Professor looks at how British postal rates put a stamp on literary history

ALTOONA, Pa. -- One piece of legislation — one small societal change — can sometimes have unimagined impacts on a culture. In her new book, "Postal Plots in British Fiction, 1840-1898: Readdressing Correspondence in Victorian Culture" (Palgrave, 2013), Laura Rotunno, associate professor of English and honors coordinator, has identified the mid-1800s postal rate change in the United Kingdom as the turning point toward an increasingly educated middle class.

In the 21st century, handwritten personal letters are seen as an anachronism, beyond old-fashioned. In the 19th century, however, it was the sole form of communication between people across miles. But for the middle and lower classes it was prohibitively expensive. The British government changed that with a postal rate reduction. “In 1840 you could send a letter for a penny in the U.K.,” Rotunno said. “By the end of the century you could send it to the United States.”

With that change, Rotunno said, “letters became a part of the daily lives of the majority of the British population.” People understood that in order to communicate, they would need to be able to read and write, which made education a priority. In addition to sending family news, people began to share ideas and comment on political events in their correspondence. Because postage was now a penny, people could also afford to send what we call junk mail — advertising material — as well as “begging letters” (the 19th-century version of the Nigerian prince emails).

Available reading material continued to multiply for all classes. Newspapers became cheaper once the penny stamp duty was repealed in 1855, which both put more information into people’s hands and increased letters to the editor. Novels were serialized in newspapers, increasing their readership, too.

Where did all that societal change lead? To fear and anxiety, Rotunno said. “Things were changing so fast. Grand ideas are scary.” With more people being able to read and write, they could have a voice in possibly changing government. Of larger concern to professional writers was that with the new wave of literacy just anyone could write and publish a book, threatening the livelihoods of established authors.

While they couldn’t stop the tide of new writers, novelists could at least take advantage of the new popularity of letters by utilizing them in books to move plots along or to clarify a character’s thoughts. Rotunno’s book focuses on four books that contain letters — Charles Dickens’s "David Copperfield," Wilkie Collins’s "The Woman in White," Anthony Trollope’s "John Caldigate" and Arthur Conan Doyle’s "The Sign of Four." Each of these works reflects the social changes taking place in Great Britain at the time and the impact those changes had on the populace and on the writing profession itself.

We no longer have to wait for news — instead we are bombarded with it constantly. Postage is no longer seen as inexpensive but instead as impossibly slow. And yet letters — written missives, electronic or not — are still used to communicate ideas and promote social change. In "Postal Plots in British Fiction," Rotunno illustrates that, in some ways, society has not changed all that much.

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Last Updated September 25, 2013