“The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters”: the post and letter writing in literature

When reading your favourite novel or flicking through a classic children’s book, you may have come across mentions of letter writing and even the Post Office. Writing a letter was an important part of our favourite characters’ lives and helps us understand their impressions of the Post Office. It is through these mentions that we can begin to tie together fiction to the history of the Post Office.

Cross written letter, 1827.

Cross written letter, 1827.

This one from Jane Austen’s Emma  is speaks about the ‘wonderful establishment’ that is the Post Office:

Jane Fairfax speaking of the wonders of the Post Office to Mr John Knightley

”The Post Office is wonderful establishment!” said she. – “The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that is does so well, it is really astonishing!”

“It is certainly very well regulated.”

“So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom , is even carried wrong – not one in a million. I suppose, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder.”

Emma Chapter XVI page 300

Emma and the world of Jane Austen happened about 50 years before the introduction of the penny post. However, you did benefit (if you could afford it) from a reliable and faster service than there had been in the past. When a letter was delivered, the recipient might have to pay more than a day’s wages! As such, people tried to avoid the system or wrote cross-written letters so they didn’t use as many sheets of paper so were charged less. However, as Jane Fairfax attests if you could afford it, it was a fairly good service.

Before the reform, there was a lot of abuse of the system as described by Edmund to Fanny in Mansfield Park.

Edmund tells Fanny that she doesn’t need to pay for post as his dad sits on parliament.

“Yes, depend upon me it shall: it shall go with the other letters; and, as your uncle will frank it, it will cost William nothing.’

‘My uncle!’ repeated Fanny, with a frightened look.

Yes, when you have written the letter I will take it to my father to frank.’

MPs had free franking privilege so they could send mail for free if they signed it and this was often abused by friends and families of MPs. After the introduction of Penny Post in 1840 it meant that the cost of sending a letter was paid by the sender, and anything weighing up to ½ ounce no matter where it would be going would be 1 penny. This meant that a lot more people could afford to send letters.

These are just a selection and we are sure there are HUNDREDS more.  For The Postal Museum we want to bring out these bits of literature and We’re looking for quotes:

  • reflecting use of the system before penny post;
  • complaining about expense;
  • having to refuse letters;
  • writing cross written letters.

Tweet, Facebook  submit it here or email us your quotes – we look forward to seeing what you come up with!

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