In Search of Jane Austen reviewed

I’ve just, that is, on the first day of ICEHL-19 in Essen, been told about yet another review of the book, by Nuria Calvo Cortés from the Universdad Complutense de Madrid. The review appeared in the journal Atlantis, and (to my delight) is freely available online.

For those readers interested in the language of Jane Austen’s letters: here is the first review of the book that has come out, in LinguistList.

A second review appeared on 15 July 2015 in the journal Women’s Writing, by Jane Hodson from the University of Sheffield.

And here is a third one, by Katie Halsey from the University of Stirling. It appeared in the Autumn issue of The BARS Review (no. 46).

And if you wish to read more about the language of the letters, see the proceedings of the most recent Anglistentag (Hanover, 2014).

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Excitement or illiteracy?

Here is Sopio Zhgenti’s second blogpost, once again on Virginia Woolf:

Virginia Woolf (source: Wikipedia)

The previous blog post I wrote was about Virginia Woolf and the nicknames she used with people close to her. This time, I would like to continue talking about Virginia and discuss some of the spelling peculiarities that I encountered while studying her letters. It is striking that Virginia in her correspondence with her brother Thoby Stephen omitted apostrophes, whereas in the letters addressed to her half-brother George Duckworth, she did use them. Closer observation showed that apostrophes were most frequently omitted in negative contracted auxiliary verbs. See the examples below:

Letters to Thoby Stephen:

Thoby Stephen (source: Wikipedia)

  • “I dont know to what species he belongs, but he is very well bred and a great beauty Jack says” (L. 9 1897)
  • “However I shant know till we meet at Fritham. I will tell Jack about it if he comes tonight.” (L. 36. 1901)
  • “I am so penetrated with Dotty’s [Dorothea’s] style of conversation that I cant help writing exactly like her.” (L. 10, 1897)
  • “I was so much more impressed by him than I thought I should be, that I read Cymbeline just to see if there mightnt be more in the great William than I supposed.” (L. 39, 1901)
  • “the little King wont have it done, and his mother tries to make him forget and asks him to ride with her in the Park” (L. 39, 1901)
  • “And MacKail isnt so precious as I thought”(L.40 1902)

Letters to George Duckworth:

  • You don’t say what your address at Porto Fino is, so I shall have to send this after you to Rome. (L.12. 1898)
  • Father is stretched at full length snoring on the sofa, and this annoys me so much that I can’t write sense. (L.29. 1900)

What would be the reason for these differences? I don’t think the omission of apostrophes is caused by her illiteracy, as she used correct forms in the letters addressed to George. Moreover, despite the fact that Virginia did not receive any formal education, she had been taught by her father Leslie Stephen. I would therefore expect Virginia to have been aware of rules such as when to use the apostrophe, and therefore find it quite difficult to find an explanation for this difference in usage, except that Virginia had a very close relationship with Thoby and seemed always very excited while writing to him. She wrote many long letters to him, and this excitement may be why, for one reason or another, the correct use of the apostrophe seemed to matter less to her. But I’d be interested to hear about other possible suggestions.



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The Adams Family Papers

The Adams Family is a popular topic in this blog. Here is another blogpost on them, Martijn Slokker’s last one: 

Abigail Adams (source: wikipedia)

John Adams (source: wikipedia)

When I wrote my course paper, I worked with the Adams Family Papers, an electronic archive which contains (among other things) the correspondence between John Adams (1735-1826) and his wife Abigail (1744-1818). As a farewell to the course I thought I’d write a short review of the archive and its usefulness as a tool for academic research.

The collection, which is held by the Massachusetts Historical Society, numbers over 1,100 letters, written between 1762 and 1801. The vast majority of the letters in the archive are original letters as received by the addressee. However, there are also a few letterbook copies and draft letters, as well as an 18th-century transcript of a letter. The status of the letters is always marked, making it easy to determine what type of letter you are dealing with.

The archive is divided into six parts that mark important periods in the John Adams’ life:

  • 1762-1774, letters written during courtship and early legal career
  • 1774-1777, letters written during Continental Congress
  • 1778-1779, letters written during the diplomatic mission to France
  • 1779-1789, letters written during diplomatic missions to Europe
  • 1789-1796, letters written during vice presidency
  • 1796-1801, letters written during presidency

The letters are listed in chronological order in each of these sections and it is also possible to display lists with only John’s or Abigail’s letters. Furthermore, the archive has a handy search function, which allows you to find specific words and phrases you may be researching.

The letters themselves are presented in two forms: a transcription and an image of the original document. The transcriptions appear to follow the original documents as closely as possible, including capitalization, non-standard spellings, strike-throughs and insertions, although it is mentioned that certain changes have been made in order to improve legibility; this includes punctuation changes and shorthand being expanded. The transcriptions further include supplied text in the following format: [blue text in brackets]. This format is used to clarify, correct and complete passages and can be a useful tool when studying the letters as it provides the reader with information that may not have been available otherwise.

