Letters as a way of understanding the city: Dickens’ Bleak House

It must be a strange state to be like Jo! To shuffle through the streets, unfamiliar with the shapes, and in utter darkness as to the meaning, of those mysterious symbols, so abundant over the shops, and at the corners of streets, and on the doors, and in the windows! To see people read, and to see people write, and to see the postmen deliver letters, and not, to have the least idea of all that language – to be, to every scrap of it, stone blind and dumb! [Dickens, Bleak House , 257]

Letters are prominent artefacts in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853). Throughout the text letters fall, to borrow Inspector Bucket’s phrase, ‘like a shower of ladybirds’ (835), concealing secrets, establishing hidden connections and becoming precious tools for blackmail. The focus on letters in Bleak House is also specifically related to the novel’s urban setting. Indeed, an archive provides a suitable metaphor for Dickens’ city (see Tambling, Going Astray, 139-144), crammed with papers, documents and written communications most of which have become redundant by the narrative’s conclusion, thrown in ‘bags’ and ‘bundles’ (974) upon the pavements of the metropolis.

By 1851 London was not only the most literate area of England (Cipolla, Literacy and Development in the West, 79-80), the city also stood at the ‘mighty heart’ (Dickens, Valentine’s Day at the Post Office, 84) of Britain’s postal system – the headquarters of the General Post Office were actually located in the centre of the capital, on St. Martin’s-le-Grand just north of St. Paul’s. As Jo, Dickens’ illiterate crossing-sweeper, underlines, systems of communication – namely reading, writing and receiving letters – control both social and imaginative access to the city. Unable to read, Jo is excluded from society and is restricted in his response to his urban environment; the passage’s insistent alliteration – ‘strange state’, ‘shuffle’, ‘streets’, ‘shapes’, ‘symbols’, ‘shops’, ‘see’, ‘scrap’ and ‘stone’ – conveys Jo’s monotonous experience.

Proceeding chronologically, this essay will trace the evolution of communications (mainly the post and the telegraph) in London during the nineteenth century to consider how literary visions of the city emerge alongside these technologies. What types of tropes and forms develop and what sorts of arguments are pursued? Examining how writers and artists respond to these changes will reveal how modern communication systems shaped the landscape of the metropolis in literature as much as in life throughout the nineteenth century.

The fashion for letters in nineteenth-century literature

Critics generally acknowledge that the eighteenth-century vogue for the epistolary novel was in decline by the start of the nineteenth century; in the ‘years between revolution and reform’, claims Mary Favret, ‘we find the metaphorical death or literal exhaustion of the familiar letter in literature’ (Romantic Correspondence, 200). Communication by letter was neither a regular occurrence – nor a particularly welcome event – for middle- and working-class families in 1800 (Golden, Posting It, 43). Although Londoners had the privilege of door-to-door deliveries postage was paid by the recipient and high rates generally deterred less wealthy individuals from using the postal service frequently.

Remarking upon the popularity of blackmail plots in late-Victorian literature, Alexander Welsh questions whether ‘a literary fashion is ever merely literary’; such an extended focus, Welsh concludes, is likely to reflect a ‘phenomenon of general historical interest’ (George Eliot and Blackmail, 4). The mid-nineteenth century’s revolution in letter-writing and communications can certainly account for the ‘fashion’ for letters in the contemporary literature of the period. Historians have documented how the British Post Office was transformed during the course of the nineteenth century from a mismanaged and expensive system into an affordable, efficient service, while new methods of correspondence (the telegraph and telephone) were also introduced and assimilated by the institution (See Robinson, The British Post Office, a history or M. J Daunton, Royal Mail: The Post Office since 1840). As Catherine J. Golden argues, fictional uses of letters and the post – the works of Dickens, Anthony Trollope and Henry James (all themselves prolific letter-writers) often revolve around the effects of a revelatory missive – can illustrate how ‘authors and artists were responding to their changing world’ (Posting It, 17).

