The Pen is Mightier

Philip Hensher
The Missing Ink
(Faber & Faber, 2012)

A reader’s first approach to a book on handwriting would likely center around its most interesting aspect: graphology, the study of handwriting as it pertains to personality. Might my handwriting reveal something about me that I don’t already know? Flipping through the pages of Philip Hensher’s Missing Ink, I was delighted to find that of the many pictorial examples given, my own hand most closely resembles Adolf Hitler’s. This revelation gave way to about four seconds of critical thought, and two options: A) I might make a stellar genocidal dictator, or B) graphology is ultimately a weak solution of dime store psychoanalysis and superstition.

Still, the alternative for a handwriting book would be, dear God, a history lesson, with descriptions of styles and their evolutions and so forth, hardly as thrilling as the prospect of insight into one’s inner maniacal tyrant. Hensher, a novelist, art critic, and teacher, takes an improbably interesting high road. He gives color to graphite and graphology its due. His impetus? A sentimental one: “This book is about the lost art of handwriting.” Pat psychological implications are hardly germane when so few people write by hand in today’s digital world. Rather, Hensher feels that handwriting, in its myriad varieties, is in itself worthy of study because of what it can convey about our humanity, our values, and the health of our culture.

He begins the history lesson with the style known as copperplate, the florid, swooping script seen today on upscale wedding invitations (or anything else that wants fanciness), but that predominated in the 18th and 19th centuries. Originally favored for being legible and somewhat swift (both assessments entirely theoretical), the style was later championed by writing instructors of an evangelical bent, who saw in its mastery potential for moral improvement. Hensher quotes one such adherent, an author of a book on handwriting instruction, who addresses “‘the young man who is accustomed to spend his evening on the streets or in debauch in the bar-room—very soon,’—for the student of handwriting—‘vulgar stories, bar-room scandals, and billiard halls begin to lose their attractiveness.’” Indeed, studious reflections upon beautiful forms were said to ennoble the thoughts of any common brute!

The problem with copperplate became a deficiency of pragmatism. As advancing urbanization demanded an even more efficient method of written communication, the bombastic and time-consuming flourishes ceded to a style known as “civil service hand,” bland in name but still ornate and elegant by the standards of the chaotic scrawlings that pass for penmanship today. The more streamlined style arrived in the U.K. contemporary with the first sweeping social changes aimed at making education and public service broader and merit-based, rather than the privilege of those born to the right families.

Into the 20th century, the general movement towards simplicity and pragmatism in penmanship continued, and with it came “ball and stick,” the un-joined style known today as print. The shift to this even more stripped-down method can in part be attributed to a change of attitude in the approach to education, favoring the child’s point of view in the learning process, rather than the teacher’s. The simple style was certainly better suited to the limited motor skills of young people, but for those who longed for the elegance of an earlier era, there arose the hybrid “italic” style, combining the calligrapher’s eye for prettiness but without the “fetishized” need (as one critic put it) for joined-up writing.

Questions of elegance aside, these changing practices in education are a central point for Hensher. “If this book has a hero,” he writes, “it’s the proponent of child-centered art and writing, Marion Richardson.” Richardson was a teacher of art, mainly, and in the field of handwriting her focus was on evoking pleasure in her students, encouraging them to approach the development of their hands creatively and at their own pace, rather than the traditional approach of binding them (often literally!) to an inflexible technique.

It is no surprise that Hensher would find such a person heroic. Throughout what could be a somewhat dry chronology of an esoteric subject, he can’t resist a novelist’s exuberance for bold, vivid language and stylistic playfulness. The most entertaining flourishes are his comic lists. Early in the book, he gives us a heavily abridged history of handwriting’s slow birth:

2. 412,000 BC. A community of Homo erectus […] leave notches on bone. Not really handwriting.

11. The development of alphabets results in a Phoenician alphabet with 22 consonants around 1000 B.C. Other writing systems quickly follow […] From this point on, it’s all handwriting..

He follows this with a complementary list tracing the evolution of his own writing, which includes, at Item Number Three, a seminal discovery: “Observed difference between Mummy’s handwriting, nice, cosy and round, […] and Daddy’s, elaborate, graceful, reaching upwards boldly and with a signature like a knife into a wound. Insight grasped: the way [people] write is a little bit like them.” More recently, Hensher’s creative writing students requested that he provide comments in typed form, his hand being “really difficult to read.”

He revisits the list trope (and his “insight grasped”) later on in the chapter entitled “Reading Your Mind.” At last, we come to graphology, and Hensher introduces the topic with some of his own outrageous analyses:

1. People who don’t join up their letters are often creative, and often visually imaginative.
2. People whose handwriting leans forward are often conventional in outlook.
3. People who don’t close up their lower-case g’s are very bad at keeping secrets.

11. Anyone who writes a circle or a heart over their i’s is a moron.

The list is, of course, silly, but the question remains a titillating one: What can be read into our personalities through the secret-blabbing characteristics of our handwriting?

Not surprisingly, the period of greatest interest in graphology coincided roughly with the Freudian psychoanalytic movement, in all its reductive and suppositional glory. Hensher treats it with just the bemused distance it deserves, although time spent on the topic suggests the robust health of the fantasy that we could, like Sherlock Holmes, perceive the unspoken mysteries of passersby merely through observation of external signs.

In the end, though, Hensher’s focus is the humanity to be found in handwriting. He writes, “It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual. It opens our personality out to the world, and gives us a means of reading other people. It gives pleasure when you communicate with it; when done at all well, it is a source of pleasure to the user.”

Viewed through such a tender lens, it’s no wonder Hitler gave up writing by hand in middle age.

Contributor

Geoffrey Young