Last summer while I was in transit from one country to another a writer friend of mine died. When I arrived home I spent the day in my study compiling and printing up all of his correspondence. It’s strange to remember that day now, how the significance of even a simple two or three word reply sent in a time of busyness suddenly changed, how his letters and e-mails had become – without warning and in the worst possible way – finite.

One of the things that surprised me about those hours in the study was the hierarchy of affect in relation to what I was holding: how the pages and bits of handwriting I had from him – his signature in black ink at the foot of a typed letter, a drawing, the inscriptions he’d written in his books – were more moving and grief-filled than his e-mails regardless of the brevity of the written marks or the emotional content of the electronic text. I remember picking up one of his books and starting to reread it, but unable to place him in the text concretely I put it down again. Only his handwriting seemed to locate him exactly, to ground his body in the act of writing and thinking and breathing; each stroke of the pen a black ink tether that tied me to him and him to me.

Philip Larkin once gave a talk at King’s College on the literary manuscript, parts of which translate well to the subject of handwriting. In his talk he suggested that writers’ manuscripts have both a meaningful and a magical value. For Larkin a manuscript’s meaningful value was related to the ways in which a writer’s outlines, drafts or revisions could inform a reader’s sense of an author’s process or development. The magical value, on the other hand, had more to do with the material encounter itself, with locating the author in the act of writing. For Larkin this was the older and more universal value: ‘this is the paper he wrote on, there are the words as he wrote them, emerging for the first time in this particular miraculous combination…’.

The artist Cornelia Parker captured the magical value of manuscripts quite wonderfully in her 2006 ‘Brontëan Abstracts’ series. Through scanning, cropping and enlarging some of the deletions and revisions Charlotte Brontë made in her Jane Eyre manuscript, Parker reveals how intertwined the acts of writing and thinking are. In one of the fragments Parker selected Charlotte has crossed out the word ‘endure’ and replaced it with ‘bear’. In another she’s substituted ‘heart’ for ‘hand’, in another ‘imagined’ is struck through and replaced with ‘conceived’; a ‘could’ becomes ‘should’ which becomes ‘would’. What Parker reveals in her elevation of these fragments of Charlotte’s writing – with its obdurate inkiness, particular slant and weight – is the way in which handwriting demarcates an event: in this case, the thinking writer at work structuring and restructuring a world borne in her imagination, in my case a distant friend directing his thoughts toward me.

This sense of handwriting as a remain, as material evidence of both the writer’s body and the writer’s mind isn’t new. In the years after Charlotte Brontë’s death in 1855 Charlotte’s father, the Reverend Patrick Brontë, received numerous requests for a slip of the author’s handwriting from both readers and collectors. Some of his responses to these entreaties survive. One is a letter dated 9 July 1857 to a Miss Atkins from Bath. ‘Dear Madam,’ the letter begins, ‘The annexed scrap is all I can spare of the autograph of my dear daughter Charlotte…’. Apologizing for the modest size of the ‘scrap’ Brontë explains that he’s had so many applications for his daughter’s handwriting that his stock is nearly exhausted. To Mary Jesup Dowcra a year and two months later he wrote similarly ‘Dear Madam, The enclosed is all I can spare of my dear Daughter Charlotte’s handwriting.’ The small square of Charlotte’s script he sent to Dowcra was a two-line fragment likely cut from a letter. It read: ‘my book – no one / ious than I am to’.

What makes the fragment Dowcra affixed in her scrapbook interesting is that it would have been a valued representation of the author even though the excised words were pared off from both their original context (the individual to whom the words were addressed) and their syntactical meaning. This was partly because there was a general belief in the Victorian era that one’s handwriting was congruous with one’s self – that a person’s script had the potential to reveal the scribe’s gender, age, nationality or vocation along with their unique personality traits or quirks. (A late 19th-century analysis of Byron’s writing noted the gentlemanly appearance of his calligraphy despite the fact that he wielded a ‘fluent but not too legible pen’ whereas Robert Browning ‘wrote as a poet should write’ finishing his words neatly though he allegedly had a habit of separating the syllables within his words through subtle disconnections.)

