- ‘Essentially separated in spite of all uniting factors’:Thomas Hardy and the Community of Letter Writers
In early nineteenth-century Britain, letters were paid for by the recipient, and they were so expensive that most of the country’s population could not afford them. The process of epistolary transmission and delivery was complicated and time-consuming, making the entire postal service slow and inefficient (see Daunton 7–8). For Rowland Hill, a schoolmaster with a strongly utilitarian ethos and reformist spirit, this state of affairs was untenable in an increasingly fast-paced and mobile world. In 1837, he published the pamphlet Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, arguing that the current postal arrangements prevented Britain from flourishing and that the nation would benefit if postal charges were reduced drastically, to no more than a single penny for any letter weighing under an ounce. In glowing terms, he wrote that the object of universal penny postage
is not to increase the political power of this or that party, but to benefit all sects in politics and religion; and all classes from the highest to the lowest. To the rich, as to the less wealthy, it will be acceptable, from the increased facilities it will afford for their correspondence. To the middle classes it will bring relief from oppressive and irritating demands which they pay grudgingly.… And to the poor it will afford the means of communication with their distant friends and relatives, from which they are at present debarred.… A more popular measure could not be discovered. It would bring immediate, substantial, practical, indisputable relief to all.(Hill 66–68)
On 10 January 1840, Britain witnessed the introduction of the penny post, a reform that significantly widened access to communication by letter, and that played an integral role in the gradual yet pervasive shift from oral tradition to written culture that reshaped the nation over the course of the nineteenth century. As Catherine J. Golden explains, with Hill’s reforms “the post became an inclusive network and public service, not just a privilege for the wealthy and noteworthy” (Golden 4).1 On 2 June 1840, then, Thomas Hardy [End Page 125] was born into a world where letter writing had ceased to be a privilege of the few—a world shaped by a reliable, accessible, and affordable postal service, which treated the letters of every single individual, even mps and the young queen herself, in the same manner (see Cleere 182).
In the preface to Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Hardy states that his fiction depicts “a modern Wessex of … the penny post.” In this “partly real, partly dream country,” characters from all ranks, of all ages, and all levels of education frequently and confidently write, send, receive, and read letters (Orel 9). Hardy’s first novel, the sensational Desperate Remedies (1871), features so many letters (as well as notes and telegrams) that Joe Fisher suggests that its plot effectively travels by post (Fisher 35). In Hardy’s final novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), the characters’ lives (and deaths) are still consistently punctuated by letters. The novel’s protagonists, Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead, first enter into contact by means of a written note; another written document, Father Time’s suicide note, precipitates the breakdown of their relationship and the novel’s tragic conclusion. Commenting on the novel’s epigraph, Ariela Freedman remarks that “the words ‘the letter killeth’ play out in the logic of the narrative, in which events are triggered and culminate through the sending of letters” (Freedman 35). The prevalence of letters in Hardy’s novels has been frequently acknowledged and sometimes deplored as a manifestation of incompetent plotting. Crucially though, Hardy’s fictional letters—from Bathsheba Everdene’s ill-advised valentine in Far from the Madding Crowd, to Susan Henchard’s poorly sealed letter in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), to the confession letter that famously disappears under a carpet in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891)—are much more than just convenient, arbitrary, or gratuitous plot devices. In fact, they constitute a privileged space for the exploration of the complex relationship between personal, interpersonal, and collective experience, a site in...