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On a Lady's Writing

Diderot Ecrire 9 Tomkins

In the eighteenth century the dominance of England's mercantile economy was demonstrated in the fact that the English mercantile hand, or English round hand, developed from the Italian hand and promoted in the early eighteenth century by writing masters like George Shelley, master of the Writing School at Christ's Hospital, became popular throughout Europe. To practice this particular form of handwriting signifies an implicit allegiance with Britain's economic power. More than being a poem about graceful handwriting, "On a Lady's Writing" would have women recognize how their potential is simultaneously constrained and empowered by the kind of hand expected of ladies, a simpler form of round hand developed for women.


In an early eighteenth-century copy book William Brooks uses the Italian hand to advertise his skill at teaching the "Ladies of Great Britain" a hand "which as your own I recommend to your choice and practice, being full of Beauty, Ornament and Delight, and Invented for the Sole use and Embellishment of your fair Sex." Brooks makes clear the values inscribed in a woman's hand. "Sole use" may sound like privilege, but it is a marketing ploy that also conveys how women are separated from handwriting that embodies power; "Ornament" betrays how women are seen both as consumable and as consumer, rather than agents in their own right.

Yet Barbauld's reference to "Her even lines" suggests that if women were included, they were also contained by a system in which they merely wrote a simplified hand for decorative purposes. Women have the potential to do more than embellish if they can write a round hand that displays "steady temper." Writing about the Renaissance, Jonathan Goldberg considers the sorts of ideological rifts that the female hand reveals, which for all its regulation, "cannot finally be stabilized in the duplicative regimes of copy. The claims for the extension of literacy--that it will only support the status quo--has its correspondent anxiety--that it will put power in anyone's hand. The anxiety is expressed most evidently through the woman's hand, which needs special policing" (145-6). "On a Lady's Writing" belongs to the thriving culture of the woman of letters, including Bluestocking writers, whose correspondence was collected for public consumption in the early nineteenth century. Without recourse to its contexts, the poem's potential richness is lost to readers.

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