Exploiting communication systems in nineteenth-century London: Collins’ Armadale

By the middle of the Victorian period, writing and receiving letters had become an essential part of everyday urban life. Wilkie CollinsArmadale (1866) provides a case in point. The novel’s villainess, Lydia Gwilt, embraces the freedom that London’s communication and transport systems afford her (Sutherland also cites this passage in his Introduction to Armadale):

I have just come back from a long round in a cab. First, to the cloak-room of the Great Western, to get the luggage which I sent there from All Saint’s Terrace. Next, to the cloak-room of the South Eastern, to leave my luggage (labelled in Midwinter’s name), to wait for me till the starting of the tidal train on Monday. Next, to the General Post Office, to post a letter to Midwinter at the rectory, which he will receive tomorrow morning. Lastly, back again to this house – from which I shall move no more till Monday comes. [Collins, Armadale, 508]

The post is identified as an important element in the fabric of Victorian London. The passage announces the birth of the modern urban experience. London can be traversed easily, yet Lydia does not so much move around the city as she is moved. Despite deciding that she will ‘move no more till Monday’, Lydia’s presence is being metaphorically proclaimed all over the place, via the post and the train. A tension between active (walking) and passive (sitting in a cab) travel is suggested by Collins’ use of signal words – ‘First’, ‘Next’ and ‘Lastly’ – which convey the reader through the city as the cab does Lydia. But as a consequence the reader’s experience of London is rather limited. Swept from one locale to another, from ‘cloak-room’ to ‘cloak-room’ and on to the General Post Office, the reader is unable to observe the life in between; significantly, people make no appearance in Lydia’s circuit of the city.

A brief history of London’s postal services pre-1800

In order to suggest how systems of communication might reveal a broader vision of London, it is useful to outline a brief history of letters in the city prior to 1800. From its earliest days the Post Office was situated in the City (where it would remain until 1900 when the institution began the transfer to Mount Pleasant). Britain did not have a general postal service until 1635 when the King’s Office in Old Jewry was made available to the public. Although the enterprise was short-lived – as the Civil War (1642-1651) approached, government reverted back to the previous Tudor system, under which the mail service was intended almost exclusively for official use (Robinson, The British Post Office, 36) – a permanent General Letter Office was eventually established in Cloak Lane in 1643[1].

However, there were as yet no specific arrangements for London deliveries; whereas a seventeenth-century Londoner ‘could send a letter to Edinburgh or Exeter or even suburban Barnet with little trouble’ the Post Office ‘offered no provision’ for internal correspondences (Robinson, The British Post Office, 70). As Howard Robinson observes, this oversight is particularly ‘astonishing’ if we consider that, by the late seventeenth century, at least one in ten of the English population lived in the capital (The British Post Office, 70). A local post was eventually established by William Docwra in 1680. Docwra’s innovations – a uniform rate (one penny) and the introduction of postal districts – would provide a ‘successful local-scale model for Victorian postal reform’ (Golden, Posting It, 30).

Postal systems in early nineteenth-century London: William Hazlitt’s The Letter-Bell

At a time, therefore, when London’s increasing size challenged established ways of ‘seeing’ the city, the postal system offered a functional means of managing the modernised metropolis. Over a century after Docwra’s improvements, the writer William Hazlitt capitalised on this potential in his final essay, The Letter-Bell (1831).

Correspondence in London was becoming increasingly valued in the first half of the nineteenth century. As more people migrated to urban areas – by the time of Hazlitt’s death in 1830, for example, London’s population was growing by a rate of twenty per cent each decade (The London Encyclopaedia, eds. Weinreb and Hibbert, 614) – staying connected with absent family and friends became a paramount concern (Golden, Posting It, 59). This need was exacerbated by the fact that London’s rapid expansion made establishing a sense of identity difficult – as well as being potentially liberating, the city could provoke feelings of rootless obscurity. Wordsworth’s response to London in Book VII of the 1805 Prelude is a case in point:

How often in the overflowing streets Have I gone forwards with the crowds and said Unto myself, ‘The face of every one That passes by me is a mystery...’ [VII.595-598]

The line endings emphasise the paradoxical experience of the London crowd – the ‘overflowing streets’ also generate lonely anonymity (‘and said/Unto myself’).

