In my novel ‘The Fractured Man’, the protagonist, Elliot Taverley, is a young psycho-analyst in 1920’s London who is using the new and controversial field of graphology in the psychological diagnosis and treatment of his patients. When he receives a visit from a man who seems to change personality when he copies others’ handwriting, Elliot is intrigued and soon becomes obsessed with the man and his mysterious disorder. But the patient is not quite what he seems, and dark and disturbing things follow …
Graphology – the study and analysis of handwriting – assumes that certain aspects of the psyche, or specific personality traits, are projected onto a person’s handwriting. Closed “e’s” signify secrecy, large capital letters in a signature imply self-importance, handwriting sloping to the right indicates extroversion etc. More sophisticated graphological theory looks at clusters of stroke formations or symbolism within the handwriting. In the case of the mysterious patient in my novel, the opposite appears to be happening: the personality traits displayed in the writing are absorbed by the patient when he writes in the handwriting of others.
The idea that a person’s handwriting is unique dates back to Aristotle, who remarked that “all men have not the same writing”. And the notion that handwriting might be linked to character can be traced to the 17th-century physician Camillo Baldi. But it was only with the emergence of psychology as a science in the late 19th/early 20th century that a professional interest in graphology began to spread through Europe and the United States.
Graphology was just one of a whole number of schools of psychology and was a very popular technique for personality assessment in the 1920s, with several profitable graphology practices located in London at that time.
I was interested in exploring two aspects surrounding graphology: firstly, the belief that the technique possesses a mysterious ability to see through individual pretences and posturings, enabling one to discover the “true” nature of the writer. Much like astrology, most people know that it has no scientific grounding, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to give it an inkling of validity (“he is a typical Gemini!”).
I was also fascinated by the interaction between the development of society and of science, and the idea that particular forms of medical/psychological treatment must be socially accepted in order to work. In the words of one of my characters: “It is not enough to cure the sick. One must cure them with methods that have been endorsed, accepted, understood by the community.” In 1924, the New Statesman magazine claimed, “We are all psycho-analysts now!”, indicating the general flavour of popular interest (and putative lay expertise) in psychoanalysis.
It is not surprising that the popularisation of psychoanalysis coincided with Europe’s struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of the Great War and the damage to society and individuals. During the time the novel is set, there was an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the fact that human beings can suffer not just physical injury, but also psychological injury (shell shock – today known as post-traumatic stress disorder – was first described by doctors and psychiatrists in WW I).
In ‘TheFractured Man’, graphology proves a useful tool for Elliot Taverley to come closer to discovering the truth about his strange patient. But that’s fiction. In reality, graphology never quite made it. For any new idea to become scientifically acceptable, it has to be in the right place at the right time, as was the case for psychoanalysis. Graphology just wasn’t that lucky. It failed to gain a foothold in mainstream psychology, and although there are a number of groups and associations that still practice it today, it is generally restricted to the occult sections of bookshops or quirky quizzes in magazines.
For more information on my novel or the story behind it, visit www.julietconlin.com.