Hardy was an assiduous letter writer from his early years in Higher Bockhampton, his connection to the literary milieu of London facilitated by the new Victorian development of the penny post, and, as Karin Koehler’s recent study demonstrates, the arrival of new communication technologies is central to understanding Hardy’s life and work. The most significant consequences of the elisions of spatial and cultural distances that resulted from new communication technologies, she notes, are sociocultural homogenization and the loss of the ‘particularities of the margins’ (p. 31) that are central issues underlying Hardy’s project of recording ‘a vanishing way of life’ in rural Dorset (Hardy, ‘General Preface’). Koehler’s other major contention that postal reform did not lead to a sense of the social equality that its advocates promised it would deliver is explored in her close readings of Hardy's fiction and poetry. Throughout this study, Koehler offers a well-informed account of the sociocultural impact of new communication technologies in the nineteenth century as the backdrop for her illuminating and sensitive readings of Hardy’s fiction and poetry, demonstrating that written communication is used in a way that underscores concerns with class and gender that are at the heart of Hardy’s work. Koehler’s study is not limited to considering methods of communication, such as the letters, telegrams and postal systems of her title. Throughout Thomas Hardy and Communication: Letters, Telegrams and Postal Systems, her study of Hardy’s concern with new modes of communication is artfully woven into a study of developments in the form of the novel. The epistolary novel of the eighteenth century was seen as offering direct access to an individual’s consciousness, a fiction that Koehler illustrates is undermined in Hardy’s use of letter, telegram writing and written communications that variously deceive, manipulate, exploit or alienate. Koehler is also mindful of the enduring influence of sensation fiction on Hardy, but while pointing to examples of epistolary plots, she demonstrates that Hardy’s frequent deployment of letter writing is not merely an idle device to serve the exigencies of plotting as she explores epistolarity in relation to the sensation genre’s concerns with class, gender and privacy. In an astute reading of the scene of confrontation between Clym and Eustacia in The Return of the Native, serialized in the sensationally inclined Belgravia, Koehler notes that Clym’s appropriation of his wife’s correspondence and his denial of her right to privacy are central to this novel’s concern with limitations placed on female agency. This exploitation of the letter’s physical manifestation of an individual’s subjectivity is, as she then explores, a narrative possibility fully exploited in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Koehler examines the impact of Hardy’s reading of Darwin, offering a fascinating analysis of the relationship between writing and plotting in a world no longer governed by providence, wherein human endeavours are circumscribed by the various structures in which individuals exist (p. 133). Koehler’s analysis of letter writing interventions shows characters trying to circumvent fate, yet powerless to resist circumstances. Using written communication in an attempt to overcome external forces is a dynamic that is at play not only in Hardy’s ‘Novels of Ingenuity’. When the ‘die of Destiny’ (p. 164) prescribes Marty South’s social position in The Woodlanders, for example, the narrator notes that by writing a letter to Fitzpiers she plays her ‘only card’ (p. 164) in response. Thus while Hardy’s own categorization has tended to establish a distinct hierarchy that privileges the ‘Novels of Character and Environment’, Koehler’s study reveals a continuity between the ‘Novels of Ingenuity’ and Hardy’s tragic plots which his more sensational novels foreshadow. While establishing from the outset that her primary focus is to explore Hardy’s fiction and poetry as a response to historical developments in communication technologies, some of Koehler’s most sophisticated readings of Hardy emerge from theoretical approaches to epistolary. Drawing on Kafka’s epistolary reference to letter writing as ‘intercourse with ghosts’ (p. 185), Koehler builds on her discussion of letters and absence in her earlier chapters to explore letters in relation to desire, loss, the passing of time and the fallibility of memory. Although much of her study concerns failures of communication, whether letters are lost, misused, misunderstood or received belatedly, Koehler’s study also explores the connection between epistolary and altruism in Hardy’s letters and literature, emphasizing moments of genuine connection and empathy that were facilitated by new communication technologies. As Koehler argues, letters can be used to emphasize and exacerbate absence and discord, but they can also seek to forge intimacy and understanding. Thus, while Sue uses letter writing to maintain independence, control and distance, Viviette Constantine’s letter writing is characterized by ‘candour, openness and sensitivity’ (p. 216). Acknowledging the possibility of misinterpretation, and noting that the epistolary medium can operate as a space for idealized substitutes for reality, Koehler suggests that Hardy’s representations of miscommunication undermine the belief in transparency and objectivity on which literary realism is predicated. Yet it is not ultimately a pessimistic view of Hardy that Koehler offers, as she notes that his representations of failures to connect through epistolary forms are addressed to the ideal reader who, through interpreting the effects of miscommunication, develops a heightened capacity for reading ‘between the lines’. Although such a reading seems to rests on an optimistic assurance that literature is exempt from the many issues that bedevil the majority of written missives of his body of work, Koehler points to Hardy’s awareness of the interpretive space that exists between text and reader and his observation that the process of reading should be active, requiring a ‘generous imaginativeness’ (‘The Profitable Reading of Fiction’, cited in Koehler, p. 215). As such, her study offers a thorough and persuasively argued exploration of the centrality of letter writing to Hardy’s modernist exploration of human relationships. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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