Unfortunately, there are also ways in which the transcriptions do not match the original manuscripts: the line breaks do not match and, while the transcriptions in general match the original documents very well, I did encounter some problems with missing self-corrections. I will give an example of this below.

“It began raining hard about two hours before we reach’d the city, continued through the Night, and all day yesterday, a mere flood.” (Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 19 February 1801)

This is the transcription as it appears in the archive. However, if you look at the original manuscript (4th line from the bottom of the page), you can see that originally the text read as follows: “it began raining hard about? / about two hours before we reach’d the city, continued through the / Night, and all day yesterday, a mere flood”. The transcription does not include the erased about, which looks as though it was either struck out because it was misspelled or because it did not fit on the line properly.

I found several of these transcription errors in the archive. The most frequent mistakes seem to occur with insertions that are not marked as such in the transcriptions, which was unfortunate since self-corrections were the topic of my paper.

Overall, I think the Adams Family Papers electronic archive an excellent resource for the study of letters; however, it appears you cannot always rely on the transcriptions when studying specific letter writing features like self-corrections. Luckily the archive always provides you with the original manuscripts in cases like this. Using these manuscripts is more time consuming of course, but it does allow you to work as accurately as possible. My list of pros and cons for using the archive looks as follow:


  • Easy navigation
  • Search function
  • Original manuscripts are available alongside the transcriptions
  • Transcriptions attempt to be true to the original letters
  • Archive indicates what type of letter you are dealing with
  • Archive fully accessible to everyone who is interested


Transcriptions are sometimes not 100% accurate

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Jane Austen: a very polite correspondent

Merel Kohsiek’s second blog post is on a comparison between the language of Charlotte Brontë and that of Jane Austen:

For my analysis of the language of grief in Charlotte Brontë’s letters (see also my previous blog post), I did a keyword analysis with the help of WordSmith Tools in which I used Jane Austen’s (1775-1817) letters as a reference corpus. One of the results was that very had was a negative key. In other words, Charlotte Brontë used the word relatively little in comparison to the reference corpus. However, another explanation is also possible: the author of the reference corpus uses the word relatively often. Though all this was a bit off topic for my essay, it was still a question that occupied my mind.

Jane Austen (source: wikipedia)

Throughout her letters, Austen used the word very as often as 1,241 times. This frequency ranks it as the 19th most frequently used word in her letters. Strikingly, very is not even one of the hundred most common words in English. The eighteen words that occur more often than very are all among the hundred common ones. The next item that is not among the common words is much. Both much and very are quantifiers. This leads us to the question what this could mean for Jane Austen’s language.

A concordance search resulted in a number of clusters or set phrases Austen used the word very in. I include the first fifteen results below, where I have categorized them  as ‘descriptions of people,’ ‘politeness’ and ‘other.’

Descriptions of peopleI am veryShe is veryAm very muchI was very

PolitenessVery glad toVery much obligedMuch obliged toBe very gladObliged to youAm very glad

Other: Had a veryA very goodIs a veryTo be veryIt is very

Though I categorized some utterances as descriptions of people and others as politeness, they do not mutually exclude one another. Depending on context, I am very, am very much and I was very can all be part of a politeness  phrase. All in all, this leads me to conclude that Austen’s frequent use of the word very is part of her means to be very polite in her letters. It would be wrong to assume that this means that Austen used a lot of negative politeness, as the following passage from a letter to her brother Francis (Frank) shows.

My dearest Frank

The 11th of this month brought me your letter & I assure you I thought it very well worth its 2s/3d. — I am very much obliged to you for filling me so long a sheet a  paper, you are a good one to traffic with in that way, You pay most liberally; — my Letter was a scratch of a note compared with yours — & then you write so even, so clear both in style & Penmanship, so much to the point & give so much real intelligence that it is enough to kill one (Letter 90, 25 September 1813)

Austen’s use of very, even in the formulaic I am very much obliged, is meant as a marker of positive politeness toward her brother.

In sum, I was right to assume that the fact that very came up as a negative key for Brontë had more to do with Austen’s letters as a reference corpus than with Brontë’s language.

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English by Dutch people (2)

I wrote my first blogpost about a letter written by a Dutchman, which was written in English entirely. Meanwhile, I found another example of English written by a Dutch person, in a letter, dated 14 April 1758, where I did not expect to find any English because it was entirely in Dutch. The man who wrote this letter, Pieter Hanson, wrote a letter to his wife and, to my surprise, used a bit of English at the end of his letter. He wrote:

my Dier Polly
Do not fer Get Jour Dier Hansom [?] Dat
Loves you so Dear Ly

Pieter Hanson1

It is only a short sentence, but an interesting one. It is clear that his spelling is influenced by his native tongue, Dutch. For example, he writes Jour which should have been written with a <y>. In Dutch, <j> and <y> are pronounced similarly, which might explain why he wrote a <j> here (he does write you though, which might mean that his English was not so good that he could use the English spelling consistently). Furthermore, he writes Dat instead of that, which can be explained by the fact that the Dutch language does not know the ‘th’-sound. It is possible that Pieter Hanson, like many Dutch speakers today, pronounced this sound like a <d>, which explains why he wrote Dat instead of that.

