La Belle Vie
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The gentle art of writing

Tracing the line back from author, to clerk, to scrivener

Today’s post is inspired, in part, by my latest read, The Fire Court, by Andrew Taylor. And all about people and the great art of letter writing. And more specifically, the kind of letters written back in the day when this particular novel is set—the 17th century—just after the Great Fire of London.

What Taylor’s book features, and features a lot of, is the rich detail of what we can assume daily life was like during these times. And the reason the author is able to write with such depth and accuracy is not just because he might be a great researcher. But because of the wealth of material at his disposal to research to begin with.

The wonderful collections of documents that survive from this, and so many other eras akin to it, are testament to the fact everyone had to do everything by hand; including everything and anything that needed writing. And it wasn’t just about sending notes, documents, contracts, or personal letters and correspondence to people in positions of power, lawyers, business men, but also maybe, your parents and friends or social circle—inviting them to dinner or cards.

Everything of import was not written once but twice and thrice—oh, don’t you just love that word: thrice! But I digress. Clerks and scriveners [hired for the penmanship] worked tirelessly copying out letters, contracts and documents, first for the person and or business they were intended for, and a second time into what was called a Book of Letters. These ledgers, massive volumes in some cases, contained the daily commerce of life from various areas, business, and people in positions of import.

In today’s life we simply hit copy and save on our computers. And not so long ago, a secretary would have typed out business correspondence using carbon paper to make a second and third copy. But even these, like our saved files, have never really had the same feel of permanence as the Books of Letters from back in the day.

Ledgers, books, and folios that have survived centuries with their handwritten contents preserved for all to read. Do you think you txt, dot doc, or pdf file will last as long?

Probably not.


  1. I don’t know if they will last as long, Alex. But there is definitely something about those handwritten documents and the efforts that went into them, there’s no doubt about that. Your post made me think of books that are signed by the author (which I always think of as a treasure). There is a technology called Kindlegraph that allows an author to electronically sign an ebook. But somehow, it’s just not the same…

    • Alex says

      I’m something of a fan and buff on old documents, Margot. So I’m always drawn to them, and the history they hold. Endlessly fascinating for me.

      And yes, signed books are always another kind of treasure I have a few First Editions, signed. Definitely my own personal trove. While, signed e-books? Hmm, sounds kind of iffy to me. 😉

  2. As an expat, I still love writing letters to my family and wherever I go, I buy postcards. I just enjoy hand writing a lot and love receiving hand written messages as well. There’s something sentimental as well as personal about it.
    Great post, took me back in time, something I always appreciate.

    • La Blonde says

      Oh, indeed, Vera. You and I both then. I love to hand write letters to friends and the like. And love getting them in return even more. As each and every one is almost a keepsake. The time and effort people put in to writing by hand, the thoughts they send, so different to an email, or even a phone call.

      Letters are inherently intimate between the person writing and receiving. I still have a number of special letters written to me by my parents, from different times because of what they meant to me. Treasures to keep.

      • I have a few carefully selected letters as well as photos from my past saved in my little treasure box too. I cherish those very dearly.

        I agree regarding the intimate part between the person writing and receiving. So nicely put.

        I’ll use it as a prompt to hand write a few letters to those I love but don’t get to see that often. Thank you.

        • La Blonde says

          Ah, then you know exactly what I’m talking about, Vera. Something that seems so simple can bring such joy and happiness, and yes, at time, great sadness.

          I received an airmail letter in the post, from my mother, three days after she died. There are no words.

          Treasure those letters you receive, and yes, remember, your words count. Each and every one.

  3. If I had good eyesight, I’d expand my bookcases with more books; however, I depend on electronic editions of most of what I read so I can enlarge/change the typeface to read the text. I believe digital formats will survive history unless the technology no longer exists to open and process their contents. But it’s difficult to imagine a literary world without handwritten documents, such as letters and essays from Francis Bacon or Michel de Montaigne.

    • Alex says

      Oh, no doubt digital text is here to stay, as a format. Maybe not so much as individual content for mass consumption. Not in the same way the old letter ledger passed down through generations. Each art form has its place. And digital content is an amazing gift, for the poor sighted, Kenny!

      But yes, when the technology no longer exists, people will still have books, and or something to write on for prosperity. Whether those items last days, weeks, or decades is, as they say, by the by!

  4. There is something very special about handwritten letters. I wish I wrote more of them myself. These days I find that I type letters even if they’re going in the post box. To receive a handwritten letter from a correspondent with a beautiful script is a gift 🙂

    (I have horrible handwriting – hence the typing…)

    • La Blonde says

      Oh, indeed, I was just saying to another blogger about a friend and I writing back and forth to one another for what must be nearly 30 years. I cannot say the handwriting is great (for my part) but the sending and receiving of airmail letters is and will always be, something special.

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