• Brett Harris

Caught in the cross...writing?

As anyone fond of books, stationery, or crafts can attest, paper can be quite expensive. Add to that the cost of writing, printing, and the oh-so-picturesque-but-so-disproportionately-expensive stamps, and it’s frankly amazing that we even send letters anymore!


Now, imagine you’re in Jane Austen’s world. Politicians abuse parliamentary postage privileges, post boys are incompetent and defenseless against malicious highwaymen, and the boat that your industrious postmaster might have used to cut costs is flimsy and prone to capsizing. As if all this weren’t enough, you have only a tiny shred of paper on which to express the depth of your immense animus toward cousin Frederick (yes -- the one who ate all your red currant preserves last summer!) to your dearest sister in Hertfordshire.


The costs would nearly outweigh the benefit of this calligraphic catharsis, were it not for a remarkable innovation on the part of Regency society: the cross-written letter.


Most notably mentioned in “Emma” as evidence of Jane Fairfax’s verbose style, Miss Bates mentions that she “really must, in justice to Jane, apologise for her writing so short a letter—only two pages you see—hardly two—and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half.”


Not to be outdone by Jane Fairfax (perish the thought!), I undertook my own cross-writing project with the aid of Wikihow, in the hopes of inspiring further research and cross letter creativity! If you’re feeling particularly intrepid, you might also explore the art of letter-folding...


Step 1: Select your paper.



Given the intensely geometric and linear qualities of crossed writing, I chose a sheet of lined paper. However, the more adventurous among us might opt for a blank page.


Step 2: Begin writing as usual.



Since reading a crossed letter might give pause to the faint of heart, it is best to avoid additional confusion, and orient the beginning of the letter in a standard format, starting at the top left of the vertical page, and ending at the bottom right.


Step 3: Rotate 90 degrees, and continue your diatribe against cousin Frederick.



Whether you turn left or right is purely a matter of personal preference.


Step 4: Fold and address your masterwork.



Make sure to leave the back side of your final page clear of writing. Proceed folding the edges of the blank sheet inward (over your other sheets) to create an envelope. Seal the letter with your favorite wax (or … tape?), flip the letter over, add the address, and send it to your dearest sister, that she might puzzle over the absolute illegibility of your composition!


Winner of the North Carolina Humanities Council’s Joel Gradin Award for Excellence in Public Humanities

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