Tag Archives: Emma

“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!

Jane Austen on stamps

The work of Jane Austen, the author behind timeless works such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma, is celebrated on a new set of stamps issued by Royal Mail today. The stamp issue coincides with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen stamps, issued 21 February 2013. 1st Class – Sense and Sensibility, 1st Class – Pride and Prejudice, 77p – Mansfield Park, 77p – Emma, £1.28 – Northanger Abbey, £1.28 – Persuasion.

Jane Austen stamps, issued 21 February 2013. 1st Class – Sense and Sensibility, 1st Class – Pride and Prejudice, 77p – Mansfield Park, 77p – Emma, £1.28 – Northanger Abbey, £1.28 – Persuasion.

Designers Webb & Webb were commissioned by Royal Mail to devise the Jane Austen stamps with the six chosen novels brought to life via original and newly commissioned Angela Barrett illustrations.

These are not the first Royal Mail stamps to commemorate Jane Austen, a set of four stamps was issued in 1975 to mark the author’s birth bicentenary.

Birth Bicentenary of Jane Austen stamps, issued 22 October 1975. 7p - Emma & Mr Woodhouse (Emma), 8p - Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey), 10p - Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), 12p - Mary and Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park).

Birth Bicentenary of Jane Austen stamps, issued 22 October 1975. 7p – Emma & Mr Woodhouse (Emma), 8p – Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey), 10p – Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice), 12p – Mary and Henry Crawford (Mansfield Park).

The BPMA holds the original artwork and designs for the 1975 stamps in the Royal Mail Archive, and facsimiles of some of these can be seen at our stall at Stampex.

Designs by Barbara Brown shown to the Stamp Advisory Committee on 5 June 1975. Three designs were approved, subject to clarification of the captions. A decision was deferred relating to the design showing Emma and Mr Woodhouse. (QEII-117-21)

Designs by Barbara Brown shown to the Stamp Advisory Committee on 5 June 1975. Three designs were approved, subject to clarification of the captions. A decision was deferred relating to the design showing Emma and Mr Woodhouse. (QEII-117-21)

Stamps and stamp products are available at most Post Office branches, online at www.royalmail.com/janeausten and from Royal Mail Tallents House (tel. 08457 641 641), 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh, EH12 9PB.