Karin Koehler, Thomas Hardy and Victorian Communication: Letters, Telegrams and Postal Systems

Karin Koehler, Thomas Hardy and Victorian Communication: Letters, Telegrams and Postal Systems (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2016) xii + 246 pp. £58.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-3-319-29101-7

Thomas Hardy was a prolific writer of letters. Although his correspondence was seemingly exhausted with the seven volume collection of 1978-88, a further volume of the author’s letters was released in 2012, containing yet more, previously unpublished, missives. In Thomas Hardy and Victorian Communication, Karin Koehler draws our attention to how much still remains to be uncovered regarding the function of letters and written communication in Hardy’s fiction; her book aims to ‘explore how a deeper consideration of the particular material, technology, and cultural conditions of communication in Victorian England can reshape the way we read Thomas Hardy’s works and revise our understanding of the role played by countless letters and written messages within his texts’ (5). Koehler notes that such postal and epistolary themes have been treated most thoroughly in the works of Anthony Trollope – his extended time as an employee of the postal network making him an obvious target for this interpretative frame – but contends that they have a ubiquitous and decisive presence in Hardy’s fiction as well: ‘there are more letters than could possibly be accommodated within the scope of a single book, and each of [them] should be taken seriously’ (16).

Koehler’s monograph confronts this daunting volume of potential material in the form of nine chapters, including the Introduction and Conclusion. The Introduction lays out the historicist approach and the sorts of questions that Koehler intends to ask of the diverse body of letters in these fictions – with a focus particularly around their materiality (12) – as well as serving as an excellent survey of recent work published on letters in Victorian literature and culture, and their links to the postal service. Chapter Two considers the transition from an oral tradition to written culture in The Trumpet-Major and Under the Greenwood Tree, and the antagonism between these two forms of communication in The Mayor of Casterbridge. This last novel is discussed in the next chapter also, alongside The Return of the Native and A Pair of Blue Eyes, as Koehler turns to the significances of privacy in letter-writing; the nods to biography (Hardy as a ‘circumspect epistolarian’ [46]) and to contemporary concerns about internet privacy are deftly woven into this discussion. Chapter Four casts its net wider still in considering how expressions of the self are represented in and determined by written exchanges; that between Swithin St Cleeve and Viviette Constantine (Two on a Tower) and in The Hand of Ethelberta are to the forefront, but Desperate Remedies and A Laodicean, in addition to Far from the Madding Crowd, also appear. Trying to grapple with so many instances as it does, and sometimes oscillating between them, the chapter is necessarily limited in the depth to which it can consider each in depth; the most effective observations are made when it settles onto a focused example, as in a particularly fascinating section on the idea that William Boldwood’s culpability in misunderstanding Bathsheba’s ‘fateful valentine’ is complicated by attention to its small, yet vital, ‘material aspects’ (103): the personalised motto, the seal, and the print.

The focus is more restricted in the proceeding chapter, which claims a prominent position for letters in the tragedy of Jude the Obscure: the relationship between Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead, as Koehler observes, ‘not only begins with a note, but a written message […] precipitates its breakdown’ (110). Chapter Six is concerned with Hardy’s forays into sensation fiction – Desperate Remedies and A Laodicean. This last work, ‘otherwise neglected’ (16) (traditionally, criticism has considered it deservedly so, a ‘quite worthless’1 novel) has received a great deal of attention for its depiction of the telegraph system in particular; Koehler ably adds to this criticism, however, especially in giving a thoroughgoing analysis of the international exchange between Paula Power and George Somerset, and her previous discussion of misplaced and misinterpreted letters offers a compelling substantiation for why Hardy’s modern heroine has reason to prefer the telegraph (151). If a criticism is to be made, it is perhaps that the occasional indeterminacy of the book’s structure reveals itself most conspicuously here: why should Desperate Remedies and A Laodicean in particular be categorised as ‘Postal Plots’ when, as Koehler ably demonstrates elsewhere, the post occupies a prominent place in Hardy’s fiction generally?

These minor qualms are thoroughly forgotten by the next chapter, however – the strongest of Thomas Hardy and Victorian Communication. In ‘“Unopened and Forgotten”: Letters from the Margins’, Koehler convincingly repurposes the apparent cliché of the ‘lost, misdelivered, or unread letter’ (159) as a symbol for the powerlessness of the socially marginalised in Hardy’s novels. Each of the three case studies – Jude the Obscure, The Woodlanders, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles – is compelling and persuasive, but the last will undoubtedly attract most attention; Koehler astutely navigates the criticism around Tess’s letters, rebuking the ‘dangerously misleading’ (176) idea that the epistolary device has become redundant in the depiction of female sexuality – omitting to reproduce her writing, Koehler argues, Hardy is complicit in denying Tess’s subjectivity. Yet Koehler’s is not a purely negative criticism, and she adds much sophisticated detail concerning the relation of Tess’s letter-writing to female agency (181; 183); this and the other readings are brought into compelling conjunction with the aspirations of enfranchisement and democracy invested in the new postal system – Hardy’s novels suggest its inefficacy in improving the ‘connectedness’ of those at the social margins. Chapter Eight considers Hardy’s poetry and the short story ‘On the Western Circuit’, evidencing how even after the author abandoned the novel he nonetheless remained concerned by the issues of subjectivity and empathy embodied in written exchanges (187).

The Conclusion offers a final reflection on how written messages are ‘woven into the fabric’ (211) of Hardy’s texts, emblematic of the author’s concern for communication more broadly. Koehler shows herself a conscientious and generous scholar in acknowledging the avenues for future enquiry in this area, though her denial of ‘exhaustiveness or conclusiveness’ (212) should not be read too literally; Thomas Hardy and Victorian Communication is a far-ranging and commanding investigation of its titular concerns, and it deserves a wide readership. 

James Green, University of Exeter


1 Peter Widdowson offers a notable rebuke of this claim; "Hardy's 'Quite Worthless Novel': A Laodicean", in On Thomas Hardy: Late Essays and Earlier (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 1998) 93-114