Whereas Wordsworth can only assimilate this sense of dislocation by ruralising the cityscape and bringing its apparently ceaseless circulation to a standstill (‘all that mighty heart is lying still’ notes the speaker in Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, 3 September 1802), Hazlitt uses a metropolitan system – the post – as an imaginative framework to process the experience of migrating to the capital. Although the post features throughout The Letter-Bell as a means of retaining a connection with the countryside, it is significant that Hazlitt’s links between the present and past are mediated not through the natural rhythms which incite Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, but via a metropolitan system of communication. While acknowledging that urban innovations do not lend themselves to ‘so poetical a description’ (183) as a rural post-boy, Hazlitt nevertheless suggests that the city can produce emotional constancy. London’s disorder might produce a writer more stable in his or her vision precisely because it forces the discovery of a sense of self.

The Letter-Bell examines the process of association, establishing a dialogue between London and memory; the sound of the letter-bell, rung by postal workers throughout the city to announce the last collection of the day[2], ‘not only fills the streets with its importunate clamour, but rings clear through the length of many half-forgotten years’ (The Letter-Bell, in William Hazlitt: Metropolitan Writings, ed. Gregory Dart, 177-78). This focus on chiming the present with the past (Dart, Metropolitan Writings, 177) can be read as a response to the city’s modernisation during the early decades of the nineteenth-century. At a moment when old London is being rapidly obliterated by new developments the ‘importunate clamour’ anchors Hazlitt within this unsettled and unsettling cityscape. Upon hearing the bell, Hazlitt is recalled to the moment of his ‘first entrance into life, the period of my first coming up to town’:

...when all around was strange, uncertain, adverse – a hubbub of confused noises, a chaos of shifting objects – and when this sound alone, startling me with the recollection of a letter I had to send to the friends I had lately left, brought me as it were to myself, made me feel that I still had links connecting me with the universe, and gave me hope and patience to persevere. [178]

Hazlitt maintains an interplay between written correspondence – the ‘letter’ that must be sent to friends back in Shropshire – and the metaphorical communication he establishes between his past and present selves. The movement into London’s ‘chaos’ is suggested by the parenthesis which conveys the reader into the city’s abstraction, its ‘confused noises’ and ‘shifting objects’, until ‘this sound alone’ returns us to security. Our perspective is still thrown between that of the individual – ‘myself’ – and the wider world – ‘the universe’ – yet rather than being overwhelmed by the city, Hazlitt registers the possibility of reading and surviving the seemingly discordant urban experience.

Tom Paulin reminds us that communication is central to Unitarianism, the liberal Christian movement to which Hazlitt’s father belonged – Unitarians or ‘Rational Dissenters’ regard free discussion as ‘the means by which a wholly enlightened society will be established’ (The Day Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s Radical Style, 37). In the aftermath of the French revolution Favret claims that the letter was cast as a ‘tool of division...of spies, Jacobinical conspiracies and seditious corresponding societies’ (Romantic Correspondence, 198). Advocates of the Unitarian belief, however, were more likely to embrace the possibilities of modern communication systems. Although not religious himself, Hazlitt clearly shares this enthusiasm – the essay eulogizes not merely the sound of the letter-bell but also the ritual of the Mail-coaches leaving Piccadilly (the ‘finest sight in the metropolis’, 181) and the rapidity of the new telegraphs, a ‘wonderful contrivance’ (182)[3].

In relation to London, the post is particularly valuable to Hazlitt because it represents connections between individuals that can often be absent in city living. Alternative urban sounds such as the ‘dustman’s-bell’ and the ‘muffin-bell’, represent human necessities – food and waste are inevitable factors in everyday life – and so their timbre has ‘something...but not much’ (181). By contrast, the letter-bell or the ‘postman’s knock’ suggest random interactions rather than regular rituals. Evoking anticipation and possibility (‘if the postman passes, and we do not hear the expected knock, what a pang there is!’, 182), the post can be used as a trigger for associations and inspiration in a way that other systems in the city cannot, restoring to Hazlitt a sense of belonging within a human network.

For Hazlitt, the letter is clearly an extension of the self:

I do not recollect having ever repented giving a letter to the postman, or wishing to retrieve it after he had deposited it in his bag. What I have once set my hand to, I take the consequences of, and have been always pretty much of the same humour in this respect. [180]

By emphasising the personal element of the message – his substitution of ‘hand’ for ‘mind’ underlines the idea that an individual’s handwriting assures the sincerity of the correspondence –Hazlitt uses the post to establish the individual within the jungle of urban anonymity.

