Book Reviews | November 2023 | Alex Johnson

Handwritten: Remarkable People on the Page - Book Review

Bodleian Libraries

Handwritten: Remarkable People on the Page

There's something special about owning an original handwritten manuscript, but if a John Steinbeck fragment or Charlotte Brontë's 'Little Book' are out of reach then Handwritten: Remarkable People on the Page is the next best thing.

The book is divided into sections, The Tudor Court, Poets and Novelists, Scientists, Reformers, Friends and Rivals, Travellers and Adventurers (good to see Mary Kingsley and Gertrude Bell included here), Composers, Writers for Children, Spies and Detectives, Familes, Scribes and Calligraphers, and, with one all to himself, Samuel Pepys. For each of the 79 entries (though encompassing 99 people), original examples of the writer's handwriting are accompanied by a short explanatory essay from Professor Lesley Smith, Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, all of which are intelligently and accessibly written. 

"The less it is part of everyday life, the more the appeal of the handwritten grows," writes Smith in her introduction. "Perhaps that won’t be so for the born-digital generations, but for those of us who remember when not all writing was typing, texting or social media, the pleasure – or not – of recognizing a familiar script is deep and immediate. The close relation of the script to its writer provides a particular thrill." 

It's particularly good to see a science section, the literature of which is easy to overlook, here including Dorothy Hodgkin juggling the demands of childcare with the discovery of the structure of penicillin, and a 10-year-old Ada Lovelace writing to her mother about maths. It's also a welcoming eclectic sweep, featuring the young King Edward VI practising signing his name in 1548 as well as a postcard from Franz Kafka to his sister Ottla in 1918 featuring some of his sketches. Elsewhere there are the usual suspects such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Albert Einstein, letters, first drafts and marked-up proofs, autograph albums, and doodles.

Published by the Bodleian Library, it's a high quality production, with plenty of colour plates, and a fine addition to their ongoing series of books about books.