Layout and Space

In Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, the King of Navarre's letter-writing abilities are disparaged by the Princess he is trying to woo. She describes his letter as being:

crammed up in a sheet of paper / Writ o'both sides the leaf, margin and all (5.2.5-8)

The King's message, she complains, is inelegant to behold, and has no feeling for the aesthetics of letter writing. While countless letters from the period attest to hurried composition, post-scripts inserted in the margins, passages squeezed against the bottom of the page, and other infelicities, most formal letter-writers were well aware of the decorum of the page.

It seems obvious that we would all rather send, or at least receive, attractive looking letters. But there is evidence that 'significant space' held particular messages for contemporary readers. Noah Millstone perceptively observes that copiers of letters were respectful of the layout of the original documents:

Informal copies of letters, for example, regularly aped the format and spacing of the original letter rather than simply extracting the text. Salutations, dates and signatures were often placed where they would have been, had the letter been original. Copyists even preserved the scattershot arrangement of copied signatures rather than converting the names into a more straightforward list. All copies, even informal ones, were not simply abstracted texts, but also reminders of the places, times, and persons to whom those texts pertained. (2011: 199)

In particular, early modern writers were encouraged to leave reasonable amounts of space clear of writing in their letter. In combination with a generously-sized piece of paper, wide margins sent the message to a recipient that the sender had made a respectful investment in their communication, using more paper than was necessary. A scribal letter from Bess to 'my very frende' Lord Paget, from the 1570s, ID 210, leaves a very generous left margin and an expanse of clean white space beneath: there was clearly no scrimping on paper for this message.

When considering a letter's layout, the position of the superscription, subscription and signature are worth special attention. Early modern letter-theorists like William Fulwood set down rules for signing letters:

The subscription must be done according to the estate of the writer, and the quality of the person to whom we write: for to our superiors we must write at the right side in the nether end [bottom] of the paper … and to our equals we may write towards the midst of the paper … to our inferiors we may write on high on the left hand. (1568: 12-13)

The better-known Angel Day also instructed his readers in the importance of these features:

writing to anye personne of accompt, by how much the more excellent hee is in calling from him in whose behalfe the Letter is framed, by so muche the lower, shall the Subscription therevnto belonging, in any wise be placed. And if the state of honour of him to whome the Letter shall be directed doe require so much, the verye lowest margent of paper shall doe no more but beare it, so be it the space be seemelye for the name, and the roome fayre inough to comprehende it, which Subscriptions in all sorts to be handled shall passe in this order or substaunce to be framed. (1596: 27)

The advice of Fulwood and Day encourages us to read social gestures into the placing on the page of the subscription (the 'Yours sincerely' part of the letter) and signature. Writing to a social superior, one would place these low down on the page and to the right as a sign of deference. We know that these guidelines, encoded by Fulwood and Day, were actually used by contemporaries and that Bess herself, on certain occasions, found it appropriate to use white space for rhetorical effect. For example, in two similar scribal letters sent to Elizabeth I, January 1602/3, Bess registers deference through widely-spaced split subscriptions and by positioning of her signature as low as possible on the page in the bottom right-hand corner (ID 128, ID 129). These placements of the subscription and signature are exceptional for Bess, an indication of her strength of feeling in relation to the request she makes in these letters (Bess hopes the Queen will arrange for her troublesome granddaughter Arbella Stuart to be taken off her hands, preferably through marriage).

In particularly grovelling circumstances, the low position of a signature signalled absolute prostration. Perhaps the most famous example of such a letter is a message from John Donne to his new (and very angry) father-in-law George More, who had had Donne imprisoned for marrying More's daughter in secret. Donne's signature could hardly be more cramped into the corner of the paper. Conversely, social superiors deliberately reversed this rule: in Bess's own letter to Sir Robert Cecil, 20 May 1595, when she is dowager countess of Shrewsbury, her signature is centred and could barely be higher on the paper, over half the page remains beneath it ID 124.

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References and Further Reading

  • The seminal article on this subject is Jonathan Gibson, 'Significant Space in Manuscript Letters', The Seventeenth Century, 12 (1997): 1-9. See also Sue Walker, 'Rules for Visual Organisation in English Letter Writing Manuals from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries', in Letter-Writing Manuals from Antiquity to the Present, ed. by C. Poster and L. Mitchell (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2007), and A. R. Braunmuller, 'Accounting for Absence: The Transcription of Space', in New Ways of Looking at Old Texts: Papers of the Renaissance English Text Society, 1985-1991, ed. by W. Speed Hill (Binghampton, NY: MRTS, vol. 107, and RETS, 1993), pp. 47-56.
  • For a contemporary comment on the position of signatures, see William Fulwood, The Enimie of Idleness (London, 1568), sigs. A7r-A8v. The quotation from Day is from the 1586 edition of his manual; Fulwood is quoted from The Enimie of Idlenesse (London, 1568).
  • I am grateful to Noah Millstone for allowing me to read his PhD thesis, from which his observations about letter-copies are taken: 'Plot's Commonwealth: the circulation of manuscripts and the practice of politics in early Stuart England, c.1614-1640' (unpublished doctoral thesis, Stanford University, 2011), p. 199.
  • The John Donne letter with the cramped signature (12 February 1602) is reproduced in M. Thomas Hester, Robert Parker Sorlien and Dennis Flynn (eds), John Donne's Marriage Letters in The Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, DC: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2005), pp. 38-39 and pp. 72-73. Cf. p. 77 and p. 79.
Author(s): Daniel Starza Smith, April 2013

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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
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