Saturday, 7 July 2012

Bleak House Ink and Quill Spotting

In the dark alleys of Bleak House’s plot ink abounds. Dickens’ labyrinth Chancery Court case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce which permeates the plot of Bleak House is itself laid out in interminable ink markings. Legal proceedings, love letters, communications, missives, wills and testaments, all in ink - ink stored in stoneware pots, in ink wells, at the tip of goose quills. Clerks are dipping their quills in ink as does the scheming lawyer Tulkinghorn, Caddy Jellyby is covered in it, and it is Nemo’s skilful way with quill and ink that sets the wheels of revelation in motion. 

The BBC 2005 Bleak House adaptation does not do justice to Dickens' novel, but the ink geek can indulge in some ink and quill spotting:

Mr Tulkinghorn’s quill


"Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr Tulkinghorn. …  He has some manuscript near him, but is not referring to it.With the round top of an inkstand and two broken bits of sealing-wax, he is silently and slowly working out whatever train of indecision is in his mind. 

Now, tbe inkstand top is in the middle: now, the red bit of sealing-wax, now the black bit. That’s not it. Mr Tulkinghorn must gather them all up, and begin again."

Caddy Jellyby’s quill. 

"But what principally struck us was a jaded and unhealthy-looking, though by no means plain girl, at the writing-table, who sat biting the feather of her pen, and staring at us. I suppose nobody ever was in such a state of ink. ... She would not sit down, but stood by the fire, dipping her inky middle finger in the egg-cup, which contained vinegar, and smearing it over the ink stains on her face, frowning the whole time and looking very gloomy."

Nemo's ink

"It is a small room, nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt. In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched at the middle as if Poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low. In the corner by the chimney, stand a deal table and a broken desk: a wilderness marked with a rain of ink. "

 Nemo's handwriting

"Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Snagsby.”
“Yes, sir.” Mr Snagsby turns up the gas, and coughs behind his hand, modestly anticipating profit. Mr Snagsby, as a timid man, is accustomed to cough with a variety of expressions, and so to save words.
“You copied some affidavits in that cause for me lately.”
“Yes, sir, we did.”
“There was one of them,” says Mr Tulkinghorn, carelessly feeling — tight, unopenable Oyster of the old school! — in the wrong coat-pocket, “the handwriting of which is peculiar, and I rather like.

 Mr Snagsby's ink

Mr Snagsby has dealt in all sorts of blank forms of legal process; in skins and rolls of parchments; in paper - foolscap, brief, draft, brown, white, whitey-brown, and blotting; in stamps; in office-quills, pens, ink, India rubber, pounce, pins, pencils, sealing-wax, and wafers.

What is the paper label on the ink stoneware? Is it Stephens' Ink? Henry "Inky" Stephens started producing his blue-black "writing fluid" already in 1834 so the ink was presumably in circulation by the time Dickens' wrote his novel (1852-3). So congrats for historical accuracy to whoever was in charge of props in the BBC production.

Stephens Blue Black Writing Fluid


  1. Hello and thank you for a most fascinating blog... I feel a meeting if the minds! I'm happy to have stumbled upon your blog and will follow from now on! I am artist and bookbinder, collector of all things related to writing... Perhaps you'd like to see my work:
    With gratitude and best regards from your new fan,
    Erika Stefanutti

  2. Thank you Erika for your comments. Your site looks delicious!

  3. Palimpsest, you have the eyes of a hawk. Nice post. Jack/USA

  4. Hello again, Palimpsest, I was just marveling at your comments re: Baudrillard and the life of objects... I'm looking at all of my collections with new eyes! I'm wondering if there are other texts you'd recommend that treat this subject as beautifully as the one you quoted. I'm reminded of the science writing--poetry, really, of Donald Culross Peatie's "Almanac for Moderns." Best regards, Erika

  5. What spring to mind is Sonja Neef's "Imprint and Trace, Handwriting in the age of technology". It doesn't deal with objects though. Its main theme is handwriting and how it has changed as technology changed; writing technology; the relationship between the physical and the technical - the trace and the imprint.

  6. This is fascinating, Palimpsest. I like the mention of broken bits of sealing wax, it always breaks into pieces and people must have been used to using fragments rather than whole sticks.

    Nemo's handwriting is not bad; what often strikes me in these period dramas is that if you see someone writing with a quill or dip pen they are obviously not used to it and if you see the writing itself it is often amateurish, or not the product of the pen you just saw.

  7. Alan, it looks like the writing is not done by the actor. I guess they've used a calligrapher for the job. Also note he's using a steel pen, not a quill.