Furthermore, there may be a possible pun on his name. The name of the letter writer is Pieter Hanson (originally from “son of Hans”), but it looks as if he spelled his name ‘Hansom’. If the character is indeed an <m>, could he have meant that his wife should not forget her handsome husband?

Lastly, I think it is interesting that he addresses his wife with ‘Polly’, whereas her name was Maria Magdalena Maerle. Perhaps this was a nickname that he used for her, similar to the English Mary called Polly, as discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Pieter Hanson2

(Images reproduced by permission from Marijke van der Wal.)

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The Brontë sisters’ pseudonyms

Merel Kohsiek wrote her first blogpost on the Brontë sisters’ pseudonyms, and how Charlotte’s identity was revealed:

Charlotte Brontë (source: Wikipedia)

Charlotte Brontë is now known mainly for her novel Jane Eyre, but her contemporaries did not know her as such. The novel was published under the pseudonym Currer Bell, a masculine name with the very same initials as her own name. Her two younger sisters, Emily (Ellis) and Anne (Acton), also published novels under false names. During the research I did for my course paper on Charlotte Brontë’s language of grief, I came across a letter in which she revealed her own and her sister’s identities to her publishers, Mr. Smith and Mr. Williams, with whom she had been corresponding for a while under the name Currer Bell. His astonishment at finding her to be a woman are described, as well as her wish to keep living in anonymity.

I then put his [i.e. Smith’s] own letter into his hand directed to “Currer Bell.” He looked at it—then at me—again—yet again—I laughed at his queer perplexity—A recognition took place— 

We were as resolved as ever to preserve our incognito—We had only confessed ourselves to our publisher—in order to do away with the inconveniences that had arisen from our too well preserved mystery—to all the rest of the world we must be “gentlemen” as heretofore.

(Both quotations are from a letter to Mary Taylor, 4 September 1848.)

It seems that not only did the sisters want to ‘preserve their incognito’ with strangers, none of their friends knew about their secret authorship either. There is no reference to Charlotte’s publications in any of her letters to Ellen Nussey, with whom she had maintained a close friendship since childhood. After her brother Branwell passed away (in September 1848), Charlotte (in a letter to Williams) expressed her sadness that he will never know of the success of his sisters, which might even have motivated him to make something more of his own life.

The fact that Charlotte chose to keep her authorship a secret from Ellen Nussey seems to indicate that their friendship may not have been as close as would be supposed from their correspondence. I would argue that due to the fact that Williams is aware of her authorship, and their letters discuss personal matters as well as matters of publishing, their friendship seems the closer one. I hope to elaborate my conclusions in my upcoming course paper.


Brontë, C. (1995-2000). The Letters of Charlotte Brontë: with a selection of letters by family and friends. Margaret Smith (ed.). 2 vols. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

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Clever letter writing tools: the Polygraph

Here is Martijn Slokker’s first blogpost:

While doing research for my course paper I made the fortuitous decision of watching the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams, a series that chronicles the political life of the second president of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826). In the finale of the series we see how Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third president of the United States, starts writing a letter to John Adams. In this scene Jefferson sits down behind his desk and you see him writing his letter using an odd looking device with moving parts and two pen-holders. I did not immediately grasp the function of this device and decided to try and find out more about it. After searching for a bit I found the device in question: a polygraph. You can see an image of this device below.

A Polygraph (source: Wikipedia)

Today, most people would probably think of a lie detector when we see the word polygraph. However, the device pictured above was used as a copying device, making its name very literal. It allowed its user to create a copy of the letter he or she was composing. In the image above you can see that the device holds two pens. The letter writer would hold one of these pens and would start writing a letter. The second pen, being connected the other via various interlinked mechanisms, would copy the first’s movements exactly and produce a second letter that was an exact copy of the original. More on the machine’s workings and history can be found here: Polygraph (duplicating device).

According to Smith (1996), Jefferson, who found it very important to create duplicates of important documents, experimented with many available copying methods; his favourite one was the polygraph “which he enthusiastically promoted” (p. 16) after being introduced to it in 1804. Smith further writes that Jefferson also spent a great deal of time building a better version of the device with the help of a team that included the original inventor (John Isaac Hawkings, 1772-1855) and manufacturer (Charles Willson Peale, 1741-1827).

For a man like Thomas Jefferson, ingenious inventions like the polygraph would be a real benefit and timesaver in his daily activities. According to the Monticello’s website, the site of the historical landmark that was Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Jefferson wrote nearly 20,000 letters in his lifetime. He calculated to have received 1,267 letters in the year 1820 alone. One can imagine how a polygraph would prove to be a useful addition to his writing desk.

Having never heard of this device before, I thought it was a pretty clever invention for a time where photocopiers and printers did not exist. Do any of you perhaps know of more of these kinds of innovative contraptions that would greatly improve the quality of lives for letter writers in the Late Modern English period?


Smith, Catherine F. 1996. Thomas Jefferson’s Computer. Computers and Composition 13, 5-21.

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