Emily’s fascinating post on Sublime Penmanship works hand in glove with research I’ve been conducting on graphology in Victorian Britain, as part of a chapter on the role of handwriting in R. L. Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde. The first book-length study of handwriting analysis was published in 1622 by Camillo Baldi, an Italian doctor of medicine and philosophy. However, the most broadly read text within England upon the subject was most likely the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater’s Physiognomy. (Published in German in 1775, this study had gone through fifty-five editions by 1810, at least twenty of which were available in England.)

Lavater’s analysis is understood to be a primary source for two of the earliest English texts on the subject, penned by Thomas Byerley and Isaac Disraeli. In 1823, Byerley made a contribution to the topic with its essay “On Characteristic Signatures.” Here he claimed that “In using his pen, a man acts unconsciously, as the current of his blood impels him; and there, at all times, nature flows unrestricted and free.” A year later, Disraeli devoted a chapter of his Curiosities of Literature to the matter of “Autographs,” arguing therein that “Nature” has prompted “every individual to have a distinct sort of writing, as she has given a countenance—a voice—and a manner. The flexibility of the muscles differs with every individual, and the hand will follow the direction of the thoughts, and the emotions and the habits of the writers” (208).

Disraeli’s “curiosity” was not an idle one. His commentary was prompted by the recognition of a cultural transformation that signaled a crisis of identity. Copybooks and other restrictive, standardized pedagogical methods of “character” formation had reduced penmanship to a “mechanical process” of anonymous reproduction: “the pupils are forced in their automatic motions, as if acted on by the pressure of a steam-engine.” Stamped by an impersonal machine, individuals are rendered unrecognizable, “all appearing to have come from the same rolling-press” (207).

To his dismay, Disraeli finds the institutionally reconfigured “muscular” practice of writing has been reduced to a simulation of industrial activity. The transformation calls to mind Carlyle’s analysis of the wholesale deposition within modern culture of dynamic energies by mechanical force (Signs of the Times), but it also suggests that one of the most disconcerting “signs of the times” was the inability of the body to serve as a reliable cornerstone of identity and authenticity. In a period where Carlyle lamented that: “Nothing now is done directly, or by hand” (ST 64), a hand capable of replicating a machine meant that even those actions performed manually were not unequivocal evidence of self-directed and autonomous activity.

In this milieu of industrialized handwriting, the hand takes on an uncertain status, positioned at the physical juncture of culture and nature. When properly trained, the hand is capable of disguising its true character, and churning out the standardized script of a writing machine. Under such conditions, manuscripture is not something that emerges from the subject in an expression of pure inwardness. The body is written, then writes. The equivocal nature of the term ‘manual’ (denoting work “done by hand,” but also a book of instructions—especially for operating a machine) expresses laconically this understanding of manuscript as the conflicted token of one’s socialization, a mark co-signed by the self and the other.


4 thoughts on “Character-Building: Disraeli and the “Physiognomy of Writing”

  1. Great post Gregory! I’m interested in hearing more about the class-related dimensions of this standardization of writing? Was it only certain types of educational sites that taught a uniform penmanship?

    I’m thinking especially of the example of Fred Vincy in Middlemarch whose shift from gentleman to working farmer/businessman takes place in part through his penmanship. Eliot writes, “At that time the opinion existed that it was beneath a gentleman to write legibly, or with a hand in the least suitable to a clerk.” On the other hand, Eliot also writes that Dorothea “piqued herself on writing a hand in which each letter was distinguishable without any large range of conjecture…”.

    Are there gender differences here as well? Or is each character’s penmanship perhaps a reflection of their willingness to be a clerk in service to others (that is, might Fred’s selfishness and Dorothea’s selflessness be reflected in how much care they each take in making their writing intelligible to others?)

  2. Thanks, Jen. It’s true that Disraeli’s “rolling press” was hardly uniform in its effects. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, the normalizing tendencies of handwriting education were generally found to have made the most profound impressions upon women, whose writing communicated less originality, as well as less force, than that of men. When exceptions were found, they tended to be attributed to “masculine” qualities of mind.

    I’d forgotten those details from Middlemarch, but they’re attuned to some of the class-based commentary on handwriting style. From what I’ve seen, class doesn’t often surface explicitly, but emerges through the allocation of different “classes” of writers. The clerk, or “quilldriver” (the equivalent of our pencil-pusher?) sits at the bottom of this totem pole.

    And it’s true that there seems, ironically, to be a privileging of incomprehensibility among handwriting analysts. One of the most familiar oppositions to express this predilection is the one commonly set up between the “clerk’s hand” and the artist’s. While the former is characterized by directness and clarity, it’s criticized as commonplace, while the artist’s signature communicates something of a Romantic ideal of individualized language that shuns convention, often to the point of being incomprehensible to others.

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