Christine at Mirabilis.ca turned up this great article from Paperpenalia on improving one’s handwriting. Good handwriting is not about copying a particular style of penmanship but of learning how to hold and wield a pen properly. The key is to use one’s whole arm to move the pen, rather than just the fingers, and to write in line with the hand, rather than to the left of it (for right-handers). Just making those two small changes resulted in a dramatic change in the look of my writing, from cramped and jagged to smooth and flowing (though still a bit wild). Practicing basic strokes on a large scale (e.g. on a chalk board) will also help train the arm and shoulder to finely control one’s writing.
One of the tips mentioned is to write on a tilted writing surface the way calligraphers do. This brings up another issue: where to find one of those great writing desks you see in Austen and Brontë film adaptations. After much surfing I found and acquired the booklet Portable Writing Desks by David Harris. It traces the history of writing desks (also known as writing slopes, writing boxes, and lap desks) with excellent photos and illustrations on every page. It is geared towards the antique collector, and it seems the majority of writing desks around these days are antiques, often in disrepair (if eBay is any indication).
Few of these are these marvellous inventions are being made any more, and that is a real shame. Writing at an angle is more ergonomic for the body, eliminating the need to hunch, and being able to keep all one’s writing tools and supplies together and out of sight is very convenient. My favourite style (by N. Middleton ca. 1815), pictured on the front of the booklet, also has a book rest for comfortable reading. What’s more, the book rest can be removed and stowed inside, leaving the box with a smooth top. Mr. Middleton thought of everything!
Some of the more elaborate writing desks had secret compartments that you could only get to by removing specific drawers and pushing hidden levers. Others had pigeon-hole and drawer units that lifted up and locked into place at the head of the desk. One SUV of writing desks came with candle sconces to create a completely self-sufficient writing environment. This model could be screwed to a table and secured by lock and key to prevent important papers and valuables (which were often stored in writing boxes) from being absconded.
The only new portable writing desk I’ve found that comes close to the originals is this Elizabeth Brontë Lap Desk (Elizabeth Brontë was a sister of the other Brontës and died at age 10). Although it doesn’t close up into a rectangular box (like Charlotte’s writing desk, pictured below), it is a traditional style. The price of this beauty is almost low enough to tempt me, though I’d rather hold out for a full box style. If anyone knows where I can get one, let me know!