Handwriting: Undercliff the Expert and Robert Audley

When I first read Lady Audley’s Secret, I highlighted some sections on handwriting, and now that I’ve read Foul Play (the novel), I think it’s time to come back to this issue.  About halfway through Lady Audley’s Secret, we see Robert Audley musing on the finer details of handwriting when he receives a letter from Clara Talboys:

“From Clara Talboys,” he murmured slowly, as he looked critically at the clearly-shaped letters of his name and address.  “Yes, from Clara Talboys, most decidedly; I recognise a feminine resemblance to poor George’s hand; neater than his, and more decided than his, but very like, very like.” (Oxford, 209)

Later, Robert gathers quite an arsenal of “circumstantial evidence” against Lady Audley, one item of which is “[t]he evidence of handwriting” (Oxford, 270).  Here is his exchange with Lady Audley:

“Shall I tell you whose handwriting resembles that of Helen Talboys so closely, that the most dextrous expert could perceive no distinction between the two?”

“A resemblance between the handwriting of two women is no very uncommon circumstance now-a-days,” replied my lady, carelessly.  “I could show you the calligraphies of half a dozen of my female correspondents, and defy you to discover any great difference in them.”

“But what if the handwriting is a very uncommon one, presenting marked peculiarities by which it may be recognised among a hundred?”

“Why, in that case the coincidence is rather curious,” answered my lady; “but it is nothing more than a coincidence.  You cannot deny the fact of Helen Talboys’ death on the ground that her handwriting resembles that of some surviving person.”  (Oxford, 270).

I see an interesting contradiction in this exchange that I think might be useful to my thinking about writing, research, and information gathering.  First of all, there is a suggestion here that one’s handwriting contains some personal, individual essence, some trace of unique identity.  Even Lady Audley’s seemingly divergent comment that most women’s handwriting resembles one another supports this point, since the narrative (as focalized through Robert) indulges frequently in anti-feminist musings that basically argue that all women are the same and always have been the same.  And against this backdrop of boring, uninteresting femininity, Lady Audley has always stood out, just like her handwriting does now.  So the stamp of personality is strong in handwriting, apparently.

Or is it?  Robert Audley acknowledges the presence of “dextrous experts,” who presumably examine handwriting and try to trace identity to the written word.  I’m specifically interested in the word “expert” here, since it overlaps nicely with Reade’s Foul Play, where Undercliff’s name is hardly ever mentioned without being followed closely by the designation, “the expert.”  “Well,” Hazel tells the Rollestons on Godsend Island, “Undercliff, the expert, swore positively that the forged note was not written by me” (385).  The specific connection between students of handwriting and “expertise” suggests that handwriting is connected to personal identity, but it takes an expert to see that connection.  With every loop of an L, we leave traces of ourself behind, but there is a distinct science to connecting identity and word.

I guess this makes forgery like the 19th-century equivalent of identity theft, which comes out very clearly in Foul Play.  So stealing handwriting is stealing identity.  But the way in which expertise is constructed in this relationship is puzzling to to me.  When we first hear about Arthur Wardlaw’s powers of mimicry, for example, Reade’s narrator says, “his powers in that way really seemed to have no limit, for he could imitate any sound you liked with his voice, and any form with his pen or pencil” (5).  Not really, though… by the time the handwriting expert, Mr. Undercliff, solves the crime and reveals it to Helen, it seems like the forgery is so obvious that even a layman could detect it:

“I’ll put the letter by the side of the forged note; and, if you have any eye for writing at all, you’ll see at once that one hand wrote the forged note and this letter.” (523, my italics)

A few pages later, we get Undercliff the Expert’s full report, with 13 points of comparison, and even facsimiles of the two letters.  This is interesting because these pieces of legal evidence woven into the form of the novel invite the readers to pose as jurors, perhaps.  And those of us who “have any eye for writing at all” will immediately see the forgery.  So do we really need the impotent “expert” to interpret the writing of others? (Bad question for dissertation-writing, haha)  Mr. Undercliff himself laments that

the lawyers often do sneer at experts; but then, four experts out of five are rank impostors; a set of theorists, who go by arbitrary rules framed in the closet, and not by large and laborious comparison with indisputable documents. (454)

Clearly, Mr. Undercliff is the one in five, but still… the idea of expert impostors trying to catch expert impostors is a little circular.  And then even Mr. Undercliff ends up engaging in a forgery of his own, connected with the investigation (462).

There’s a lot more I want to do with the idea of writing expertise and its connection to the rewriting involved in theatrical adaptation, not to mention the collaborative writing that generated Foul Play, both as a novel and a play.  But in this post, I also want to explore some of the gender dynamics in this section of the novel.  In the cases of both Robert Audley and Undercliff the Expert, handwriting analysis is a distinctly masculine activity.  This is made most explicit in Foul Play, where Undercliff has “no eye except for handwriting” (523).  His mother, on the other hand, is an expert in reading and interpreting faces–a much more feminine area of expertise.  “It is living faces I profess to read,” Mrs. Undercliff says, “there I can see the movement of the eyes and other things, that my son here, has not studied” (448).  So gendered reading is clearly thematized here, and as one would expect, the masculine reader somewhat discounts the feminine reader (although that’s not particularly true on the narrative level):  “You can read faces,” Mr. Undercliff tells his mother, “tell the lady whether he is guilty or not” (448).  Then, “he handed the profile to his mother with an ironical look; not that he doubted her proficiency in the rival art of reading faces, but that he doubted the existence of the art” (448).  I want to keep thinking about these gendered forms of reading and writing in both of these novels, especially as I read the theatrical adaptations.  More on this to come.

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