Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mail slot minutia

You can consider this blog as another in my series of "Little Things I Learned On the Way To Writing a Historical Novel." In looking over a scene in Arles, one in which the point of view character is not Van Gogh but Gauguin, I was reminded of one of those little bits of historical detail that I want to make right before I declare my novel done. In the scene, Gauguin reclines on his bed in the Yellow House, enjoying a cigarette and an hour free from Vincent's company. The postman delivers the mail. From upstairs Gauguin hears it drop through the slot and on to the floor. Gauguin, enjoying his leisure, is slow to check on the delivery, but finally he does. The mail contains both positive and annoying news for Gauguin, and how he reacts to that news throws light both on his character and his relationship with Van Gogh. It also contributes to his initial decision to leave Arles and the Yellow House behind.

But my immediate concern as I looked over the scene yesterday wasn't the thematic but the mechanical. To wit: Would the mail have entered the Yellow House through a slot? I wrote the scene and revised it several times without worrying too much about this point, although it did cross my mind a time or two. Old homes have mail slots, I figured. So I guess that's how this mail comes in. But would it have? Really? It's become a question I can't ignore, as the clock ticks down on this last flurry of revisions on the book. I wasn't sure if I could find an answer that would satisfy me, and I'm not sure I have, but think I've got an answer that my book and I can live with. After a little internet research, I've learned that mail slots did not become common in Europe until the mid-1800s. In some parts of Europe, they did not become common until the late 1800s. Well, what about Arles? (And is 1888 "late" enough to be the late 1800s?) I don't know, but I do know that in Paris mail slots began to appear in the late 1700s. Whatever happens in a country's captial will eventually find its way to the provinces, and since Paris was one of the first world capitals to employ mail slots, it seems logical that the provinces of France would begin using them before other parts of Europe. Since I don't want Gauguin to show any hurry in getting the mail, I'd rather not have him get up to answer a knock from the postman. So the only reason I'd ditch the mail slot is if the evidence is obviously against it. That not being the case, I'm keeping it.

By the way, do you know why mail slots were invented in the first place? No, not to look all gold and glittery on a wooden door front. The reason is that prior to their use the postman would indeed have to knock and wait for someone to answer the door to receive his or her mail. The amount of time wasted standing at the door convinced someone to introduce the mail slot. (And later, in the United States--in 1915--the all too familiar tunnel-shaped mailbox, invented by one Roy J. Joroleman, a U.S. Post Office employee.) I'll count this knowledge as a one more peripheral benefit to starting down the long Van Gogh road five years ago.


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