Posted tagged ‘Wilkie Collins’

It’s in the post

May 1, 2011

In the truly wonderful novel The Woman in White, written by Wilkie Collins and published in 1859, the heroine Miss Halcombe posts a letter from Yorkshire to London on June 17th, and has the reply in her hands on June 18th. I was reminded of this when, last week, I received a letter in Aberdeen on April 27th that had been posted in Yorkshire on April 4th. Not everything gets better with the passage of time.

In fact Collins wrote The Women in White less than 20 years after the postal service in its modern sense got under way. This came with the inauguration of the ‘penny post’ on this day (May 1) in 1840, thereby for the first time putting the mail within reach of most people. Prior to that date, the mail was what we would now describe as a courier service performed at the sender’s request but paid for by the recipient. Sir Rowland Hill’s pre-payment system using the ‘penny black‘ adhesive stamp changed everything, including the opportunity for Marian Halcombe to seek urgent help from London in the novel. In fairness, the penny black was not really Roland Hill’s idea; he is thought to have been inspired by an idea put forward by Scotsman James Chalmers in 1838. Though if we are to be precise, the first proposal for postage stamps was made in Austria in 1835 by the Slovenian civil servant Lovrenc Košir.

The postal service revolutionised communications. Writing and receiving letters was now open to pretty much everyone, and this became part of the post-industrialisation mobility of the general population.

But now, in the 21st century, everything has changed again. Email has made communicating with someone anywhere in the world an instant business, and even formal business documentation can now often be exchanged electronically. Can the mail service survive this revolution? Perhaps not. I still remember the excitement of the daily (actually, twice-daily in cities) mail delivery, but nowadays it is increasingly rare that the post serves up anything of much interest. Just occasionally I see a hand-written envelope, and at such moments I still think that, maybe, there will always be some demand for this service. Perhaps. But  if that is to be so, delivering something on April 27 that was posted first class over three weeks earlier will not do.

In praise of Victorian fiction

August 28, 2008

I have recently gone back to reading some of the novels by Anthony Trollope. I read many – maybe most – of them just over 20 years ago, and I recently decided that the time was right to re-read some of my favourites. Trollope was an interesting author. After a very difficult childhood he eventually worked for the Post Office in Ireland, and during that time is thought to have invented the pillar box – the cylindrical post box that became ubiquitous in these islands. But he also started to write novels, and in the period that followed he became one of the most prolific Victorian novelists.

I am interested in Trollope because he was fascinated by ideas and how people with complex characters and complex lives could give effect to them. Partly because of his experience of his very lively mother (also a writer, and with whom he had a difficult relationship), many of Trollope’s strongest characters are women, and often they are women trying to achieve a degree of autonomy and respect in a society where that was not the norm.

Trollope does not quite have the exuberant style of Charles Dickens, or the romantic insights of Jane Austen, or the mystery of Wilkie Collins, or the gritty portrayal of working class society of Mrs Gaskell – but he does have the ability to demonstrate the tensions and complexities of Victorian society, and there is something honest about his writing.

But more generally, I find that reading Victorian fiction doesn’t so much transport me back into history as tell me something about how we became the kind of society we have become. The great Victorian writers of fiction were important as analysts of social conditions and campaigners for solutions. Much of what they described and the ideas they allowed their characters to debate would still be relevant today. It seems to me to be right that Victorian fiction deserves to be read widely in this 21st century.


[I am delighted that there is a whole blog site on Victorian literature]