Letters in 19th c. British Printing

Letters Represented in Nineteenth-Century British Printing:

An Analytical Bibliography of a Selection of Florida State University’s Napoleon Special Collections

Handwritten letters have been used for centuries in order to communicate ideas between two people. They communicate valuable information, orders, official business, love, friendship. What is interesting, then, in bibliographical studies, is to see how these letters are handled in a printer’s shop, to see how they are represented in the form of typography.

I have chosen four different books from Florida State University’s Napoleon Collection which represent letters and maps in different ways. Their short titles are Copies of Original Letters From the Army of General Bonaparte in Egypt (1798), Letters From the Island of Saint Helena (1818), Memoirs &c. &c. of General Moreau (1814) and Waterloo Letters (1891). All of these books were printed in London using moveable type, ranging from the late eighteenth century (Copies of Original Letters) to the early nineteenth (Memoirs and Waterloo Letters) and the late nineteenth (Letters). All of these books are also about the same general topic (Napoleon in Egypt). And they all are concerned with letters.

They are also concerned with maps. From examining multiple copies of collections of letters in the Napoleon Collection, I have observed that a great deal of these types of books, if not most, almost always include maps. They show the locations that are being discussed in the letters, or the movement of Napoleon’s armies, or the topography of Egypt, or the locations of people when they wrote their letters. These maps have different data that they communicate to the reader, but the appearance of maps in a wide sample of books from this category illustrates the necessity to include maps when printing letters. It gives context to the letters historically and narratively.

Printers using movable type, then, had a unique challenge in printing their collections of (at least in this case) Napoleon-centric letters: they needed to include not only representations of letters, but of maps as well. Letters, as a hand-written form, communicate much through their materiality. The type of paper used, the number of pages, the handwriting of the writer, the white space used, words that are visible although scratched out…there is a plethora of rhetoric to be gained from all of these different aspects of the letter that communicate to the reader through reading these physical marks.

Representing facsimiles of all these manuscripts, though, was completely out of the question. These days, through recent advancements in technology, we can digitally scan, store, print, save, or edit anything, and it can be done relatively cheaply. Making plates of facsimiles to fill an entire book in the nineteenth-century, however, was completely impossible. And so, editors had to first choose what to transcribe. Between the writing, the translating, and the deletion of certain emendations or choices made as to what a certain word read, or whatever other choices there were to make as to the content of the letters, printers were forced to come up with ways in which to set up a block of type that represented the letter and its meaning.

Likewise, for maps, printers needed to make plates that had a certain level of accuracy and detail, but these maps also had to fit within the codex (the ones examined here were all octavos). Thus, certain design choices had to be made concerning the representation of these manuscript documents due to the restrictions and allowances of the technology available at the time.

The earliest selection in my sample is the Copies of Original Letters from 1798. The first page is a glued-in page that does not fit in with the binding of a regular octavo, nor does it match the regular sizing of the pages. The paper measures at 24 x 20 cm, as compared to the rest of the book’s 11.5 x 20 cm pages. This glued-in page contains a plate illustration measuring 22.5 x 19.5 cm and subtitled “Chart of Lower Egypt, Illustrative of Bonaparte’s Intercepted Correspondence.” This page is folded so as to fit within the binding with the rest of the pages. The large format of the paper allows for much more topographical detail to be provided to the reader, giving greater context to the letters. The map serves as a mental enhancement to the letters that make up the bulk of the book.

There is another large glued-in page in the second volume of this work. It is a copy of an original plate. In the actual copy that I was able to examine, this facsimile was printed on fake laid paper. The real laid paper has a watermark that is a decorative “97” and the distances between chain lines vary amongst one another and on different pages. Samples taken from random pages in both volumes showed averages of 2.5 cm plus or minus .3mm between chain lines, suggesting that this is real laid paper and all part of one copy. However, the glued-in page has no chain lines and is of thicker stock, suggesting that the glued-in page in the first volume containing the map was, in fact, of the same or similar paper stock and was meant to be printed along with the rest of the book. It stands to reason that if the first large-format glued-in page was meant by the publisher to be there, then there was supposed to be one in the second volume as well, since it is evident that the publisher had the means to produce these larger pages in the book. What I was looking at is most likely a facsimile of the original plate that was in the book when this book was first printed in 1798, albeit of high enough quality to be able to distinguish what the original plate depicted. Also, the glued-in page is, similar to the map in the first volume, a larger glued-in page, measuring at 20.5 x 27cm, so I am assuming that this facsimile is the same or similar size as the original page, and hopefully at least to scale.

The plate image itself is a wonderful contrast of the way letters are represented in the rest of the book. This is an example of a facsimile of different parts of actual letters, printed from a single plate, as is evident from the indentations surrounding the four different sections.

