‘The two hands are in many points identical’
In Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Utterson shows to his clerk, Guest (an amateur graphologist), a note written by Hyde. As he is examining it, a note is delivered from Dr Jekyll; Guest asks to see it, places it side by side with the note from Hyde, then returns them both to Utterson:
Utterson’s immediate deduction is that Jekyll has forged the first note to protect his ‘protégé’ Hyde; only later do we learn that Jekyll and Hyde can both write in the hand of the other.
At the period of writing the novella, Stevenson himself used two handwriting styles:
When Stevenson started to write in a sloping hand in the early 1880s he says he has been ‘obliged’ to do so by writer’s cramp and calls the new style ‘the hand of Esau’ (L8, 417), a description which is interesting because of the affinities between Hyde and the hairy-handed Esau.
But (reluctantly) leaving aside any tempting reflections of Stevenson’s life in his work, let us look in more detail at this writing.
What follows is intended as a resource that may help in the dating of manuscripts. Note that I have not been able to reproduce these samples to scale as libraries supply images of MSS without a guide to actual size: I have, however, tried to give an approximate relative size to folio, quarto and letter-paper examples.
1. Early upright hand (early 1870s)
Stevenson’s typical early hand is upright slightly angular and quite big, with few words to the line:
Notice in the above the flourished-d (on ‘and’) and the ‘y’ composed of a clear u-like element and a curved descender, which we also find in the following:
2. Early sloping hand
Stevenson would have learned a sloping, looped roundhand at school and we find a sloping hand used occasionally in his own writings in the early 1870s:
Here, the swept-back-d (on ‘and’), the word-final looped-y, the large size and clarity (this is a foolscap sheet but has many fewer words than in examples 2 and 4, also on foolscap sheets). Another example from the early 1870s:
The size and clarity are perhaps the best clues here to an early hand and also the looped-y, and the rounded ‘r’ in ‘armed’, not like the familiar inverted-v as we find it later and also in ‘travel’ in the same line.
In example 8, he may have been influenced by the clerkly hand he would have to write in the an Edinburgh law firm of Messrs. Skene and Peacock, Writers to the Signet, where he was working for a brief period at this time. The double-s digraph (of ‘Miss’) and the size (and clarity) again shows an earlier hand. (I have also noted the digraph in MSS from 1868 and 1870; I admit, also in notes for an essay c. 1890 ‘An Onlooker in Hell’ but only for the title ‘Miss’, also seen on envelopes—and my suggestion is that it remained in that use only; certainly I have not noted it in MSS in other words in documents except those definitely dated before 1872).
The following example is from a series of notes probably from 1874 about typical Scottish religious attitudes taken from Wodrow’s Analecta (in a rebound set of notes given the title of ‘Notes on Covenenaters’ (Yale, B 6128), see Covenanters. Notes). Some of the notes are in the rather angular upright script, some sloping, and on one occasion there is a switch to a sloping for three lines:
This seems to be a temporary switch, which any writer might make in personal notes, to rest the hand by using a different set of hand muscles.
3. Small upright hand (later 1870s and early 1880s)
In the following example from a fair-copy manuscript of 1875, the writing has become distinctly smaller. Stevenson here seems to be making an effort to write well, shown I think by the carefully looped ‘y’ in the first and second lines.
In the later years of the decade, this small upright hand continued, sometimes (as in the ‘Prose Poems’) slightly leaning towards the left. Here are three examples:
4. Later sloped hand (c. 1883-88)
For a period in the 1880s, Stevenson, suffering from writer’s cramp, adopted a distinctive, often larger, style of handwriting sloping to the right.
He first mentions the new handwriting in a letter of March 1883: ‘You see I have changed my hand. I was threatened apparently with scrivener’s cramp, and at any rate had got to write so small the revisal of my MS tried my eyes’ (Letters 4, 251). Here, the reference to very small handwriting seems to fit the ‘Talk and Talkers’ MS above. In March 1884 he again refers to the new hand: ‘I have been obliged to lean my hand the other way, which makes it unrecognisable; the hand is the hand of Esau’ (Letters 8, 417; see example 3. above); and again in July 1885: ‘I have two handwritings’ (Letters 5, 122).
We find alternation in the same document in the following list of titles (here with backward- and forward-sloping writing) for a series of verse ‘Moral Tales’, the first of which we know dates from November 1882 (L4, 29 and n):
Both these styles have an unlooped-y.
A fair copy of the second ‘moral tale’ exists in a fair-copy MS where both handwritings are present on the same page:
Again, final-y in both parts is without a loop.
The sloping hand is commonly found in MSS from 1883-88. Gertrude Hills calls this ‘the loose, sloping hand […] used generally in private correspondence during the Davos-Hyères-Bournemouth and Saranac periods (1881-87)’ (Robert Louis Stevenson’s Handwriting (1940), p. 28)
After the early examples, it becomes small in size. Here are some examples:
As we have seen, in 1885 the draft of Strange Case of Dr Jeyll and Mr Hyde is an upright hand, while the final MS is in a sloping hand, and Kidnapped written in the following year has some pages in one and others in the other hand, and some pages where containing both types:
The sloping hand continued to be used into the early Pacific period:
5. Abandonment of the sloped hand and return to a small upright hand
Later in the Pacific, Stevenson returned to writing only in a tiny upright hand:
6. The sloping hand as an aid to dating manuscripts
Stevenson prepared a fair copy of the essay ‘On the Choice of a Profession’ in January 1879:
It was, however, refused by the Cornhill Magazine and never published in Stevenson’s lifetime. The complete MS, in a small upright hand, is in the Huntington Library in California, but the Beinecke Library at Yale has an abandoned 3-page draft of the beginning of the essay. Various clues show this is a version copied from the full MS, with changes and cuts. One might think that this might have been made by Stevenson immediately after refusal in 1879, an attempt to rewrite the essay to make it acceptable for publication. Surely this is what he would do? we might think, knowing how anxious he was in this period to make and save money if he wanted to be independent of his father and marry Fanny Osbourne. The abandoned draft, however, is all in a sloping hand:
The handwriting shows that he did not start rewriting the essay in 1879 but some time in the period associated with this handwriting, i.e. 1883-88.