Postal Plots in British Fiction, 1840-1898: Readdressing Correspondence Culture

Apr 1, 2016 | Reviews

The penny black stamp issued with Queen Victoria’s profile printed on it holds interest for more than philatelists—it launched cheap postage in the United Kingdom, and, arguably, a communication revolution. Starting with the introduction of penny postage, Laura Rotunno’s Postal Plots in British Fiction posits a set of complexly aligned phenomena: reforms in the British Post Office and the ideals of Victorian liberalism that underwrote these innovations, both which Rotunno links to the rise of literary professionalism in a rapidly expanding literary marketplace. These parallel developments inform her readings of the presence of letters as instruments of communication and as material objects in four Victorian novels.  The dizzying wealth of possible, indeed probable, connections enrich our contextual understanding, even if the relative influence of each strand remains difficult to calculate.

On one level, Postal Plots engagingly surveys the history of the British Post Office, its innovations, successes, and challenges. The introduction divides Victorian postal history in two. Section one looks at the years 1840-1860 which saw the initiation of penny postage, the proliferation of pillar boxes, and the expansion of mail service.  Rotunno identifies a correlative egalitarian rhetoric endorsing this modernization, one that resonated strongly with such liberal political aims as elevating the masses morally and intellectually by fostering literacy, strengthening family bonds across distances, and opening new means for public expression. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we learn that these utopian hopes were accompanied by anxieties about how best to manage the increasingly educated and outspoken lower classes. The second section examines additional postal innovations occurring in the years 1860-1898, most notably the telegraph but also including new or improved services such as Post Office Savings Banks and Life Insurance.  While such advances garnered praise, for “minimiz[ing] the gap between the social classes and instill[ing] habits that would fight poverty and destitution” (27), the British Post Office and its workers drew public scrutiny and critique for inefficiency, human error, and actual criminal activities.  Rotunno also notes a parallel political disenchantment arising from the government’s perceived ineffectiveness to realize liberal goals, as well as concerns over the doubtful readiness of the masses to participate in the widening franchise.

On another level, Rotunno’s book focuses on how this postal history relates to the concurrent evolution and subsequent devolution of the literary professional. Democratization, as well as technological advances in printing that made books more affordable, affected both writers and readers. While literary professionals sought to establish their artistic and moral authority in the marketplace, their status was threatened on the one hand by hacks producing potboilers and, on the other, by the new readerships’ apparent aesthetic incapacity to discern the differences between quality and quantity, between treasure and trash.

Four chapters address the interweaving of these various discursive threads.  As Rotunno explains, letters became ubiquitous in many Victorian novels but the narratives she examines demonstrate the convergence of these new ideas concerning correspondence, authorship, and a widening readership. A chapter on Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield features aspirational letter writers, as does one on Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.  In these novels characters seek to make an impact with their letters but their limited success stems from their letter-writing models as well as their gender or class.  Rotunno reads Mr. Micawber’s correspondence in the context of the mid-century revival of letter-writing manuals, which provided guides for epistolary expression and personal conduct.  Mr. Micawber’s memorably comic modes of self-presentation, in and out of letters, reveal his mechanical reliance on such templates. This reliance, in turn, distinguishes him from David Copperfield, whose work, both original and well received, proves that David is the true literary professional.  Only in “fantasy-Australia” can Micawber find recognition for his literary production, an outcome that, for Rotunno, belies the promises for success and recognition proffered by the manuals and the British Post Office, as well as by the established literary professionals and their societies.

Rotunno then turns to Collins’s sensation novel, focusing on the representation of marginalized writers and their pivotal letters.  Rotunno has us consider anew the letters sent by the mentally unstable Anne Catherick.  Her unsigned warnings are not only dismissed because of her schoolgirl penmanship and incoherence but also because they are associated with discredited epistolary types: begging letters and accusatory anonymous letters.  Similarly, Marian Halcolmb’s status as a woman and Walter Hartright’s as a kind of servant limit their effectiveness within the legal status quo. Forced to work outside the law, Marian forges release papers to rescue Laura from the asylum and Walter issues a kind of lettre de cachet that ensures Fosco’s death.  Thus, Rotunno argues, while Collins depicts the marginalized—the disabled, women, and lower-class men—as exerting some agency through their letters, the systems that place them at a disadvantage remain virtually unchanged.

As representatives of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Rotunno looks to Anthony Trollope’s John Caldigate and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, two works that especially feature material aspects of the Victorian communication revolution. Trollope’s mystery/colonial adventure hinges on a postmark, the significance of which only the knowledgeable postal worker turned amateur detective, Samuel Bagwax, can discern. Rotunno brings to bear on her analysis of his literary work Trollope’s own career as postal inspector.  She explores his workman-like approach to both jobs and his attention to the economic bottom-line, which Trollope candidly admitted earned the derision of his peers but reflected the practical concerns that literary professionals could hardly ignore.

The last full chapter examines The Sign of Four vis à vis the technological advances of information delivery and the impact of market forces on literary creation.  Rotunno compares Sherlock Holmes’s approach to clues, especially those found in letters, to the telegraph and its operators. Quite apart from Watson’s comments that Holmes is an automaton and a calculating machine, Holmes directs his attention away from the personal import of letters to their most material and impersonal aspects as might a telegraph.  Rotunno also detects similarities between Holmes and Doyle’s readers, who become increasingly invested in Doyle’s hero and the genre of detection.  Although not the first to identify Doyle as a writer driven by the demands of his reading public to produce more of the popular Sherlock Holmes stories, Rotunno situates these market pressures in relation to his thwarted desire to write more artistically complex historical romances, works that would have enabled him to take a place as his generation’s Sir Walter Scott.

The epilogue “Conclusion: Undelivered,” sums up what Laura Rotunno foregrounded at the outset would be the inevitable disappointments to the initial optimistic aims of universal access to mail.  Though cheap postage drove the expansion of the British Post Office domestically and across the empire, it did not achieve the social transformations that had been promised.  Rotunno observes a corresponding deflation of hopes among the men of letters who, as modern literary professionals, aspired to create a literature that would elevate their readers and create a readership worthy of their work.  In other words, the hopeful assertion that “cheap postage was an agent of change that made letters ubiquitous in novels,” is crushed by the analysis of such fictional correspondence as when Rotunno remarks “how little positive social or artistic change Victorian novels and literary professionals were able to inspire” (7). Postal Plots has much that is novel to tell us about the web of discursive relationships. But by stopping short of claiming causality, Rotunno must necessarily leave unproven her own claim that penny postage was an agent of change that was able to inspire little of it.  That said, this extremely rich study, with extensive and informative notes and lively readings of well-known authors will certainly engage specialists and students alike.