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Postal Plots in British Fiction, 1840-1898

Readdressing Correspondence in Victorian Culture


Laura Rotunno


Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

Hardback. ix + 208 p. ISBN: 978-1137323798. £50.00


Reviewed by Nathalie Saudo-Welby

Université de Picardie–Jules Verne (Amiens)



Laura Rotunno’s book explores the major reforms in the postal services between 1830 and 1900 and their cultural implications on the field of novel writing. The historical and cultural context is presented in the first chapter, and four novels by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope and A. Conan Doyle are then examined in that light.

In the introductory chapter, entitled “Correspondence Culture”, the argument of the book is summarised in the following terms:


Postal Plots […] opens on the premise that, in the Victorian literary marketplace, cheap postage was an agent of change that made letters ubiquitous in novels. It ends on the assertion that the ubiquity of correspondence in these novels ultimately accentuates how little positive social or artistic change Victorian novels and literary professionals were able to inspire. [7]

A major break occurred in 1839 with the establishment of penny postage, which allowed a wider section of the British public to give and receive news. On 25th December 1898, in a long-awaited move, the reform was extended to the whole Empire. Laura Rotunno explains how the postal reforms took place within the context of the growing authority of liberalism and liberal ideals: penny postage was supposed to contribute to the individual’s moral improvement by favouring communication within families and communities, it also facilitated the distribution of pamphlets and serious information, and enhanced political and social debate. Penny postage was “a measure that realized a professed Liberal ideal: that all British citizens should have the opportunity to voice their ideas to their communities and their nation” [25]. Another major breakthrough in the postal services was the creation and development of the telegraph in 1870. The effectiveness of these services was increased, and the swell in the postal staff created a mass of lower-middle-class writers and readers, which fed into the fears that the growth of the publishing and editing sector would result in a significant reduction in the quality of fiction.

Laura Rotunno draws a parallel between the democratisation of the Postal services and the greater accessibility of the novel form through serialisation, the development of the short story form and the fall of the three-decker. The publishing industry adjusted its practices to exploit a growing reading market, and a growing mass of hack writers pandered to the tastes of the mass of clerks and increasing reading public. This was sometimes perceived as a threat to the quality of literary production.

The second chapter is devoted to Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Both David and Mr Micawber, the profuse letter-writer, aspire to the status of literary professionals. Mr Micawber’s letters are examined in the light of contemporary letter-writing manuals, but his epistolary activity proves not to transform him, as the manuals promised: he appears as a copyist and “a simple parasite on society” [54], in contrast to David. The novel’s treatment of letters, Laura Rotunno argues, confirms Dickens’s belief in the liberal literary professionals’ “responsibility to their art and their society” [68].

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is “composed of documents written by female characters and those from the lower social echelons”, it “betrays a delight in these writers whose letters question social norms and suggests that their texts could wield power” [69]. These letters “reclaim disdained epistolary forms including the anonymous letter, the begging letter, the effusive female letter, the blank letter, and the lettre de cachet” [71]. The letters written by Anne Catherick, Marian Halcombe and Walter Hartright are evaluated in terms of their ethical value: do they reveal their authors?

The chapter about Antony Trollope, an author who is often overlooked, is the most stimulating. A postal clerk with a pragmatic approach to letters in their concrete and literary form, Trollope was quite the expert on the subject. In John Caldigate (1878-79), he created Samuel Bagwax, “postal servant turned hero” [94]. The cultural background provided in this chapter consists of a description of Victorian professionalisation and of the nuances of British civil service exams, and it is followed by a careful reading of the types of readers and the merging of literary genres in the novel. “[W]ith its preponderance of popular genres and its overpopulation of overcoming-the-odds success stories, John Caldigate implies that the ‘border between canonical and disposable’ is the only logical (or possible) place for a Victorian literary professional to stand”, Laura Rotunno argues [115].

In chapter four, Laura Rotunno makes an analogy between Sherlock Holmes, regarded as “a model reader” [135], and telegraph operators. This is illustrated in great detail but remains unconvincing, and the conclusion that in The Sign of Four, “Doyle had given up on both control and originality” [146] throws doubt on the necessity of the inquiry. Yet, in his capacity to stand at the centre of the London web, spider-like and conductor-like, like his brother Mycroft or like Moriarty, and by practising his own form of unsentimental altruism, telepathy, Holmes does resemble a telegrapher. I was reminded of the way we were allowed access to the exclusive world of Downton Abbey as Peeping-Tom telegraphists in the first few minutes of episode 1.

Knowledge of this period in the history of communication will be useful to readers of nineteenth-century fiction, for it will improve their appreciation of the kind of contact the literate and literary public had with written messages, besides fiction and the press. Laura Rotunno’s account of postal culture brings out specific genres of letters (begging letters, emigrant letters) and describes some communication situations of great pragmatic interest that resulted from earlier forms of networking: the sending of empty letters to avoid paying postage, the postcard-format serialised story, and postcard-writing mania… Postal Plots will be of interest to specialists of the epistolary genre, whom Laura Rotunno quotes judiciously to her readers’ benefit.

The book has evidently been closely re-read and is refreshingly free of typographical errors, but there are moments when the reader may experience flashes of distrust towards what is written: letters are often treated in general and abstract terms, and when specific ones are mentioned, I often wished they had been quoted and subjected to literary analysis. The author has a tendency to speak of the novels as willing agents, and of the novelists as purposeful moralists bent on improving their readers, or not, and seems to measure the quality of a work of art by the degree of felicity of the communication of its authorial aims. A sentence like “The Woman in White attempts to approach [Victorian journalist James] Grant’s ideas in a less pessimistic manner” [69] betrays the problematic nature of Laura Rotunno’s approach. While it is doubtful whether The Woman in White may even attempt to do anything, why should a novel be designed to approach, illustrate or counter-illustrate an essayist’s ideas or a cultural context? When these intentions are not attributed to the novel, they are attributed to the letter-writers themselves. Letters are cultural items but they are also powerful literary devices: they allow multivoicedness and multiple perspectives on a single event; they are prime plot movers, and are invaluable literary items precisely because they allow for interesting miscommunication, misreadings and misunderstanding. Their literary advantages seem to outweigh their “pessimistic” ethos. For this reason, even in the age of the internet, the future of letters in novels remains safe.


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