Post Office reform in the 1830s

The Letter-Bell was published just before the role of letters within the nineteenth-century city and culture underwent radical reassessment. If, as Favret maintains, letters are insistently ‘abandoned, burned, buried, silenced’ or ‘sent home’ in early nineteenth-century fiction (Romantic Correspondence, 199), Victorian culture seems particularly intent on bringing such suppressed missives to light. The prevalence of concealed/revealed communications in the literature of the period – the discovery of a bundle of old love-letters, for example, leads to the blackmail and, eventually, the death of Lady Dedlock in Bleak House – causes Welsh to conclude that the Victorian imagination obsessively ‘dwelt on how awful it was, or would have been, to get away with murder and then to be found out much later’ (George Eliot and Blackmail, 19).

This focus on the material as much as the formal effects of the letter is indicative of a broader shift in the value of written communications within Victorian society. In order to understand how these changes translate into literary representations of London, it is useful to outline some of the major changes to the postal service which were initiated during the reforms of 1840. The campaign for postal reform began in earnest in 1837, the year that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. Its initiator, Rowland Hill, was an outsider to the British postal system. The son of a progressive Birmingham schoolmaster, Hill chose to focus his own ‘reform efforts’ (Golden, Posting It, 37) on the Post Office, arguing in Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability (1837) that the introduction of a standardized, affordable rate of postage would advance ‘the religious, moral, and intellectual progress of the people’ and transform the British Post Office – a ‘feeble’ and ‘inefficient’ service – into a ‘powerful engine of civilisation’ (6).

Uniform penny postage came into effect in January 1840, along with several other changes to Post Office policy. For example, from 1840 onwards, postage would be prepaid by the sender rather than charged on delivery to the receiver, and any additional fees would be calculated according to weight (instead of number of letter sheets or distance travelled). By stressing accessibility for all such innovations rehabilitated the image of the Post Office – and that of the letter – as an emblem of national progress.

Since letters delivered in London accounted for almost a quarter of the country’s correspondence (Daunton, Royal Mail, 45), Hill’s reforms gave the city’s postal service particular priority. In order to improve the London system, the separate corps of letter-carriers who delivered the General and District mail were consolidated, there were twelve hourly deliveries per day, and ten separate postal districts were created (Daunton, Royal Mail, 46).

Charles Dickens and George Elgar Hicks’ representations of the General Post Office on St-Martin’s-le-Grand

Hill’s measures consummated improvements to the London service which had begun several years beforehand. In 1829 the city’s General Post Office, having outgrown its long-standing site in Lombard Street, was relocated to a purpose built complex on St. Martin’s-le-Grand. Designed by the architect Robert Smirke the porticoed facade of the new building echoed that of its creator’s best known work, the British Museum, and rejuvenated two acres of what had been ‘one of the worse sections in London’[4]. ‘The Grand’, as it was known to the nineteen-year-old Anthony Trollope[5], provided a physical hub for the city’s post as well as a metaphorical centre for writers and artists.

George Elgar Hicks, for instance, may have been ‘no Hogarth’ (Bills, 'The General Post Office — One Minute to Six' by George Elgar Hicks, 550), yet in June 1860 he could enjoy the fact that his latest work, The General Post Office, One Minute to Six, was proving to be the most popular painting at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition; ‘the crush represented in MR. HICK’S picture gives only a faint idea of the crowd around it’, reported Punch, ‘The glimpses which you catch of it, between hats, over shoulders, and under arms, increase the reality of the scene’ (See Golden, Posting It, 111).

For Hicks, the Post Office is emblematic of urban life. In recognition, perhaps, of the democratising effect of the penny post, the building becomes a levelling space in which Londoners of all ages and classes can be brought together; children, workers, gentlemen, postal officials and middle-class ladies all mingle in the crowd, united in their desire to catch the last collection. The setting also draws out the painting’s comment on the psychology of the crowd. Although each individual has arrived to send a correspondence, there is no communication between the majority of the customers, and almost every eye is fixed on the window department off-canvas.

