Letters in Victorian Era: Part I


In my opinion, letter writing became what is remembered as now, during the Victorian Era. For centuries, mail had been primary used in military and business means, but it became an art and a storytelling medium during this period.

There seems to be several contributing factors to this. Literacy had stagnated through the Middle Ages, but had steadily grew afterwards, so that by the Victorian era (about 1840 to 1900 A.D.) a large part of population knew basic reading and writing, and many of the middle and upper class people could communicate in multiple languages.

As in my previous post on mail transport systems, many of the systems, such as rail or horse, had become commonplace, making it easier and more economical to send casual letters.

In the United Kingdom in 1840, the Penny Post mandated a uniform, affordable rate for postage. Before that, postage could cost more than a day’s wages for the working class, according to Catherine Golden, Professor at Skidmore College.

Eunice Shanahan shared this letter on Victorian Web. She notes that the letter was written “crossed,” which was a measure commonly used to save paper, by turning the paper 90 degrees to continue writing.

“We have had some Races going on and some few strangers have come in for the sake of seeing them, which is more than I took the trouble to do, though as for sports, the fact is that I look upon racing especially in this country as anything but sport, and would not go ten yards to see a race myself. I saw nonetheless the first race as I went to hear the Band, and they were near the Stand.

His Highness the Guicowar with a numerous retinue were there and some thousands of natives, though from their constant stares at the ladies and gentlemen it appears they did not come to look at the races, but like ‘coolies’, because the people were collecting, and they always go wherever they see a crowd collecting.”

– Except from a letter by Lt. Walter Theodore Chitty December 13, 1850 in Baroda, India to his sister, Miss E.M. Chitty in Muntham, England

While the full letter is not a story in the way we think of fairy tales and the like, Walter tells the story of his busy life, the perceived oddities he’s found in India, and expresses his desire for home. As with most letters, some of the tale is non sequitur (much like my own letters) he briefly describes his day, he describes the local sights, and he tells stories of his troubles and his triumphs.

In Aristotle’s Poetics, it is said that plot is more important the characters. I think for letters, because of their brevity and familiarity, this might not hold true.

Starting in the Victorian Era, people began writing letters to those with whom they had relationships. The plot of course is important, but letters are most important because it is happening to someone they care about.