Monday, April 18, 2016

Trollope and the day job

The 930 pages of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right contain a lot of letters. It was a letter-writing culture, after all, and, given the option, what author who cares about plot wouldn't make as much use of the convenience of letters as possible?

With Trollope, though, we can always amuse ourselves by thinking that there might be more going on. Trollope, after all, spent years working for the post office. And in this novel, he tips the knowledgeable reader a quick wink:
Miss Stanbury carried her letter all the way to the chief post-office in the city, having no faith whatever in those little subsidiary receiving houses which are established in different parts of the city. As for the iron pillar boxes which had been erected of late years for the receipt of letters, one of which,--a most hateful thing to her,--stood almost close to her own front door, she had not the faintest belief that any letter put into one of them would ever reach its destination. She could not understand why people should not walk with their letters to a respectable post-office instead of chucking them into an iron stump,--as she called it,--out in the street with nobody to look after it. Positive orders had been given that no letter from her house should ever be put into the iron post.
Trollope, famously, invented that hated pillar box.

T. S. Eliot, meanwhile, did Miss Stanbury one better--this story comes from The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, related by William Empson:
There was a party (I forget everybody else in the room) where Eliot broke into some chatter about a letter being misunderstood. "Ah, letters," he said, rather as if they were some rare kind of bird. "I had to look into the question of letters at one time. I found that the mistake . . . that most people make . . . about letters, is that after writing their letters, carefully they go out, and look for a pillar-box. I found that it is very much better, after giving one's attention to composing a letter, to . . . pop it into the fire." This kind of thing was a little unnerving, because one did not know how tragically it ought to be taken; it was clearly not to be taken as a flippancy.
Letters never sent would do fine for a novel, but I suspect Eliot's method is a bit too arid for actual life.


  1. that Eliot! What a guy! Trollope's description of his invention and it's effective position in the opinion of some persons is humorous to say the least... maybe it was tongue in cheek, or possibly a complaint regarding it's use and/or misuse by members of the public. at any rate, a certain wryness about the paragraph, seemingly...

    1. Mudpuddle is everywhere! It is surprising. We were just talking about the world's biggest fungus only yesterday.

      I like both of these and must say that I am guilty of writing long letters and never mailing them. I have two writer pen pals who will have nothing to do with email or the internet, and I write them, and then I do not have a stamp, or I do not know where the envelopes are, or some such. Eventually the letters become part of the leaf litter of my writing room. Occasionally I mail one, but it is always belated.