Friday, 21 November 2014

Were The Victorians Obsessed With Death?

It could be considered that the Victorian's were obsessed with death, and that death is present in many novels of that era. It should be considered that death was extremely common and so almost became a part of the Victorian life style however morbid that seems. 

It has been said that Queen Victoria's mourning of Prince Albert's death is what started the elaborateness of mourning and funerals. She is said to have mourned his death for 40 years and wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life. She also went to the lengths of having the iron spindles throughout London painted black, which still are today. 

Queen Victoria In Mourning Dress after Prince Albert's Death.

Considering how common death was for the Victorian people, it is also represented through the literature of that time. Infant Morality was extremely high and statistics state that approximately half of all babies born, survived until their first birthdays. In relation to this statistic it is easy to see why in many novels there are children on their deathbeds. And not just a single child but several, which Elizabeth Gaskell depicts in her novel 'Mary Barton'  The description of the death of Mrs Wilson's two sons - 

 "with one sick death - like boy lying on her knee, crying without let or pause, but softly, gently, as fearing to disturb the troubled gasping child; while behind her, old Alice let her fast dropping tears down fall on the dead body of the other twin, which she was laying out on a board..."( Mary Barton,116)

Many authors have been known to show the grief of their own loss through their literature. This can be seen in the work of both Charlotte Bronte in her novel 'Shirley' and in Alfred Lord Tennyson's Poem ' In Memoriam A.H.H.'

Charlotte Bronte's Letter to Friends On Her Mourning of Both Sisters Emily and Anne.
Charlotte Bronte sent letter's to her friends Ellen Nussey and W.S Williams which describe and voice her struggles with the passing of her siblings. In the letter above she states,

 "I could hardly let Emily go - I wanted to hold her back then - and I want her back hourly now - Anne, from her childhood seemed preparing for an early death. Emily's spirit seemed strong enough to bear her to fulness of years - They are both gone - and so is poor Branwell - and Papa has now me only - the weakest - puniest - least promising of his six children - Consumption has taken the whole five." 
(Charlotte Bronte, 5th Letter)

Considering that Charlotte had lost both sisters Emily and Anne in 1848-1849, you can notice the grief which Charlotte was feeling through parts of her novel Shirley. It can be seen through the character of Caroline, she goes through an almost depressing phase which can only mirror the depression which the author was feeling. Charlotte also touches on Infant Morality through Mr and Mr's York's children. She goes on to describe their futures and the ambiguity of their survival into adulthood. She starts with the description of Jessy's brief life "Here is the place - green sod and a gray marble headstone. Jessy sleeps below. She lived through an April day; much loved was she, much loving."(Shirley, 114) In connection to Charlotte's grief this moment in the novel can be seen as extremely moving. We can look upon literature as a part of the authors mourning process.  

It almost become an everyday occurrence in the novels and in reality. The process of funerals differ from the class system, yet most were extremely lavish. Money was spent on coffin's and dress for the occasion of bereavement, which at the time was of high demand. Such advertisements as below show how much of a business could be made from funerals.  

Stephen Tull Undertaker Advertisement.
Stephen Tull Undertaker Advertisement ,Price List On Funerals. 

The advertisement suggests that every class would want to have a 'proper' funeral for their deceased loved one. But this meaning that they would dramatize and make the mourning process almost theatrical. Given the time it suggests that even through great struggle many Victorians of varying class would pay for a lavish funeral (if they could manage to afford it of course!)

In comparison, Dickens voiced his opinion on the matter of respectful Victorian funerals through his journal 'Household Words - Trading in Death' Through this volume of the journal Dickens voices that - 

"A system of barbarous show and expense was found to have gradually erected itself above 
the grave, whichwhile it could possibly do no honor to the memory of the deaddid great
 dishonor to the living, as inducing them to associate the most solemn of human occasions
 with unmeaning mummeries, dishonest debt, profuse waste, and bad example in an utter
 oblivion of responsibility." (Trading in Death)

He repeatedly stresses on the 'dishonour' to the dead and to the living by conforming to the ridiculous expense of a theatrical funeral. He speaks of true honour of the dead being through the memory of them, which I believe is represented through Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'In Memoriam'. Tennyson looks back on the memory of his friend instead of focusing on the farce of the funeral, he mourns through literature. In comparison that seems like the most honourable way to mourn a loved one. 

Dickens representation of distaste towards the obsessive theatricals of funerals doesn't stop there, Catherine Waters suggests that he shows this through "his fictional undertakers, Mr Sowerberry in Oliver Twist, Mr Mould in Martin Chuzzlewit, Mr Omer in David Copperfield, and Mr Trabb in Great Expectations - are depicted with something of that ' attraction of repulsion' which characterized his fascination with the dead and death more generally"( which interestingly still suggests that even Dickens (just like every other Victorian) was interested in the representation of death and the dead. 

Even though Dickens disagrees with the over-popular mourning ritual, he too can be seen as obsessed with death, because it is represented in many of his novels. Considering my question, "Were the Victorian's obsessed with death?"  Yes they were, but only because it was such a massive part of their everyday lives it would have been hard to ignore, these rituals of mourning and funerals are in question a way of coping with loss.  


Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton.Great Britain: Penguin Classics,1985. Print. 

Bronte, Charlotte. Shirley. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics,1993.Print. 

Dickens, Charles. Household Words: Trading in Death. No.130. 1852. Web/

Waters, Catherine. "Trading In Death": Consented Commodities in 'Household Word. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Vol.36. No4, 2003. Web /  

Picture Resources 

Queen Victoria in Mourning Dress -

Charlotte Bronte's Letter - British Library -

  • Advertisement for Stephen Tull, Undertaker - British Library -

    No comments:

    Post a Comment