Dickens had described the same event a decade before in Valentine’s Day at the Post Office (1850):

All the boys in London seemed to have gone mad, and to be besieging the Post-Office with newspapers. Now and then there was a girl ; now and then a woman ; now and then a weak old man : but as the minute hand of the clock crept near to six, such a torrent of boys, and such a torrent of newspapers came tumbling in together pell-mell, head over heels, one above another, that the giddy head looking on chiefly wondered why the boys springing over one another’s heads, and flying the garter into the Post-Office with the enthusiasm of the corps of acrobats at Mr. Franconi’s, didn’t post themselves nightly, along with the newspapers, and get delivered all over the world.

Suddenly it struck six. Shut Sesame! [77]

The passage emphasises London’s status as a centre not only of national but of international communications, projecting its letters and inhabitants (‘All the boys in London’) out across the Empire (‘all over the world’). As well as underlining the exotic potential of the Post Office – a metaphoric gateway to other lands and worlds (‘Shut Sesame’ implies magic) – the article’s occasion allows for particular focus on communications within London itself. As Dickens remarks, ‘lovers and sweethearts are generally neighbours’ (75).

Published in the inaugural issue of Household Words, the article exemplifies the periodical’s professed aim – to ‘show to all, that in familiar things, even in those which are repellant on the surface, there is Romance enough, if we will find it out’ (quoted in ‘Introduction’ to Uncollected Writings of Dickens: Household Words, 13). As the passage illustrates, the article is conditioned by strict time constraints – the six alliterative ‘s’ sounds at the final line, reflecting the six strikes of the clock, consolidate the sense of control over the city’s inhabitants.

Time also transforms the mundane rhythms of the sorting office into a world of magic. Meeting by ‘appointment...under the clock of the General Post Office’, Dickens and co-author Wills are initiated into a ‘maze of offices and passages...like knights-errant in a fairy tale’ (73). As they enter an ‘enormous hall’ this fantastical analogy is extended to the postal workers:

Without being exactly transformed into statues, or stricken fast asleep, the occupants of this hall (whose name was Legion) appeared to be in an enchanted state of idleness. [73]

Time appears to have reached an eerie standstill, transporting the reader away from everyday reality, yet the fact that the workers are not quite ‘transformed’ or ‘stricken’ asleep confuses the nature of their ‘enchanted state’. They exist in a liminal space between fairy tale and reality, a double vision which reflects back to the city – it becomes a space which is at once fantastical and ordinary.

However, the atmosphere of romance is repeatedly undercut with the reminder that there is a production line behind the apparent magic. As ‘sheepskin’ sacks of letters arrive from the receiving houses across the city, Dickens viscerally extends the suggestion that the epistles are ‘sacrifices to the fane of St. Valentine’:

Anon they looked like whole flocks suddenly struck all of a heap, ready for slaughter; for a ruthless individual stood at a table, with sleeves tucked up and knife in hand, who rapidly cut their throats, dived into their insides, abstracted their contents, and finally skinned them. [73]

The Post Office is an exemplar of an organisation which consumes the individual – a place where the letter-writer’s individuality, their private correspondence, is subsumed into a public machine.

Anthony Trollope: Victorian novelist and Post Office official

The notion that the modern world has overtaken man’s ability to control it is dramatised in Dickens’ Little Dorrit (1855-57) where mail coaches quite literally run over unsuspecting individuals in London’s streets (137). Similarly, in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), Paul Montague catches a cab to meet his ex-fiancée and arrives before he is able ‘to arrange the words with which he would begin the interview’ (371).

As well as spending much of his life in the capital, Trollope was employed as a civil servant in the Post Office for thirty-three years (1834-1867), during which time his contributions to the service ranged from introducing pillar-boxes[6 to supervising the establishment of London postal districts, and his novels thus offer a unique perspective on the relation between letters, literature and London. In The Way We Live Now communication is not simply a prominent element of the London scene; the exchanges of letters and missives between the city’s inhabitants also allow the reader an insight into the condition of Trollope’s contemporary urban society.

Left: The General Post Office (East & West, 1870-73). Right: Sculpture on the northern
buildings of the General Post Office. King Edward Street façade. 1889-95.
[Click on these
images to enlarge them.]