At the top, there is a facsimile of Napoleon Bonaparte’s writing, which we can see represented typographically on page one hundred. This facsimile, though, is a wonderful example of what can be done with engraved plate in order to provide a competent visual representation of the letter. You can see the size and spacing of Bonaparte’s handwriting, the curves and lines of the way he wrote by hand, the slight imperfections in the way he wrote the English language, all evident in this facsimile. Most of the other examples of letters represented in this time period, which I will examine later, make little attempt at utilizing creative typography in order to emulate a person’s handwriting. Erratic spacing, scratched out words, and emphasis utilizing bold or exaggerated writing are not represented in the printings of these collections of letters. This facsimile shows that providing adequate visual representation of letters was possible, although it would be nearly impossible considering the expense and time involved, so the editor and translator had some choices to make regarding what to set in type.

At the bottom left of the plate is Napoleon’s seal, something that, unlike the text of letters, can not really be represented in type. Above this is a representation of Lord Nelson’s writing. At the bottom right, there is another representation of Bonaparte’s writing and in the middle one of Berthier’s. All of these are similar in nature to the facsimile described above.

The vast majority of the letters collected here, though, are typographically represented on the page. The printer does not do much in the way of typesetting to emulate the physical appearance of a letter, but rather the content of the letters are lifted from their former format, and transformed to the restraints and restrictions of the octavo codex. At the beginning of each letter, there is a center-aligned block of text in italics that gives the reader information on who sent the letter to whom, and the date written and area sent from, if that information is available. The rest of the text that follows is rather straight forward, set in a standard type and printed out in paragraphs with regular justification.

It seems that the way this printer wished to deal with the representation of the contents of the letter was mostly content-based, most likely chosen to clearly communicate the translation that this copy used. Choosing content as a preference but still giving some thought to form, the printer created the blocks of type so as to create regular paragraph breaks that are consistent with normal prose printing. This completely divorces the content from the form. It suggests that the most important thing about a letter is the information being communicated, i.e. the words. It places more importance on word choice than on physical evidence of the material object. The facsimile, in comparison, can give the reader a much better idea of the nature of the original object by providing a picture of the things itself. Not quite like the real thing, of course, but one can see an outline of a person’s handwriting, look at two-dimensional images of seals and such things, and much more evidence about the physical object can be garnered from that than from a typographical representation.

It is important to remember, though, that just because there is only one plate depicting facsimiles of letters while the rest of the book is content to divorce the words from the form, representing the content typographically, it does not mean that the printer, editor, translators, or any other people involved in the creation of this book were not completely uninterested in the physical form of the letters, as modern bibliographers are. They simply did not have the means to preserve or copy on a mass scale ephemeral objects such as letters, so they did the best they could.

In fact, the inclusion of facsimiles of letters and maps proves that the printing staff was concerned with physical evidence and physical context. The maps serve much purpose in establishing where these letters come from without having to provide individual maps or other visual representations for every individual letter. It is not possible to create facsimiles of or to preserve every one of those letters that are included in these letters, let alone print them on a mass scale, so the publishers have given the readers all the information they could possibly provide given the limitations of their technology and means.

Memoirs &c. &c. of General Moreau, published by A.J. Valpy in 1814, has yet more differences in its representation of letters and maps. On page 230, there is a glued-in facsimile similar to the one found in Intercepted Letters. It measures 15 cm. wider than the other pages after unfolding it from the codex. At first I thought that this page, like the facsimile in Volume II of Copies of Intercepted Letters, was added in after the initial printing, as it was a different type of paper. There were no chain lines or watermarks in these examples to get any evidence from like there was in the other book, but the paper is of a noticeably thicker, heavier stock. But after looking at a glued-in map on page 244, I have concluded that the page 230 facsimile as well as this map on page 244 were meant to be included in the first edition of the book.

This map offers much more physical evidence as to the ideal copy of this book. First of all there is an impression on the opposite page from the ink on the map. The lines of the rivers and maps line up perfectly with the image of the map with no indication of another map having made an impression. The last piece of evidence regarding these two plates comes from the “Erratum” section on page 294, which includes “Directions to the Binder for placing the Plates,” and describes where each one should be added in. All of this suggests that the initial printing of this book was meant to include these glued-in pages.

The letters that are collected in the book are represented in much the same way as Copies of Original Letters, with center-aligned italic type representing the extra contextual information of the letter and the contents of the letters in regular type and justified prose with regular grammatical paragraph breaks. The only part of the book that breaks with this format is in Appendix B, which depicts a document in a table.

Napoleon at St. Helena also provides an example of a way that letters were represented in nineteenth century. This 1818 printing does even less than the previous two books to try and represent the physical form of the letter. The entirety of the text of the letters is written out in justified prose, without the italicized sections of the previous two books and even without regular paragraph breaks to represent physical traits of the letter. The text is plain and uniform, completely devoid of any signifiers it once carried as a physical object. The meaning it carried in the form of a letter is now completely gone, taking on the form of the book.

