March 2012

Tovah Burstein

nonfiction

Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters by Kate Thomas

Last January, the cost of a first class postage stamp increased by a penny from the forty-four cent rate that had been in place since 2009. It's hard to get too upset about this inflation. Snail mail letters compete with modes of modern communication, like e-mail, cell phones, and Facebook. The original postage stamp only cost a penny, and though technology has improved since the 1840s, the same postal system remains an important and official network of correspondence. Kate Thomas's Postal Pleasures explores the inception of the universal postal system. Though today it calls to mind bills and junk mail, Thomas uncovers a system that brought scandalous social change and challenged the normative in turn of the century England. Through Victorian law and literature, Thomas demonstrates that penny postage opened up a new forum for Brits to explore queer identities and lifestyles.

When the Queen gave her approval, and visage, to the first universal postage stamp, communication became a civil service meant for all of England. The change became a civilizing force. With this new technology, everyone in England would need a formal address, and street names became official rather than colloquial. Universal postage also meant that everyone could afford to send letters, a revolutionary change from a system that required individuals to pay the courier upon receipt of a letter. The new system did not allow exemptions for postal masters or aristocratic correspondences, and the low price of one penny made it possible for even the poorest citizens to participate. The royal mail and the penny stamp created a democratic, official, and yet problematic network of connections.

Thomas points out that the post office became a place where communication invited promiscuity. Letters and people from all walks of life "mixed and mingled" through the "dissemination" of their correspondences. Letters could be sent to and from anyone, and each envelope would pass through many strange hands before it reached its destination. The delivered letter appeared marked by its journey, with postal codes, tears, and smudges, which spoiled the letters' "virginity." Thomas does not let the risqué nature of letter exchanges pass unnoticed, and history produced enough postal scandal to prove her argument worthy. Weddings were conducted and then annulled based on official stamps and postal markings. The Marquise of Queensbury called Oscar Wilde a sodomite based on letters Wilde had written. An entire network of men used the postal system as a way to connect young working-class boys to wealthy clientele interested in paying for sex along with their letters. This scandal connected the royal mail in the daily operation of a gay brothel. The post office provided a perfect set up: "Boy Messengers" were hired as prepubescent, unskilled workers and then forced to give up the uniform as adults. Thomas points out that the post office valued these standardized boys in unison with "a homoerotic community that had an eye for the exact same qualities." Thus, the official nature of the post became a good joke, as it also provided a perfect front for covert impropriety.

British literature capitalizes on the dual nature of the post as a private communication, and a public act, a civil service and a queer flirtation. Thomas demonstrates how the epistolary novel marked the postal system as a queer network. She calls on gender theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's definition of queer as "slantwise" or "across" to examine each text's characters as "in between" spaces and identities. In fiction such as Anthony Trollope's "The Telegraph Girl" (1877), Thomas Hardy's A Laodicean (1881), and Eliza Lynn Linton's The Rebel of the Family (1880), the postal system presents an alternative to the standard marriage plot.

While young boys found profit in illicit sex work through the postal system, the royal post offered an acceptable alternative for women. Through this work, women maintained dignity without getting married or turning to traditional roles such as nursing or teaching. In each story, "civil service... offers women a way to experience nonfemale roles. [Each of the protagonists enters] homosocial or homosexual domestic orders and workplaces." While these stories do eventually end in marriage, they present and explore lesbian alternatives first, and none leaves the reader with a romantic idea of heterosexual marriage as a happy ending. Each marriage marks a close to the protagonists' role as civic servant and thus severs the network of female erotic connection for these new brides.

The communication network allows Thomas's female postal workers into worlds that would otherwise be unreachable. The post and the telegraph allow "imaginative exchanges of subject position, exchanges which include transpositions of sex, gender, and sexual desire." These technologies also allowed imaginative exchanges between continents and countries. Imperial England complicated the "universality" of the postal system. Authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle imagined the postage stamp reuniting the United States and England in Anglo-Saxon brotherhood and "a warmer friendship between the two great nations." Reunionists believed the transatlantic telegraph wire solved any problems of distance and separation between the two countries. Thomas paints the move from Imperialism toward Racial unity as a "homosexual refederation as opposed to a heterosexual reproduction." She draws on Victorian novels that have homoerotic subtexts in the same way that Top Gun flirts with the homoerotic (but Tom Cruise still gets the girl). For example, in Bram Stoker's Draculathe American character of Quincy dies in the arms of the British Jonathan, after they use Dracula's letters to find and destroy the Count. Jonathan is bathed in Quincy's blood and lives on to name his son after his lost friend. Thomas reads these authors as flirting with and imagining homosexual communion through letters and postal plots.

Thomas's interpretation of these texts and the postal system's promiscuous effect seems fair, but her prose remains as coded as any bureaucratic letter marking. In a book that develops the postal system as a queer network, Sedgwick's definition does not appear until the book's final chapter. As a result, Postal Pleasures loses a sense of cohesion that might have tied each text, legal battle, and historic correspondence together. Her fourth chapter, "Red Routes," exemplifies the well informed, but fragmented nature of her writing. This chapter focuses on correspondences outside of England. Thomas explains that Gandhi was against the civilizing nature of the imperial postal system in India, whereas Doyle saw the same communication system as a reason for the US and England to reunite after a century of independence. Her reading explains these points as either a push for or resistance against "homosexual love for race chauvinism," but each detail reads more as a detour from her focused reading of queered communication.

Perhaps it's unfair to expect Thomas to move through her book with a clear thread. After all Postal Pleasures is very informative, and it does not set out to be a work of art. Still, Thomas's language seems needlessly academic. She describes fictional windows and caves as "descriptively invaginated," and postal jobs as "subject to procurement by pimps." Neither of these queer readings is radically strange or delicate, but Thomas's word choice makes her meaning harder to parse out. Distanced and wordy prose takes away from Thomas's well-researched analysis of a fascinating technology. Thomas illustrates that Victorian Postal characters "show us that employment in the postal office reanimate [them and their...] understanding of the importance of cross-identification and the transformative effects of structures that allowed a persona to imagine extending themselves and take the place of another." Which is to say, the postal system allows characters to imagine themselves as other people with other lives. Before deciphering Postal Pleasures, I had taken the USPS for granted; had never considered how transformative letters could be. Postal Pleasures may not be a page-turner, but it begs readers to glean its pages for scandalous details and striking parallels in a modern world where technology and scandal are still intertwined and always developing.

Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters by Kate Thomas
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0199731169
264 pages