I spent a happy day in the Alexander Turnbull Library yesterday researching colonial goings on, and discovered that, in the 1850s, lots happened by letter. Introductions, demands, gossip, flirtations. News of shipwrecks and love wrecks and conflicts and strife. Thank-yous for gifts, shared notes on botany and invitations to the Governor’s ball.
These were original letters to hold carefully, from Governor and Lady Grey, Governor Fitzroy, colonial secretaries and adventurers and all their various correspondents. I found their loopy writing both marvellous and completely illegible. There’s a skill or art to deciphering them that I think might require many hours. Luckily, most had transcripts into fuzzy typewritery courier – still a few generations behind the digital.
The Victorians wrote with great sweep and flourish, with confident and well practiced hands. Paper was precious, and yet they had very large writing on small pages, I’m guessing because they were using unwieldy nib pens and ink which needed long continuous strokes. In order to economise they often cross-hatched, creating intricate designs of patterned penmanship, slanting gracefully across the page one way and another.
Today there seems to be an accepted truth that hand written letters are different to screen or typed letters. Do we believe a hand written love letter carries more love? I think so. These weren’t love letters I was studying at the library, but there was a spooky intensity in them that I’ve never felt from a transcript. There has been a recent resurgence in interest in letter writing – in the non-digital generally – but I don’t think the art will come back. These cross-hatched masterpieces are relics of a slower time, and when has a culture reverted to the less convenient?
A day wandering through a collection of 19th Century letters is moving and strangely restorative – it’s like time spent in an art gallery where stories and art come together as a whole.