The final book that I examined was short-titled Waterloo Letters, printed in 1891. As with the others, this book is a collection of letters from Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. This book, however, was printed in the late nineteenth century and its maps, facsimiles, and typographical representations are all much more sophisticated. The type is laid out on the page in a much more generous fashion than with the other books, especially in contrast to the letters contained in Napoleon at St. Helena. The letters in Waterloo Letters have italic sections and page and paragraph spacing similar to those of Copies of Original Letters. Waterloo Letters, though, has many more paragraph breaks and spacing that is more representational of the physical object than the other samples examined. More access to better, cheaper materials and processes, such as using laid paper, allowed printers to do more with their books at cheaper prices.

For example, marginalia is included in the pages containing the letters. These marginal notes provide a lot of different types of information. They contain notes on the physical form of the letter, or if something was scratched out in the manuscript or changed in translation. The marginalia also provides information such as descriptions or translations of a certain word, anecdotes about a place or a time mentioned, or clarifications in regards to the context of the original letter that cannot be represented with the printed page. These things, of course, are not represented in a purely visual way, nor do they provide any facsimiles or illustrations of people, events or places; they simply provide literal descriptions of these things in text, right next to the text of the letter. Just as with Copies of Original Letters, care was given to the treatment of the physical form of the letters.

Like the other books, Waterloo includes maps in the book. The very first page in the book is glued-in and folded into the codex, like with the maps and facsimiles included in the previously examined books and measures fifty three by twenty two cm. and the plate was fifty by twenty two cm. The image is made from a single plate: there is an indentation on the paper surrounding the edges of the image and it is continuous, with no physical evidence to suggest that there were separate plates which composed the image. The image is huge, and is much more detailed in the topography being represented than the other maps discussed were.

There were other maps included in the back of the book, with such titles as “Waterloo, General Plan, Nos. 1-3” and “Plan of Quatre-Bras Nos. 1 & 2.” These images, like all the others discussed here, are glued in and folded and are larger than the other pages in the codex. They depict movements of armies that were discussed in the letters and utilize different colors (red, green, blue) to differentiate between armies.

Starting with Copies of Original Letters, in 1798, we see a general trend in these publications to not only represent more and more information in a visual way, but also to communicate more types of information through images, with the exception of Napoleon at St. Helena. Copies of Original Letters gave thought to the physical form of the letter by providing small facsimiles, a map, and utilizing a typographical/grammatical system in order to represent the texts they were copying. Memoirs &c. &c. of General Moreau also used typographical representation and a facsimile of a letter. Waterloo Letters, printed in the latter part of the twentieth century, was something of a culmination in the advancement of print technologies in its inclusion of multiple images and maps of higher quality, along with more sophisticated typography to represent the contents of letters in the context of their physical form.

I chose to investigate both letters and maps partly because they were both just there when I started examining representations of letters and partly because I feel like when you have letters, you must have maps, especially when there is no dialogue in the work. Maps provide historical information and context to the letters that simple language cannot because of how much information is communicated to the reader by a map. Maps provide setting, narrative, and a historical context that collections of letters do not necessarily have. The maps and letters are two sides of the same coin, providing the information that makes it possible for a reader to form a narrative.

Even though we may not always treat it as the most important thing in a communicated message, we still give thought to the physical form of ephemera and other works. Bibliographers today are tasked with dealing with the movement of texts and cultural materials from a physical to a digital one, but this type of struggle between content, meaning, and physicality has been going on for a long time. One cannot simply save every letter ever sent back and forth regarding Napoleon’s army in Egypt, so what does one do? Copy the text out of all of them? Try to print as many facsimiles as possible? Store each and every one of them in the hopes that we can preserve these things that by nature are meant to be destroyed?

No, one must find something in between. We need the content to be saved, that is the critical part, but we must never fully forget the context in which it originally existed. That’s what I think I learned most from this course: that bibliography works to place things in the context it belongs, and always preserve everything you can when it is of any sort of cultural interest. We may not be able to completely preserve everything, but it is of utmost importance to our academics, our thinkers, and our culture that we use the technology and means of production to the best of our abilities to preserve the information and culture that we have developed, but we must never be blind to where it came from.

Works Cited

Copies of Original Letters From the Army of General Bonaparte in Egypt: Intercepted by the Fleet Under the Command of Admiral Lord Nelson: With an English Translation. London: Printed for J. Wright, 1798.

Letters From the Island of St. Helena, Exposing the Unnecessary Severity Exercised Towards Napoleon: With an Appendix of Important Official Documents. London: Printed for J. Ridgway, 1818.

Philippart, John. Memoirs &c. &c. of General Moreau: Illustrated With a Fac Simile of the General’s Last Letter to Madame Moreau, and a Beautifully Engraved Plan of the Siege of Kehl, and Passage of the Rhine in 1796. London: A.J. Valpy, 1814.

Silborne, H.T., ed. Waterloo letters; A Selection from Original and Hitherto Unpublished Letters Bearing on the Operations of the 16th, 17th, and 18th June, 1815, by Officers Who Served in the Campaign. London: Cassell, 1891.


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