Letter Writing

Sterne’s Letter Writing in Manuscript and Print

Paper in the eighteenth century was expensive and postage was charged per sheet. Writing was therefore often crammed onto the page at various angles, to economically fill all of the gaps. Sometimes writers rotated their letters from portrait to landscape (90 degrees) and continued over the top of the existing script. These are sometimes called cross-letters. Alternatively, leaving a lot of blank space made a statement about the writer’s wealth and social status.

There were no envelopes (as we know them), so a single sheet of paper was folded back onto itself, with the address appearing on the outside.

How to fold a letter in the eighteenth century:

  1. Make two folds in your letter, creating three sections (the largest in the middle)
  2. Fold the outside edges in on each other
  3. The last fold should have created a smaller, envelope-like flap

Letters were sealed by pouring hot wax onto the join and moulding it with a ring or customised stamp, known as a seal.

Sterne would have folded many of his letters in this way. The fold-marks and wax seal are particularly visible in his letter to Richard Chapman.

In the images you can see that Sterne doubled his letter, filling each half-sheet as if it were a page in a book, before proceeding to fold up the letter and address it to Mr Chapman.

Although this method of writing letters in the form of pamphlets was common in the eighteenth century, Sterne’s relationship with letter writing was particularly inflected with thoughts of book production. He certainly expected his correspondence to be published after his death. There is a crossover between Sterne’s correspondence and printed works in that he frequently refers to handwriting in his novels and references the act of printing in his letters. For example, in one letter, addressed to Lord Fauconberg, he mimics the style of a printed newspaper, whilst in Tristram Shandy he repeatedly describes images of Tristram haphazardly wielding pen and ink.

In his letters to Eliza, Sterne employs the pointing hand icon and the postscript, devices which, at the time of writing, were common in both manuscript and print.

The manicule

The image above is from the third volume of Tristram Shandy (1st ed., 1761). The pointing hand device, used in both handwritten and printed texts, is sometimes called ‘manicule’, ‘index’, ‘indicule’ or ‘fist’. Hand-drawn manicules, inscribed by a reader of Tristram Shandy, are visible in an 1803 edition (published in Glasgow by Gray, Maver & Co.).

This reader has employed the device to respond to specific parts of the text, and also apparently in imitation of the printed hand that appears on the page.

Throughout history, the icon has been used to point out useful information, paragraph breaks, or to annotate texts, and it subsequently has a wide range of users: reader/author/printer. It is particularly prevalent in eighteenth-century advertisements.

Sterne uses the pointing hand icon twice in his letters and six times in Tristram Shandy, often during episodes which deal directly with anxieties around the process of transforming handwriting into print. He also employs the device in Journal to Eliza when describing his family’s return to Coxwold:

June 2d.

This morning surpiz’d with a Letter from my Lydia—that She and her Mama, are coming to pay me a Visit—but on Condition I promise not to detain them in England beyond next April—when, they purpose, by my Consent, to retire into France, & establish themselves for Life—To all which I have freely given my parole of Honour–& so shall have them with me for the Summer—from Octr to April—they take Lodgings in York—when they Leave me for good & all I suppose.

Every thing for the best! Eliza.

Here, the manicule denotes a change of thinking; Sterne redirects his thoughts from his wife and daughter to Eliza, to whom he eventually hopes, as he expresses in a later letter, to be married.

The Postscript

The image above is taken from a letter from Sterne to his doctor, Theophilus Garancieres:

As in the use of paper, the postscript device in letter writing was coloured by assumptions about class. For instance, it doesn’t usually appear in formal letters to social superiors, but typically in those addressed to friends or loved ones. Most often, the device is used to convey compliments from the writer to the receiver or their family.

In the eighteenth century, postscripts were often used in epistolary novels (novels compiled from letters), especially in love notes between the characters. Samuel Richardson uses the postscript device in Pamela to make the reader feel closer to the moment of the action. In fact, it becomes such a characteristic device in this novel that Henry Fielding would later mock Richardson’s use of the postscript in a parody entitled Shamela.

In one of his letters to Eliza, Sterne follows the seemingly final closing line ‘Adieu, adieu, adieu—’ with a more optimistic postscript:

Adieu, once more, Eliza! May no anguish of heart plant a wrinkle upon thy face, till I behold it again! May no doubt or misgivings disturb the serenity of thy mind, or awaken a painful thought about thy children—for they are Yorick’s—and Yorick is thy friend for ever!—Adieu, adieu, adieu!

P. S. Remember, that Hope shortens all journies, by sweetening them—so sing my little stanza on the subject, with the devotion of an hymn, every morning when thou arises, and thou wilt eat thy breakfast with more comfort for it.

Blessings, rest, and Hygeia go with thee! May’st thou soon return, in peace and affluence, to illumine my night! I am, and shall be, the last to deplore thy loss, and will be the first to congratulate and hail thy return.—

Fare thee well—

This letter, displaying competing impulses of conclusion and continuation, is typical of Sterne’s creative practice. He leaves Tristram Shandy, for example, open-ended, and unfortunately died before he could complete A Sentimental Journey. Sterne’s reluctance to conclude his writings in a conventional manner is reflected in the above postscript, which simply ends with a dash—

Helen Williams

PhD research student

Tristram Shandy and Eighteenth-Century Experimental Fiction’

Northumbria University