Anthony Trollope invented the pillar-box, and then regretted it. That’s one of those facts which has been at the back of my mental library for a while: I couldn’t quite remember where I’d read it. But, like Browning and his dictionary, or Tennyson and his pint of cream, it’s one of the little vignettes which popped up whenever I was thinking about nineteenth-century literature.
He regretted it, goes the story, because it allowed young women to correspond with men without having to take the letter to a male relative to have it franked and sent by post. Like the railway which enabled Lady Audley to get up to all sorts of dastardly things and be back in time to look innocent, it was a technological advance which threatened a particular moral framework. My tutor used to say you didn’t understand nineteenth-century literature and mentality properly until you’d thought long and hard about railways.
I’m going on about this because I came across a passage in a Trollope novel recently which totally contradicts this long-held idea. He’s not a novelist to be backward in explaining what he thinks about the world, and there’s a sequence in Mr Scarborough’s Family in which he directly addresses The Pillar-Box question. Without wishing to go too far into the plot and its many twisty bits – though it’s a cracker, involving no fewer than two entails – a young woman’s mother is unimpressed by the respectable but non-wealthy young man with whom her daughter has entered into an engagement. She ponders how to deal with the situation, whilst they are abroad:
Dim ideas presented themselves to her mind of farther travel. But wherever she went there would be a post-office, and she was aware that the young man could pursue her much quicker than she could fly. How good it would be that in such an emergency she might have the privilege of locking her daughter up in some convent! And yet it must be a Protestant convent, as all things savoring of the Roman Catholic religion were abhorrent to her. Altogether, as she thought of her own condition and that of her daughter, she felt that the world was sadly out of joint.
So far this raises the expected anxieties about how emotional and moral matters have been affected by the innovations in the postal service. In fact, we do not have to wait long before a letter is written by the inamorata, and put into one of the infernal engines…
This letter, when she had written it and copied it fair and posted the copy in the pillar-box close by, she found that she could not in any way show absolutely to her mother. In spite of all her efforts it had become a love-letter. And what genuine love-letter can a girl show even to her mother? But she at once told her of what she had done
“Even to her mother”, indeed. There then comes a lengthy passage of exposition, in which Trollope reflects on the changes over the previous decades:
“We ought to have prevented you from receiving or sending letters.” Here Mrs. Mountjoy touched on a subject on which the practice of the English world has been much altered during the last thirty or forty years;–perhaps we may say fifty or sixty years. Fifty years ago young ladies were certainly not allowed to receive letters as they chose, and to write them, and to demand that this practice should be carried on without any supervision from their elder friends. It is now usually the case that they do so. A young lady, before she falls into a correspondence with a young man, is expected to let it be understood that she does so. But she does not expect that his letters, either coming or going, shall be subject to any espial, and she generally feels that the option of obeying or disobeying the instructions given to her rests with herself. Practically the use of the post-office is in her own hands.
Now this is noteworthy, because the novel was published in the early 1880s. In the early 1850s, Trollope oversaw the development of the pillar-box in the Channel Islands as part of his role in the Postal Service, which were then adopted on the mainland. So the pillar-box had only existed for the “thirty” years first mentioned, not the “or forty”, and certainly not the “fifty or sixty”. Trollope’s pontifications on the change in postal etiquette and family authority, as it settles into an account of “fifty years ago”, discusses the years before the Victorian era, and long before the appearance of the “iron stumps” (as one of his other characters calls the objects.)
In this novel, Trollope seems to be reflecting on a shift in women’s freedom and family relationships which had been happening throughout the reign of Victoria. The appearance of the pillar-box took place about half-way through this process, and appears here as a natural development rather than a technological catastrophe. (Elsewhere in the novel, Miss Matilda Thoroughbung makes a great quarrel about her jointure, by attaching on all sorts of conditions to her agreement to marry, because “women’s rights” are on the rise.) The exposition becomes even more explicit:
And, as this spirit of self-conduct has grown up, the morals and habits of our young ladies have certainly not deteriorated. In America they carry latch-keys, and walk about with young gentlemen as young gentlemen walk about with each other. In America the young ladies are as well-behaved as with us,–as well-behaved as they are in some Continental countries in which they are still watched close till they are given up as brides to husbands with whom they have had no means of becoming acquainted. Whether the latch-key system, or that of free correspondence, may not rob the flowers of some of that delicate aroma which we used to appreciate, may be a question; but then it is also a question whether there does not come something in place of it which in the long-run is found to be more valuable. Florence, when this remark was made as to her own power of sending and receiving letters, remained silent, but looked very firm. She thought that it would have been difficult to silence her after this fashion.
The hint of mockery in the mention of a convent in the earlier passage is picked up again here, as implying a whole ethos and culture: Protestant English ladies cannot have Catholic manners and English society at the same time. To wish to control a young woman’s correspondence is natural, but trying to do so by any other means than moral influence is ineffectual. We may be thankful, Trollope suggests, that it is ineffectual, and be glad of the general effect on society (even if we might wince when it comes to our own daughters.)
Of course, this doesn’t prove that Trollope never regretted his supervision of the pillar-box project. It only shows that at the end of his career he had accepted its desirability, and was publicly making statements in favour of the shift in social arrangements it had encouraged (though not started.) All of which leaves me wondering where on earth I got the idea that he disliked them from.
I dimly recall hearing it repeated on the TV show QI, and a couple of friends have similar memories. Do any of you readers recall the same story? Is it part of Trollope scholarship, which has long been debunked and is now only repeated by “I-bet-you-didn’t-know” factoid merchants like that show? Can anyone help me out on the source?