Richard Mullen observes that ‘it is impossible to appreciate Trollope the writer without knowing Trollope the dedicated postal official’ (Anthony Trollope: a Victorian in his world, 83). As well as commenting on the post– one work even refers to Rowland Hill by name[7] – Trollope’s novels were, claims Mullen, shaped by his experience at the Post Office: Trollope’s ‘training in writing clear English influenced his style’, while balancing two careers ‘made him a disciplined novelist who thoroughly organized his plots as well as his time for writing’ (Mullen and Munson, The Penguin Companion to Trollope, 405). The Way We Live Now is one of Trollope’s most metropolitan works – eighty-four of its one hundred chapters take place in London (Sutherland, ‘Introduction’, The Way We Live Now, xxxv ). Considering, however, that the novel was written after Trollope had resigned from his position in the Post Office, the extent to which the institution informs its representation of the city may seem limited. R. H. Super, for example, devotes barely a word to The Way We Live Now in his examination of the relationship between Trollope’s postal career and his literature (Trollope in the Post Office).

Letters and London in The Way We Live Now

Nevertheless, contemporary communication methods feature extensively in the novel’s representation of London. It is notable, for example, that the work’s two volumes each begin with an exchange of letters between city dwellers. The correspondences of Lady Carbury, a forty-three-year old coquette and aspiring novelist, serve to initiate the reader into the metropolitan scene:

Let the reader be introduced to Lady Carbury, upon whose character and doings much will depend of whatever interest these pages may have, as she sits at her writing-table in her own room in her own house in Welbeck Street. [1]

As Lady Carbury sits at her desk and reels off letters to newspaper editors, three are offered for the reader’s ‘perusal’. In a structural sense, the letters compound the novel’s focus on specific London topography; the address in Welbeck Street heads the text as it does two of Lady Carbury’s letters to the editors. The format of the letter also matches the condition of urban life. Trollope’s language emphasises the speed of his protagonist’s communications, produced with a ‘quickly running hand’ – Lady Carbury is ‘rapid in everything, and in nothing more rapid than in the writing of letters’. London requires her to keep ‘scribbling’ to maintain her career, but results in letters which are themselves ‘Detestably false’ and which consequently introduce the reader to a city and a society ‘ready to accept that which is untrue’ (Tracy, Trollope’s Later Novels, 166).

The exchange between Paul Montague and his former fiancée Mrs Hurtle at the beginning of Volume II illustrates how the temporal delay in sending and receiving letters within the city had significantly narrowed by the 1870s – as a result of London’s hourly delivery, Paul is able to meet Mrs Hurtle in Islington on the same morning that he receives summons from her (1-10). The episode sets up obvious parallels with the opening of Volume I. A sense of the city’s geography, for instance, is established through the communications and, like Lady Carbury, Mrs Hurtle composes three letters. However, while the reader is privy to the contents of each, only one, the briefest, is posted to Paul, a technique which establishes an intimacy between Mrs Hurtle and the audience and allows us to anticipate the outcome of their meeting. At the same time that emphasis is placed on the fact that Paul and Mrs Hurtle’s spatial separation has diminished via the post, Trollope uses the letter to suggest that the couple remain emotionally divided.

An analogy between the city’s communications and the human body is suggested in a description of Mr Melmotte, the ‘vile city ruffian’ who stands at the heart of both the novel and its presentation of London. An episode in Chapter LXII where Melmotte destroys incriminating letters says much about Trollope’s vision of the metropolis in The Way We Live Now:

Mr. Melmotte on entering the room bolted the door, and then, sitting at his own table, took certain papers out of the drawers,―a bundle of letters and another of small documents. From these, with very little examination, he took three or four,―two or three perhaps from each. These he tore into very small fragments and burned into bits,―holding them over the gas-burner and letting the ashes fall into a large china plate. Then he blew the ashes into the yard through the open window. This he did to all the documents but one. This one he put bit by bit into his mouth, chewing the paper into a pulp till he swallowed it. [119]

