Sara K. Davis
Though the British Post Office was opened to the public in 1635, it was not until the turn of the eighteenth century that the sluggish and irregular system had developed enough to provide consistent service. This crucial development opened up an epistolary space wherein the literate could correspond with those far away, and relationships could thrive despite distance. Writing a letter became a feasible and attractive activity because correspondents had a reasonable assurance of the safe and expedient delivery of posted letters. Accordingly, the Post became indispensable to letter-writers and -readers; so when the system experienced methodological changes or technological advances, there was a direct and complex impact on the social, personal, and commercial relationships which comprised Britain’s way of life. Consequently, letters, the Post Office, and concomitant epistolary traditions all played significant and entwining roles in the lives of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century novelists, and their fiction reflects their preoccupation with the materiality of the Post and its effect on social interaction.
My dissertation offers a study of the historical materiality of the Post Office as manifested in such advances as cross- and by-posts, mail coaches, packet service, and the penny postage reform. When technological progress led to wide use of the Post, unique epistolary practices developed and were disseminated by letter-writing manuals. While much work has been done on epistolary novels, my project examines the meta-epistolarity of non-epistolary novels, which yields important conclusions regarding how society construed distance, personal and national identities, and British imperial ambitions. My dissertation offers an historically-grounded exploration of how the Post, the letter, and epistolary traditions are represented, (mis)used, challenged and forgotten in four non-epistolary novels. Canonical narrative texts such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), Henry Fielding’s Amelia (1751), Jane Austen’s Emma (1816), and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1851) provide crucial material that shows how deeply postal practices invaded, enabled, and disrupted British culture.