The Letters, Part 2

KCB’s letter to My darling auntie dated Petersburg, Russia, September 3rd 1895, page 1. Breckinridge Family Papers, Container 862. Courtesy of the Manuscript Reading Room, Library of Congress. 

Handwritten letters are beautiful and they are a lost art. But they can also be challenging. Lucky for me KCB had good penmanship. (Clifton is a different story for a later post!) But even with the best penmanship, you have to get acclimated to the author’s pen as well as their voice. I had to get used to KCB’s handwriting. How she made her Ss and Ds and the difference between the two. Same with L, F, and T. I had to become familiar with her way of speaking. The way she structured her sentences. Her lack of punctuation. Her word choice. Context helps with transcribing but context comes with assumptions and those assumptions can make the context wrong.

And transcription is a tedious task. I don’t know anyone who can sit in front of a computer for hours upon hours transcribing handwritten letters into typed format. Your eyes get sore and tired. Your back starts to hurt (even with the best desk chair). And I’m a good typist but I’m not super fast and I have to look at the keys every once in a while!

Oddly enough I didn’t do any research on letter or diary transcription projects when I was working on and writing my thesis. It’s not for lack of published material available in most local libraries. Mary Boykin Chestnut’s A Diary from Dixie is probably the most famous. Or Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (although it’s not without controversy). Nicholas and Alexandra’s letters were transcribed and published in the late 1990s and I even own a copy of that one. I do remember looking at biographies’ of other Southern women. But that was because I was writing a biography. Writing a biography is a completely different animal than just transcribing a lot of letters. I mean, yes, some of the biographies I looked at relied heavily on the subject’s personal correspondence and/or diaries but not just one transcribed letter after another for the reader to enjoy outside of historic context. I don’t know that I would know how to or even want to present the letters outside of their broader historical context. I mean it’s not like history happened in a vacuum or anything!!!

And you need the whole conversation to do a letter transcription project. KCB’s letters at the Library of Congress are one sided. Most of the letters in the collection are her letters to other people. Not the other people’s response to her letters. And again in writing my thesis I was constrained by time. The other side of the correspondence might exist in other libraries or collections. I’m always on the outlook for those. For example some correspondence between KCB and her daughter, Mary, are part of Mary’s papers at the University of Kentucky. I just haven’t made it there yet.

Woman writing in the garden, Daniel F. Gerhartz

And now that I look back on it, I not only didn’t look at transcription project but I didn’t look at how people wrote letters in the nineteenth century or what tools they used. Odd because I love material culture. Why the crazy thin paper? Was it for economy of postage? Or economy of material in general? I know paper was expensive – Jane Austen tells us that in Mansfield Park. What type of pen would KCB have used? Are we still talking quill and ink well? Or had we entered fountain pen territory? And yes, I know Google could answer all these questions for me in a manner of seconds but that defeats the purpose!

KCB’s letter to My Dear Lily written from Paris and dated October 15 1894, page 1. Breckinridge Family Papers, Container 862. Courtesy of the Manuscript Reading Room, Library of Congress.

What I do know about KCB’s writing habits is that she wasn’t going to start a new sheet of paper if she only had a little bit left to write! Take this letter example – Paris October 15 1894. The original letter (I really wish I had a picture for you of an actual letter) is written on onion skin thin paper. The paper is folded in half. KCB started her letter on the left side, filled that half page, turned it over and filled the other half page (right side).

The rest of KCB’s letter to My Dear Lily dated Paris October 15, 1894, page 2. Breckinridge Family Papers, Container 862. Courtesy of the Manuscript Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Then she opened the folded page, turned it over and continued her letter, filling the whole page from top to bottom. When she ran out of space on the back side, she returned to the front, turned the page so that the left side was at the top (would that be clockwise?) and finished her thought. In this example, it was just the end of the sentence, her closing and her signature. I don’t know what this turning the page and writing over existing text is called, and I’m sure there is some official name or term for it… But I’m forever amazed at how I can still read the original text and the text written at a 90 degree angle. I’ve been referring to it as cross-writing.

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