The image of Melmotte placing the letter ‘bit by bit’ into his mouth evokes posting mail into the ‘mouth’ of a letter-box. Yet whereas the post can initiate a process of projection, of externalising one’s thoughts, in Melmotte we witness a sequence of increasing internalisation. His withdrawal, entering the room, bolting the door, and, finally, consuming the letter, is compounded by repetition – ‘tore into’, ‘burned into’, ‘blew...into the yard’, ‘bit into’, ‘chewing into a pulp’. The fact that these images gradually develop from those of destruction to digestion is significant. Melmotte’s letter is consumed not by the post but by an organic ‘system’. The ritual inverts the notion that a letter stands as a substitute for its writer – ‘swallowed’ back into the body of its author, the letter’s self-asserting potential is cancelled out. Consumption has characterised Melmotte’s reputation from the beginning of the novel: ‘People said...that he had swallowed up the property of all who had come in contact with him, that he was fed with the blood of widows and children...’ (68). That Melmotte now turns to devour his own letters underlines the vacuity which occupies the heart of the modern city.

The telegraph and the position of women in Victorian London: The Telegraph Girl and In the Cage

Letters are not the only forms of communication to feature in Trollope’s city – characters spend almost as much time ‘loitering about the Post-office’ (322) waiting for telegraphs as they do writing letters. When Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, attempts to elope to New York, it is a telegraph that is instrumental in returning her to London – Marie has ‘hardly put her foot on the platform’ in Liverpool before she is apprehended by two of her father’s employees and sent back to Euston Square (470-74). Offsetting the speed of the train against that of the telegraph, the episode suggests how these electronic communications have extended the command of the capital across the nation, and provides Trollope with an excuse to attack one of his rivals at the Post Office[8]:

Who is benefitted by telegrams? The newspapers are robbed of all their old interest, and the very soul of intrigue is destroyed. Poor Marie, when she heard her fate, would certainly have gladly hanged Mr. Scudamore. [471]

By the late nineteenth-century the telegraph was, as Henry James described it, ‘one of the commonest and most taken for granted of London impressions’ (James, Preface to In the Cage). It was also associated with an emerging female workforce. According to Tom Standage women were ‘regarded as “admirable manipulators of instruments”, well suited to telegraphy’ (Standage, The Victorian Internet, 127). Several critics have examined how the emergence of new, female ‘urban characters’ in late-Victorian London – the suffragette, the ‘Glorified Spinster’, the shop girl, the shopper – contested traditional representations of both the city and the women within it (Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, 80). We could add the female telegrapher to this list. The Central Telegraph Office (1874-1962) at St. Martin’s-le-Grand – manned by some eight hundred female employees – provides the setting for a late short story by Trollope, The Telegraph Girl (1877), which was written following a visit to the department. By taking a female telegraph worker as its protagonist the story provides an interesting counterpart to Henry James’ In the Cage (1898), and a consideration of the relationship between these two pieces reveals how virtual methods of communication influenced the image of the city as the nineteenth century drew to a close.

Both Trollope and James use London – and telegraphy – to engage with the increasingly ambiguous status of women within their contemporary society. London is presented as a space which at once liberates and threatens female identity. The Telegraph Girl begins by announcing that its heroine, Lucy Graham, ‘possessed the means of independence if she chose to be independent’ (354) – ‘Why’, asks the narrator, ‘should she not be independent, and respectable, and safe?’ (355). Thrown upon her own resources following the death of her brother, Lucy must strike out on her own in the city ‘just as though she was a young man’ (355). The simile underlines how Lucy’s independence – her ‘eighteen shillings a week’ earned in the telegraph office – is, from the start, flagrantly at odds with her ‘feminine necessities’:

To run backwards and forwards from High Holborn to St. Martin’s-le-Grand had been very well as long as she could comfort herself with the companionship of her sister-in-law and defend herself with her brother’s arm;―but how would it be with her if she were called upon to live all alone in London? [354]

The line between employment and prostitution – a familiar Victorian subtext – is fragile too for James’ unnamed heroine. As an intermediary in the telegraphic exchange between two lovers, the protagonist of In the Cage is not only complicit in the sexual liaison, but also has the potential to exploit the knowledge for her own gain – on occasions, her suggestive language combines the role of a blackmailer with that of a prostitute – ‘Come therefore: buy me!’ (339).

