Cross words for crossed letters

U 18.740-1: those long crossed letters Atty Dillon used to write

A look at the first translations of Ulysses by Georg Goyert (1927) and Auguste Morel (1929), and also at the celebrated second German translation by Hans Wollschläger (1976), shows that the meaning of this collocation was not clear to the translators: neither “langes Zeug”, nor “lettres écrites en large et en long”, nor “diese ellenlangen Briefe” captures its true meaning.

The OED defines this sense of “crossed” as: “(of a letter) written with lines crossing at right angles”.

Irate men confronted with “crossed letters” alleged the practice was of female origin, and the "Prince of Preachers", the famous Charles Haddon Spurgeon (also of Ulysses fame), stated quite categorically in his autobiography:

When letters were reasonably few, and cost a shilling each, men had the time to write well, and thought it worth their while to do so. Vow that the penny post is a public man’s sorest trial, the shorter we can make our epistles, the better. How we wish some of our correspondents would believe this, especially those young ladies who cross their letters! We never waste a moment in trying to read what people think to be unworthy of a fresh sheet of paper; crossed letters make us cross, and we drop them into the waste-paper basket.

Charles H. Spurgeon, review of William Cowper’s Letters, in Autobiography (London, 1900), vol. 4, ch. 90, p. 93

Economising may have been an important reason to write crossed letters but presumably there was a certain aesthetic pleasure and teasing involved, too:

Crossed letter - early 19th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Among famous women writers who wrote “crossed letters” we find Jane Austen and Anne Brontë. Male writers like Captain Frederick Marryat were not amused:

And now a message for C. - Tell her that I hate crossed letters. It may be economy, as far as paper and postage are concerned, but my eyes are of more consequence to me.

Florence Marryat, Life and Letters of Captain Marryat (London, 1872), vol. 2, p. 98

One irate correspondent inveighed against the writing of crossed letters in the newspapers in 1871:


After the 5th of October there will be no excuse for the writers of crossed letters, who should be excommunicated without benefit of the clergy.

Liverpool Mercury (1871), 28 August

Less than a year before Joyce added a paragraph to the Rosenbach manuscript of Penelope containing “those long crossed letters” in 1921, he had copied the following phrase into a notebook (NLI MS 36.639/5A): "ladies closely crossed letter". He may have found the phrase in Peter Parley, Tales about the Sun, Moon, and Stars of 1837 (p. 362).

I read, with ease, a few nights ago the most involved parts of a lady’s closely-crossed letter by the light of an eclipsed moon, then near the zenith - certainly the eclipse was not a great one!

A Portrait of the Artist shows that Joyce was familiar with the popular Peter Parley tales (see Peter Parley’s Tales of the Ancients elsewhere in JJON).

Harald Beck

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