While autograph collecting was well in place by the time of Charlotte’s death (autograph albums date back at least to the end of the 16th century) the Victorians didn’t think of autographs in the same way we tend to today. Auto-graph, after all, comes from the Greek for ‘written with one’s own hand’ and for a long time referred to any scrap of an individual’s writing and not just to the signing of one’s name. In this way even a snippet of Charlotte’s writing, a handful of words set adrift outside of the usual semiotic contexts, had the potential to be meaningful, to bring some sense of the author to the fore. This, I suppose, is where my affection for handwriting resides: in the idea that any scrap of writing, no matter how fragmentary or ephemeral, is material evidence of the writer’s life, of their thinking and being. For at its most basic, essential and existential level, writing is a mark or series of marks – impressions that locate a site of having been.

The proof of handwriting’s situational power is all around us. Think of the feeling you get when you pick up a grocery basket and find a discarded grocery list in the bottom: how the scrawl of blue pen, the Spencerian exactness of the letters or the wobbly double ‘g’ of ‘eggs’ might make you think of an elderly woman, or how a glimpse of your own childhood writing can transport you back to a corner desk and the steady effort of joining lines and circles into language. Or think, more distantly, of those handprints decorating the cave walls at Pech Merle or Cueva de las Manos, of the tens of thousands of years between the press of those palms and fingers and our apprehending faces. Handwriting is not so unlike those ochre impressions – both are made by the body of a unique individual, both can persist across time, and both can come to the receiver sheared of certain or clear contexts and still speak of a former presence; can connect – as Brontë’s fragmentary script and my friend’s inky initials do – the absent dead with the still living.

Our desire for contact with the author of a book we’ve loved is one of the reasons why even a brief missive in Charlotte Brontë’s hand can sell at auction for £24,000 and why J.K. Rowling’s annotated copy of her first Harry Potter novel raised £150,000 for PEN. It is also one of the reasons book signings are still so popular. There is something remarkable about presenting a book to its creator and watching while the author inscribes their name into the very book the reader will then read. For in the days and weeks that follow every time the reader opens the book and enters into the world the author has created the signature is there, a signature that locates the author as doubly present in the text, as present in both the imaginative space of the typographic world they’ve created and as present in the more palpable physical form of the mark or marks made by their hand. Writing, in this way, feels like a kind of contact, for even though it is touch mediated by things: by a pen or pencil, by the paper or book the words are scribed in, it is still an impression – something that can be seen and touched, something with an aura (to use Walter Benjamin’s term) that remains attached to the moment of its creation.

A decade or so ago when I was visiting his country and he was well and seemed immortal, my writer friend gave me his copy of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. ‘Read this,’ he said, and tossed it in my direction. I took it with me when I left for home and started into it. I remember finding a receipt from the airport where he’d bought the novel in its first pages – a convenient bookmark placed back at the beginning of the text after its usefulness was gone – and I remember finding, in an early chapter, a half sentence which my friend had underscored in blue pen. What I loved, and still love, about that trace of him was the way in which the line squiggled under the words. Rather than a quick stroke his underscore was a series of bumps, each one allowing me to feel him thinking through Coetzee’s words as he marked them. The half-sentence – the only thing he marked in the whole of the book – reads ‘the instant of the present and the past of that instant, evanescent, caught in the same space’. It is a beautiful idea. A fragment that, held aloft from its fuller context, speaks to the way in which time’s coattails can sometimes be glimpsed, the way in which a space can seem to hold, even if fleetingly, the marvelous trace of what makes the present instant possible. Handwriting is a mark that does this too: gives us a glimpse of the ghostly self that existed in the moment of inscription. Like a footprint preserved in ash or a handprint left in a prehistoric cave, writing gathers to itself a sense of some being’s having been there alongside the enduring and substantial impression they’ve left behind.