This is an excerpt from the Sherlock Holmes novel named The Hound of the Baskervilles (emphasis mine):

"Well, Sir Henry, your uncle had a letter that morning. He had usually a great many letters, for he was a public man and well known for his kind heart, so that everyone who was in trouble was glad to turn to him. But that morning, as it chanced, there was only this one letter, so I took the more notice of it. It was from Coombe Tracey, and it was addressed in a woman's hand."

Here a character is talking about a letter that was sent to someone.

It is mentioned that it was addressed 'in a woman's hand'.

What does 'woman's hand' mean here?

Could it be that the character was able to infer somehow that the author of the letter was a woman?

Or is it the way in which the letter was closed,posted,etc back in Britain during the time in which the novel is set (I don't know when that is, but I guess it's in the 1800s)?

EDIT: How could the character infer from the handwriting that the author of the letter was a woman? Is it possible to determine the gender of the writer just by looking at their handwriting?

  • 1
    Welcome to LitSE, J...S, and thanks for asking a question.
    – Adam Burke
    Sep 16, 2022 at 2:22

1 Answer 1


The word "hand" here means handwriting.

It's an older usage of the word "hand", not seen much nowadays, but still listed in dictionaries (definition 10a in Merriam-Webster or 16 in Dictionary.com, for example).

Another example usage of the same phrase, from "Hadrian's soldiers writing home", The Daily Telegraph, 2008 (behind a paywall but quoted in Wikipedia):

The real prize of the Vindolanda tablets, though, are the earliest surviving letters in a woman's hand written in this country.

The story The Hound of the Baskervilles is set in 1889, a time when typewriters existed but letters would still often have been written and addressed by hand. The character speaking in this passage is Barrymore, the butler, talking about a letter that he brought to his employer, Sir Charles. The butler wouldn't have opened the letter to see its contents, but he would have seen the name and address (hand)written on the outside of the envelope, and noticed that the handwriting was that of a woman (it was "in a woman's hand" - this is often possible to guess just from the style of writing). Therefore, even without knowing the identity of the letter writer, he was able to tell the investigators that Sir Charles received a letter from a woman.

  • But how could Barrymore infer from the handwriting was that of a woman just by looking at it?
    – J...S
    Sep 16, 2022 at 2:31
  • @J...S It's often possible (not 100% reliably) to distinguish male and female handwriting. See for example sources one, two, etc.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 16, 2022 at 6:17
  • Thanks for the links. But they talk about only around 50% accuracy. Yet the novel's scenario relies a lot on the identification of the author of the letter as a woman (because it allowed Watson to figure out that it was Laura Lyons). Barrymore felt so sure yet no clarification as to why was given in the story. That made me curious.
    – J...S
    Sep 16, 2022 at 17:43
  • @J...S It might be that gender differences in handwriting have decreased in the last 100 years, as their societal roles have become less different too. Or it might be that a proper scientific study shows less certainty than what people feel. Or, of course, some handwritings are more strongly feminine than others - in the second article I linked, some hands were identified as female with 80% accuracy, despite the 50-60% success rate overall.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 16, 2022 at 19:07
  • Penmanship was actively cultivated in those days, and teachers of it would recommend different styles for different writers, and in particular, for women and men.
    – Mary
    Jul 18, 2023 at 0:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.