image attached. He had nosed out a story of a 17th Century Roman woman on trial for causing multiple deaths by selling a slow-acting undetectable poison (arsenic probably) to wives wanting to knock off their abusive husbands. To flesh out the details he was wading through kilos of court records and testimonies. He'd been there weeks already when another bundle was delivered to his desk. When he opened it he found that some of the papers had a hole right through the middle. He took a photo on the photocopier screen - the hole shining ghostly white, the manuscript a sickly yellow halo with stained threads of writing crawling everywhere. Deliberate defacement to hide some key clue? Mice perhaps? No. It seems this was a case of the acidity of the ink used - words on the page eating themselves.

Before the advent of the typewriter, history - registers, account books, correspondence - was handwriting. Or, rather, the history that is left to us, the transactions considered worth keeping (usually church or state) by those who could read or write, and which have managed to survive the vicissitudes of time. Flood, fires, wars, mice, acidic ink, miscatalogued, mislaid, deliberately expunged - the slips into oblivion are many and various. It's a sobering thought that at any moment in the past there are an infinite number of parallel histories left unrecorded.

Image copyright iStock

In order to stay sane, let's stay with one we've got. Given the expense of paper and ink and the fact that for centuries all correspondence had to be transported by man or horse, mostly people wrote tight and small. Though even when the purpose was large and showy - monks practising top class copying calligraphy for rich patrons - it isn't that easy to read.

I was once sent a copy of a letter written in 1473 by Rodrigo Borgia to Lorenzo the Magnificent complaining about the behaviour of citizens of Pisa to members of his shipwrecked crew washed ashore near Florence. Perfect for the novel you're writing, my friend said. "I can't read it," I wailed back.

He could though. He'd been trained. Any scholar in medieval or renaissance studies has to learn how to handle handwriting. Diplomatic transcription, it's called. It starts with transcribing the words - no attempt at content, just copying to familiarise the eye to a particular script. Then there are all the signs and symbols that decorate words, abbreviations in Latin or Italian to avoid repetition. At first glance the writing can seem more hieroglyph than alphabet.

Archival research involves reading prodigious amounts. But then prodigious amounts have been written. Of course the person signing the letter isn't always the one writing it. It takes its physical toll, too much writing. The 19th Century popular Scottish novelist Margaret Oliphant complained: "I have worn a hole in my middle finger from holding the pen." We learn this, of course, from a letter. Throughout history those with power had secretaries or scribes. Whatever your business you needed a copy of what was sent as well as what was received. Pietro Bembo was one of Italy's most famous poets. In his early 30s he had a messy affair with a young Venetian widow - a lot of push/pull, "she loves me/she loves me not" stuff as they manoeuvred their way in between the sheets. We know this because he kept copies of his letters as well as hers. He was "a writer" and the composition of letters was part of his art.  

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption Detail from Titian's painting of Pietro Bembo

She would have got the originals. No doubt she recognised his hand early - it probably made her heart beat faster to read it, as if there was emotion in the stoke of his pen. Certainly there would be some kind of identity. The pseudoscience of graphology may be largely discredited now but for years it was the stuff of drama - court cases calling on expert witnesses: "This is definitely in the hand of the accused."

In the archive of the Bronte parsonage in Haworth I recently saw an extraordinary letter. The sisters wrote constantly, and because paper and postage was expensive, they eked out every bit of space. In 1849 Anne, just diagnosed with TB and eager to go to Scarborough for the air wrote to a friend of the family's there - a fine and precise script leaving an equal gap between every word, so that when the page was full she could turn it at right angles and insert new lines inside the space left. This "crossed letter" as it's known, is the last she wrote. She and Charlotte went to Scarborough soon after but she died a few weeks later. So much unlived life in those cramped lines.

Image copyright The Bronte Society
Image caption Anne Bronte's final "crossed letter"

As the typewriter muscled in, it was writers and especially poets who held out the longest. A poem often works itself out visually on the page. Handwritten works are valuable now in more ways than one. Samuel Becket wrote his first novel Murphy in 1935 in a set of notebooks. They sold for near on £1m a few years ago. Scholars rightly want to see what got crossed out as well as what got left in.

In my desk drawer at home I have a stash of old letters, including two examples of handwriting that can fell me with their intensity. My best friend killed herself in her late 20s. During my gap year and time at different universities we wrote to each other constantly. I only need to see a first line of an address on an envelope in her hand and I feel my stomach lurch. The other is my father. I inadvertently wiped out a taped message on an answering machine a few months after he died, so his voice is long gone. But his handwriting - he wrote entirely in capitals, small, each one separate but yet somehow flowing together. So particular. No one surely will ever write that way again.

Image copyright PA
Image caption A document signed by Samuel Beckett, from the library at Trinity College, Dublin

These days we express ourselves mostly in regimented strokes of various type fonts. Yes I know, every one is supposed to have a history and a personality, but really!

Handwriting meanwhile gets ever more pathetic. I notice it most in my children. Not so much that it is disintegrating, as that it got stuck in a stage of arrested development. That childish joined-up script they were taught at primary school saw them through secondary school and exams, but elsewhere they never use it. They are keyboard communicators. Even in the British Library everyone takes notes on computers - research moving from the book to the file via taping fingers, no sign of hands hovering over paper at all. Sitting with my notebook and sharpened pencils (you can't use pens in the British Library anyway) I feel like something that ought to be in the archive myself.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Visitors at the British Library are more likely to use a computer than a pencil and paper

I still have that Italian love letter from 1918 on my desk. Though it was disappointing, I can't bring myself to throw it away. Not all history is dramatic, right? Next time I'm at the market I'll move onto sorrow. Maybe that'll prove worth the deciphering.

BBC iWonder: Is the writing on the wall for handwriting?

This is an edited version of A Point of View, which is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 BST. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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