Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters

May 3, 2012

Is post gendered? Does correspondence encourage queer cross-connections? Does the role of the postal or telegraph worker as an intermediary in love affairs (today, perhaps, we might think of the internet service provider) bring a queer polygamy into any postal relationship? These are the sorts of questions that may run through your mind while reading Kate Thomas' Postal Pleasures. It aims to "tender a critical bid that there is a structural and historically constitutive relationship between the Victorian postal network and queer theoretical frameworks". It certainly presents fascinating case studies of moments when queer desires and postal connections coincide in Victorian fiction and culture, and offers intriguing new theoretical ideas around these moments.

The book's best parts are those that analyse fictions of telegraphy, and the telegraph girl as an embodied medium, a human queerly harnessed to a machine, who both reads and writes the messages she transmits between correspondents who are (to her) both intimate and unknown. Thomas shows how the telegraph office offers "a queer job for a girl"; the homosocial structure of its workplace inspires representations of all-female households in Victorian fiction by Thomas Hardy, Eliza Lynn Linton, Henry James and Anthony Trollope. Here, Postal Pleasures chips away at remaining divisions between public and private, bringing together - through the figure of the uniformed postal worker - national institutions and desire, professionalism and family life, duty and homosexuality.

Thomas gives a wonderful reading of Hardy's A Laodicean, whose heroine establishes telegraph apparatus - that symbol of public infrastructure - in her lesbian household. Incidentally, with today's productive nostalgia for earlier communication methods, it's no coincidence that a comparable fantasy of domestic telegraphy appears in recent fiction. Tom McCarthy's historical novel C (2010) depicts a house in which telegraph tappers sit beside cheesecake and mugs of malt, and in which a disturbing scene has a child playing at sending a telegraph to the Admiralty by "tapping [her brother's] little penis with her index finger". After reading Postal Pleasures, a new light can be shed on scenes such as these. Thomas explores the telegraph as a technology that is tactile and sonic, rather than visual, linking this with Hardy's allusion to a tool sometimes called a "Lesbian Rule", an instrument used for measuring and "fingering sculptural hollows". The theoretical play here is brilliant, and it cannot be done justice in a review. Its interest moves beyond the postal (and indeed, the point could have been made independently of the postal).

This brings me to where Postal Pleasures, for me, doesn't quite hold up. Its cover says it "integrates frameworks drawn from literary studies, cultural history, queer theory, and postcolonial studies", but the promised integration does not happen. The narrative jerks from historicised postcolonial analysis (the discussion of Bram Stoker, Walt Whitman and Anglo-American imperialism is especially interesting), to bold theoretical play, back to a writing of cultural history that is more conventional and hands-off in its style. These jumps - reflective, perhaps, of the catch-all universality that Thomas shows the postbag represents - sometimes arrest the development of theoretical points. In the introduction, for example, I wasn't quite convinced that Thomas de Quincey's interest in postal symbols justified a conclusion that "the possibilities of 'same signs' postal play paves the way for thinking about 'same sex' postal relations".

But if at times Postal Pleasures frustrates, and leaves one wanting more, that is perhaps because it is so full (don't neglect to read the long footnotes - there are gems hidden there). Unlike the telegraph girl in James' In the Cage - a novella Thomas memorably analyses - this book remains resolutely uncaged.

Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters

By Kate Thomas, Oxford University Press. 251pp, £60.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780199730919 and 31169. Published 12 January 2012

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