Correspondence Culture

  • Laura Rotunno
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


By 1840, the epistolary novel was dead.1 Letters in Victorian fiction, however, were unmistakably alive. The luckless lover and frustrated writer, Edwin Reardon, of New Grub Street, the entire population of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, Thomas Hardy’s downtrodden Father Time as well as his bold Valentine writer: all compose letters upon which plots turn. Dorian Gray writes his first love letter to a dead girl; Roseanna Spearman’s love letter to The Moonstone’s Franklin Blake is read after her death. Jane Eyre, as well as Esther Lyon of Felix Holt, Sir Francis Levison of East Lynne, Leo Vincey of She, Little Dorrit — the list could continue — all learn of their inheritances by letter. Letters frame The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’s story; they litter Dracula and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensational tales. Letters are torn up (though, as Wilkie Collins’s No Name assures us, they can be put back together by a team of experts). Tess Durbeyfield’s letter is lost under a rug. Letters are burned, sometimes even eaten, as Anthony Trollope graphically describes. They are dropped in pillar boxes and sometimes in the gravy, at least in the Jellyby home. In short, plot movement, characterization, and the ‘reality effect’ of letters are some of the reasons why novelists created fictional correspondents. These uses explain the literary functions of the letters, and writers continue using letters (and email) for the same purposes into the present.


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Copyright information

© Laura Rotunno 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Laura Rotunno
    • 1
  1. 1.Penn State AltoonaUSA

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