Trollope’s ambivalent status as a ‘conservative liberal’ (Robinson, Imagining London, 186) has prompted divisive critical responses to his work; at the same time that Trollope’s novels can be regarded as morally subversive, they are equally upheld as ‘comforting, conservative documents’ (Imagining London, 186). Attempts to reconcile Trollope’s official and unofficial characters are particularly prevalent in approaches to his attitudes to women. Critics such as Margaret Markwick (Trollope and Women, 5) and Victoria Glendinning (Trollope, 383-400) acknowledge that many of Trollope’s female ‘creations conform to the expectations of the age’, but argue that Trollope equally challenges accepted sexual stereotypes.

That Lucy provides a limited vision of London can be read as both an endorsement and a critique of the social and sexual boundaries which regulate her experience of the city. In spite, or as a consequence of her independence, Lucy’s urban environment is restricted to two specific locales – her bedroom in Clerkenwell and the telegraph department at St. Martin’s-le-Grand – both of which come to be associated with imprisonment as the narrative progresses. Spatial imagery conveys Lucy’s increasing confinement as she moves from her brother’s bookshop in Holborn, to a ‘comfortable room’ and, finally, a ‘little garret’ (371). ‘She is not a prisoner!’ (378) asserts her prospective husband, arriving at the telegraph office with a marriage proposal. In the end, Lucy must be rescued from both her employment and London – the narrative concludes as she waits on Paddington Station, looking forward to joining her husband-to-be in Gloucestershire.

Lucy’s association with the telegraph office does not influence her vision of the city as intimately as it does the protagonist of In the Cage. Like Dickens and Hicks, James identifies the telegraph office as a microcosm of urban life: the ‘postal-telegraph office’ has ‘so much of London to give out, so much of its huge perpetual story to tell’ (James, Preface to In the Cage). James transforms the functional image of the telegraph office – a place from where electronic communications are sent, received and, crucially, decoded – into a medium through which the city can itself be translated. Positioned behind the ‘transparent screen’ at ‘the little post-and-telegraph-office’ the protagonist is established as an urban spectator, privileged to a ‘prodigious view’ of the metropolis, a ‘panorama fed with facts and figures’ (323). The office not only provides her with a vantage point from which she can observe the city. Telegraphy is used, moreover, as an analogy for the girl’s method of urban observation. Her perspective of the London crowd, for example, is invested with telegraphic imagery:

What virtually happened was that in the shuffling herd that passed before her by far the greater part only passed – a proportion but just appreciable stayed. Most of the elements swam straight away, lost themselves in the bottomless common, and by doing so really kept the page clear. On the clearness therefore what she did retain stood sharply out; she nipped and caught it, turned it over and interwove it. [326]

The word ‘virtually’ confuses the reader’s grasp of meaning – it can mean ‘literally’ but also suggests a lack of form. The intangibility of the electronic telegraph system mirrors that of London – a ‘bottomless common’. The city leaves fragments which must be pieced together by the reader, just as the telegrapher transcribes the electrical codes delivered into the office by the ‘sounder’. Yet quite what our protagonist does ‘retain’ remains undisclosed. Her actions, while appearing to establish physicality –‘she nipped and caught it, turned it over and interwove it’ – never seem to reach their implied completion. While the concluding word ‘interwove’ signals a moment of consolidation, the singular ‘it’ collapses any sense of unification. The cycle repeats itself over again and the reader is unable to establish concrete control, suggesting how urban experience consists of fleeting moments that need to be captured in order to give meaning to them.

Conclusion: Letters in London after the nineteenth century

Communications provide the framework of the modern city. This investigation has revealed a parallel between the complexities of post-industrial living and the complexity of systems such as the post and the telegraph, exposing how reformed and innovative communication methods altered the way that individuals related to one another and to their urban world in Victorian literature and life. Considering that penny postage remained valid into the twentieth century – not until 1940, a century after the standard rate was introduced, did the price rise significantly (from 1 ½d.) – extending the study to explore representations of letters in London after the Victorian period might further reveal how the image of the city altered alongside these developments. Victorian innovations, such as the penny post and telegraph, can be seen as blueprints for modern forms of communication (see Standage, The Victorian Internet) – text messages and the internet, for instance. By examining how the development of communications in London during the nineteenth century affected literary representations of the metropolis, we also learn much about our vision of the twenty-first-century city and how we relate to one another within it.

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Last modified 16 June 2012