Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Reframing the Victorians. Eccentricity; Mourning Jewellery.

Reframing the Victorians. Eccentricity: Mourning Jewellery.

“For the Victorians, artifacts […] held […] the sublime, fetishistic
magic” – Deborah Lutz.

It is well documented that Victorians displayed an interest in myriad topics, although their preoccupation with death is particularly evident as you examine Victorian culture and its many death-related sub-genres, such as taxidermy, resurrectionists, grave culture, and the overall fascination with death itself. This interest manifested itself, specifically in the resurgence of mourning jewellery. Mourning jewellery is jewellery worn after the death of a loved one, and they commonly contain fragments of the departed’s body, such as hair, or teeth. Many Victorians latched onto the fashion for mourning jewellery, as continued and greater levels of religious doubt were expressed as to the idea of the hereafter, and in the idea that once people die they cease to exist in all realms, and in any form. This uncertainty caused mourner’s to want their loved ones close to them, a kind of physical proximity, resulting in the popularity of mourning jewellery, as the jewellery held a remnant of those who have passed.

Image of a pendant, front, back and interior compartment in which hair was stored.

As Deborah Lutz discusses within her article Relics and Death Culture in Wuthering Heights, Victorian society was “Caught up in the struggle with faith, in the occasional deep doubt […] of what the dead body might mean and if and how it lingers with the still living” (Lutz, 8). This confusion as to the existence of a spiritual hereafter, intensified as advancements were made in scientific and technological fields. Consequently, established philosophies regarding death, the body and the hereafter were thrown into doubt. It is for this reason that Victorian society developed a fondness for mourning jewellery, because the relics become emblematic of the hope that mourners harbour, that the dead aren’t truly gone, just inaccessible for a time. Mourning jewellery was a way to keep your loved ones close to you, because even though they had passed on the relic contained a fragment of the departed’s essence, so a part of them was still with the mourner.

Yet mourning jewellery holds another key importance to the wearer, as the material incorporated within the jewellery is used to dual purpose. The hair interwoven into the jewellery is primarily used to acknowledge the loss of a loved one, but it also gives comfort to the grieving, by acknowledging that their loved ones aren’t truly beyond reach as long as they possess a fragment of their being. As Lutz discusses “objects hold a fragment of that selfhood […] and seem to ‘prove’ that this self still exists in some sort of afterworld” (Lutz, 391). This argument highlights an obscure hope, upon which mourner’s depend, as it captures the essence of mourner’s desire, to be able, to if not pass through to the next realm, then at least to be able to communicate with those who have. It is for this reason relics, were so greatly treasured, because they contained the possibility for contacting the other side, much like séances. 
Image of a brooch, with skeleton image inlaid above a woven hair background.

 The idea of “Even inanimate matter might serve as a window onto the vigour that occurs after death” (Lutz, 393) figures prominently within Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as Heathcliff, mourning the loss of Catherine, “steals into her death chamber and, finding a locket around her neck […] [places] […] his own black lock [within]” (Lutz, 399). This serves to emphasize the idea that not only do mourner’s seek to keep their departed close to them in any manner possible, but that the deceased also desire to keep their loved ones close, even in death and beyond. The duality of the mourning jewellery, and its uses for both those who have passed and those who are living, serve to highlight the devotion both parties feel towards one another, and their extreme desires to keep as much as possible the ones they loved close to them, in any manner imaginable. 

Images above of a locket, front and back, with woven lock of hair, on display behind the image.

Another layer to the mourning jewellery saga, is the ideas that as mourning jewellery becomes entangled with all that death culture represents within Victorian society, the relics themselves, also come to represent the unanswered questions of death and the hereafter. The mourners desire to like Heathcliff “peer […] into, touch [the relics], and eventually trying to get into a postlife place” (Lutz, 390), such is their fascination with what comes after. The tangling of death culture and relic culture, results in the relics becoming symbolic of “the life death divide […] in imagining what happens after animation has left the body. […] Dwelling with death means […] dabbling in its tangible, touchable presence: in […] dead hair and flesh” (Lutz, 390). The intertwining of ideology questions accepted ideas’ regarding the essence of a person’s being once it leaves the body, and the deeper fascination with the body, and its animating properties after death.

As questions to the re-animating properties of the dead body were discussed by Victorians, many “held to a belief in general ‘vitalism’. While the bodily functions shut down, a ‘vital principal’ might persist, and it could then ‘leak out of its usual vessels’ […] and move to other forms of living and inanimate material” (Lutz, 394-395). This idea leads to the possibility of a bastardised version of pantheism, coming into play, in regards to mourning jewellery. Pantheism is “the belief that God and the material world are one and the same thing and that God is present in everything” (Encarta Dictionary). The theory of ‘vitalism’ creates the idea that the deceased person may have released their essence from their body, to inhabit certain items that contain fragments of their previous vessel. This idea emphasizes earlier ideas of the possibility of the mourning jewellery being imbued with the departed’s essence.

The materialised presence of a departed loved one in a relic can be further read as an attempt to romanticise and sexualise not just the mourning jewellery but the dead body itself. This is particularly evident as Heathcliff bribes the crypt keeper within Wuthering Heights to disinter Catherine and bury Heathcliff in the same grave, together, upon his death. This creates the romantic idea of an eternal union, in which both Heathcliff and Catherine will be together. It is also sexualised because both bodies will be as one in the grave. As Heathcliff has yet to die, he longs for all reminders of her presence; he begs Catherine’s spirit to haunt him. This extravagant longing for any fragment of Catherine’s existence romanticises the mourning items that belonged to Catherine because he is desperate to possess any fragment of her being, be it in spirit form or in the items that she owned while alive, and seemed to imbue with her essence in death.

 Image of bracelet, with hair woven into a band.

Although relics infused with a person’s being have become traditional mourning jewellery, they were not originally intended as such. Initially, relics were only held in significance if they were belonging to a saint and God had established a frozen animation on it, so that it could not be damaged. A second type of relic was the ‘celebrity’ relic, which was an item belonging to someone famous such as the “ball that killed Nelson […] to give them a sense that they had played some role in these events, now vividly brought back to life in the souvenir” (Lutz, 3). The third type, had been for individuals who cared for someone, and had an item made containing a lock of their hair. These types of jewellery were “often tokens of friendship, familial affection or love” (Lutz, 2-3). This highlights a key aspect in relic history, as the relics were not intended for mourning purposes, but as affectionate tokens.

In conclusion, as my visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum has found out, there is a wide variety of mourning jewellery and their primary function during the Victorian era, was to signify the loss of a loved one. For Victorian society mourning jewellery becomes emblematic of the “bereavement and the hope” (Lutz, 399) that the mourner suffers, upon the loss of a loved one, because they are now the only physical reminders, remaining, of those who are no longer living. As Victorian society longs for those who have passed beyond the veil, “their love aims to attain the static union before and beyond social divisions and compromises, it transforms into a love for death” (Lutz, 390). This desire to dwell in the grief they feel at the loss of a loved one, contributes towards the eccentricity and fascination Victorians have with not just mourning jewellery, and relic culture but also with ideas of death and the body.

Works Cited:
Lutz, Deborah:  Relics and Death Culture in Wuthering Heights. North Carolina; Duke University Press,2012.
Lutz, Deborah. The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewellery, and Death Culture. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Encarta Dictionary. Microsoft Corporation, 2009.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London; Penguin Group, 2003.

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