The reader of unreadable things
CAN’T DECIPHER YOUR DOCTOR’S HANDWRITING? LINDA WATSON, A WOMAN OF LETTERS BOTH
GOOD AND BAD, IS HERE TO HELP.
FLICK THROUGH LINDA WATSON’S BOOKSHELF AND YOU’LL STUMBLE ON SOME UNUSUAL ITEMS: THE WILL OF MARY TUDOR; A LETTER BETWEEN CONFEDERATE SOLDIERS; THE SECOND DRAFT OF WUTHERING HEIGHTS. IF IT’S OLD AND WRITTEN IN SMUDGED INK, WATSON HAS
EYES FOR IT.
Watson is what’s known in the biz as a palaeographer – which in her case means she is paid to read unreadable things. Not ‘intellectually unreadable’, like the corkscrew syntax of Michel Foucault, but the literally unreadable: ancient, chicken-scratch handwriting scrawled in haste by people who barely knew their hithers from their thithers. The sort of handwriting, in other words, that inspired the invention of the Pen Licence.
Rare and ancient manuscripts from all over the world find their way to Watson’s little house on the storm-racked Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. When they arrive, she brews a pot of tea and transcribes them into readable, useable, comprehensible English. “Most of what I do is wills,” she says. “People are tracing their family history, order a will from the archives, and then find they can’t actually read it.”
Watson says the process is like doing a crossword and a jigsaw puzzle at the same time. “P is particular tricky. It can turn into ‘pre’, ‘pro’ or ‘par’ depending on the direction of the tail, so you have to look at the direction of the stroke.” But deciphering the individual letters in a squiggle is just the first step to understanding what it might mean. Not only did our ancestors have atrocious handwriting, they also used obscure abbreviations, archaic conventions and medieval slang – the Shakespearean equivalent of ‘ICYMI’. “Fortunately, I’m quite good at puzzles.”
Watson discovered her talent when a cousin asked her for help making sense of an old family will. Before long she was fielding requests from stumped readers around the world. After a few years building her small business, Transcription Services Ltd, word of Watson’s peculiar skill reached the tweedy ears of the British Library, home to an extensive collection of rare and dodgy handwriting.
She soon found herself poring over original manuscripts from Byron and Coleridge (all that opium didn’t help the penmanship), the Brontës, William Wordsworth and
Jane Austen. “Most of them had terrible handwriting,” she says with a smidge of disapproval. “Emily Brontë was very messy, although Jane Austen had a lovely hand.”
The work allows Watson to get into these authors’ heads. “It’s like I’m sitting beside Jane Austen as she goes, ‘Oh no, that’s not quite right.’ Scribble scribble.”
You might have expected handwriting to improve over the centuries, as literacy became more widespread. But Watson says we’ve actually gotten worse. In Elizabethan times, tools for writing were comparatively rare, so people took a lot of time over their words. By the 1900s, portable fountain pens were tucked in every shirt pocket from Scotland to Shanghai, which encouraged hurried, slapdash penmanship. “I’m doing some letters at the moment from a man in China in 1905,” Watson says. “You can tell he’s a lazy writer. It looks like a spider has crawled across the page.”
Over the years, Watson has expanded the business, assembling an international team of palaeographers to translate everything from Dutch, German, Spanish, Latin, Russian and Ukrainian. Only one document has stumped her, and it’s written in Tibetic. Every Ahab needs a white whale. “It’s very hard to find a Tibetan handwriting expert. You don’t know anyone, do you?”
Ultimately, it’s not the titans of literature that tickle Watson’s inner palaeographer; it’s the wills that first drew her to the profession – dusty accounts of ordinary lives, tucked away for hundreds of years. “I’m not bothered by the great and the good,” she says. “Just normal everyday people. With these inventories, it’s like they’re opening the door and saying, ‘Come in. Have a poke around.’
“Every morning something new arrives, and I think, ‘Great! What will I be reading today?”