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An essay by Isaac Disraeli


Title:     Autographs
Author: Isaac Disraeli [More Titles by Disraeli]


The art of judging of the characters of persons by their handwriting can only have any reality when the pen, acting without restraint, becomes an instrument guided by, and indicative of, the natural dispositions. But regulated as the pen is now too often by a mechanical process, which the present race of writing-masters seem to have contrived for their own convenience, a whole school exhibits a similar handwriting; the pupils are forced in their automatic motions, as if acted on by the pressure of a steam-engine; a bevy of beauties will now write such fac-similes of each other, that in a heap of letters presented to the most sharp-sighted lover to select that of his mistress--though, like Bassanio among the caskets, his happiness should be risked on the choice--he would despair of fixing on the right one, all appearing to have come from the same rolling-press. Even brothers of different tempers have been taught by the same master to give the same form to their letters, the same regularity to their line, and have made our handwritings as monotonous as are our characters in the present habits of society. The true physiognomy of writing will be lost among our rising generation: it is no longer a face that we are looking on, but a beautiful mask of a single pattern; and the fashionable handwriting of our young ladies is like the former tight-lacing of their mothers' youthful days, when every one alike had what was supposed to be a fine shape!

Assuredly nature would prompt every individual to have a distinct sort of writing, as she has given a peculiar 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. The phlegmatic will portray his words, while the playful haste of the volatile will scarcely sketch them; the slovenly will blot and efface and scrawl, while the neat and orderly-minded will view themselves in the paper before their eyes. The merchant's clerk will not write like the lawyer or the poet. Even nations are distinguished by their writing; the vivacity and variableness of the Frenchman, and the delicacy and suppleness of the Italian, are perceptibly distinct from the slowness and strength of pen discoverable in the phlegmatic German, Dane, and Swede. When we are in grief, we do not write as we should in joy. The elegant and correct mind, which has acquired the fortunate habit of a fixity of attention, will write with scarcely an erasure on the page, as Fenelon, and Gray, and Gibbon; while we find in Pope's manuscripts the perpetual struggles of correction, and the eager and rapid interlineations struck off in heat. Lavater's notion of handwriting is by no means chimerical; nor was General Paoli fanciful, when he told Mr. Northcote that he had decided on the character and dispositions of a man from his letters, and the handwriting.

Long before the days of Lavater, Shenstone in one of his letters said, "I want to see Mrs. Jago's handwriting, that I may judge of her temper." One great truth must however be conceded to the opponents of the physiognomy of writing; general rules only can be laid down. Yet the vital principle must be true that the handwriting bears an analogy to the character of the writer, as all voluntary actions are characteristic of the individual. But many causes operate to counteract or obstruct this result. I am intimately acquainted with the handwritings of five of our great poets. The first in early life acquired among Scottish advocates a handwriting which cannot be distinguished from that of his ordinary brothers; the second, educated in public schools, where writing is shamefully neglected, composes his sublime or sportive verses in a school-boy's ragged scrawl, as if he had never finished his tasks with the writing-master; the third writes his highly-wrought poetry in the common hand of a merchant's clerk, from early commercial avocations; the fourth has all that finished neatness which polishes his verses; while the fifth is a specimen of a full mind, not in the habit of correction or alteration; so that he appears to be printing down his thoughts, without a solitary erasure. The handwriting of the first and third poets, not indicative of their character, we have accounted for; the others are admirable specimens of characteristic autographs.[2]

Oldys, in one of his curious notes, was struck by the distinctness of character in the handwritings of several of our kings. He observed nothing further than the mere fact, and did not extend his idea to the art of judging of the natural character by the writing. Oldys has described these handwritings with the utmost correctness, as I have often verified. I shall add a few comments.

"Henry the Eighth wrote a strong hand, but as if he had seldom a good pen."--The vehemence of his character conveyed itself into his writing; bold, hasty, and commanding, I have no doubt the assertor of the Pope's supremacy and its triumphant destroyer split many a good quill.

"Edward the Sixth wrote a fair legible hand."--We have this promising young prince's diary, written by his own hand; in all respects he was an assiduous pupil, and he had scarcely learnt to write and to reign when we lost him.

"Queen Elizabeth writ an upright hand, like the bastard Italian." She was indeed a most elegant caligrapher, whom Roger Ascham[3] had taught all the elegancies of the pen. The French editor of the little autographical work I have noticed has given the autograph of her name, which she usually wrote in a very large tall character, and painfully elaborate. He accompanies it with one of the Scottish Mary, who at times wrote elegantly, though usually in uneven lines; when in haste and distress of mind, in several letters during her imprisonment which I have read, much the contrary. The French editor makes this observation: "Who could believe that these writings are of the same epoch? The first denotes asperity and ostentation; the second indicates simplicity, softness, and nobleness. The one is that of Elizabeth, queen of England; the other that of her cousin, Mary Stuart. The difference of these two handwritings answers most evidently to that of their characters."

"James the First writ a poor ungainly character, all awry, and not in a straight line." James certainly wrote a slovenly scrawl, strongly indicative of that personal negligence which he carried into all the little things of life; and Buchanan, who had made him an excellent scholar, may receive the disgrace of his pupil's ugly scribble, which sprawls about his careless and inelegant letters.

"Charles the First wrote a fair open Italian hand, and more correctly perhaps than any prince we ever had." Charles was the first of our monarchs who intended to have domiciliated taste in the kingdom, and it might have been conjectured from this unfortunate prince, who so finely discriminated the manners of the different painters, which are in fact their handwritings, that he would not have been insensible to the elegancies of the pen.

"Charles the Second wrote a little fair running hand, as if wrote in haste, or uneasy till he had done." Such was the writing to have been expected from this illustrious vagabond, who had much to write, often in odd situations, and could never get rid of his natural restlessness and vivacity.

"James the Second writ a large fair hand." It is characterised by his phlegmatic temper, as an exact detailer of occurrences, and the matter-of-business genius of the writer.

"Queen Anne wrote a fair round hand;" that is the writing she had been taught by her master, probably without any alteration of manner naturally suggested by herself; the copying hand of a common character.[4]

The subject of autographs associates itself with what has been dignified by its professors as caligraphy, or the art of beautiful writing. As I have something curious to communicate on that subject considered professionally, it shall form our following article.


[1] A small volume which I met with at Paris, entitled "L'Art de juger du Caractere des Hommes sur leurs Ecritures," is curious for its illustrations, consisting of twenty-four plates, exhibiting fac-similes of the writing of eminent and other persons, correctly taken from the original autographs. Since this period both France and Germany have produced many books devoted to the use of the curious in autographs. In our own country J.T. Smith published a curious collection of fac-similes of letters, chiefly from literary characters.

[2] It will be of interest to the reader to note the names of these poets in the consecutive order they are alluded to. They are Scott, Byron, Rogers, Moore, and Campbell.

[3] He was also the tutor of Lady Jane Grey, and the author of one of our earliest and best works on education.

[4] Since this article was written, Nichols has published a cleverly-executed series of autographs of royal, noble, and illustrious persons of Great Britain, in which the reader may study the accuracy of the criticism above given.

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Isaac Disraeli's essay: Autographs