Monday, May 21, 2012


Thursday's post started out as a simple one: I was going to quote a letter from George Lyttelton to Rupert Hart-Davis about handwriting. But merrily off into the weeds I wandered, demonstrating along the way perhaps the most salient characteristic of the Lyttelton/Hart-Davis letters: their infectious, engaging, popcorn-like readability. They're bonbons, and you open the book meaning to read just one--or perhaps two, to get a taste of their back-and-forth--and an hour later you've wandered through fifty pages of them. Unlike bonbons, however, they bring neither surfeit nor regret. Scheherazade could have kept the Sultan's headsman at bay for weeks just by reading these aloud (though only, honesty compels me to admit, if he happened to be an Anglophile lover of literature). One of the pleasures of letter collections is how easily their discrete units are to parcel out in the midst of reading other, more immersive works; this collection is far too addictive to enable that.

But now--handwriting! Early in the correspondence Hart-Davis writes that he hopes Lyttelton can easily read his handwriting, to which Lyttelton replies:
In a world where nearly all is dark, as Bishop Gore used to say, two things are luminously clear: viz that your letters are of first-class interest and quality, and that your handwriting is perfectly legible, and, in fact, very pleasant to look on. And the second is very important. Did you ever get a letter from Monty [M. R.] James? I once had a note from him inviting us to dinner--we guessed that the time was 8 and not 3, as it appeared to be, but all we could tell about the day was that it was not Wednesday.
To which Hart-Davis replied,
I never saw Monty James's writing but doubt whether he can have been more illegible than Lady Colefax: the only hope of deciphering her invitations, someone said, was to pin them up on the wall and run past them!
My handwriting, as my small band of far-flung correspondents and nearby coworkers would loudly attest, is abominable, a disgrace to civilization and possibly even a chink in the armor of evolutionary theory. It is only a lifetime's familiarity with the primary uses of pencil and paper that enable readers to determine that yes, those marks are intended to be letters and words. Fortunately, as I have neither Lady Colefax's title nor M. R. James's antiquarianist's pedigree, I received my first typewriter at age ten and have blissfully never looked back.

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