In today’s society, words such as ‘soul mate’ and ‘soulless’ are used anecdotally, however the soul has wider resonances in the Victorian period. It was a time of transformation and progression, which also meant that the Victorian views on the soul were constantly changing. People believed in the soul for various reasons and usually the belief itself was different.
For some Victorians the soul meant that there was life after death and that the soul could live on. For others, it was the belief that the soul could stay on earth in the form of a ghost to haunt the living. Others believed that the soul could connect two people forever; this is similar to the modern use of the word ‘soul mate.’ The soul was the key to having lifelong, unbreakable connections. Another interesting view the Victorians had on the soul was that they wanted to maintain parts of the soul on earth, the belief that the immaterial could become materialised.
Despite the progress in science and technology, the Victorians were overwhelmed by the paranormal and the supernatural. ‘In the late Victorian era, a great number of people admitted to have communication with ghosts.’ (Victorian Spiritualism, Dr Andrzej Diniejko, 14 November 2013). This indicates that the Victorians were intrigued by the idea of being able to communicate with the souls of the departed.
(Charles Demuth Oil Painting)
Above is a painting illustrating the moment the governess first sees the ghost of Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw. The artist captures the eerie atmosphere by using the darker tones of the dress and the pale background. It expresses the ambiguous moment the two worlds; life and death meet.
Moreover, some Victorians believed that the soul could live on after death and this belief brought hope for a sense of immortality. During the Victorian era this idea had a significant impact on certain writers and their work. Another name for Tennyson’s renowned poem In Memoriam was The Way of the Soul. The use of ‘The Way’ creates a sense of direction and could symbolise the soul’s journey. It was also ‘the way’ for Tennyson to accept Hallam’s death and in some ways to let go of his soul. The poem deals with death and loss but also reinforces the idea that the soul can live on after death. Therefore, it became a source of consolation for most readers at the time. Queen Victoria stated ‘Next to my Bible In Memoriam is my comfort.’
(Soul leaving the body by Schiavonetti 1808)
One of the ways Tennyson dealt with the loss of his greatest friend was by writing the poem. Nevertheless, writing about a subject that is so sensitive had other complications. He writes that he often felt that it was ‘half a sin’ to write publicly about his grief. ‘To put in words the grief I feel;/ For words, like Nature, half reveal/ And half conceal the Soul within.’ The idea of ‘half reveal’ indicates the sense of fear he felt for publicly writing about his feelings, which can never be truly revealed with ‘words.’ Early on in the poem Tennyson writes ‘Our little systems have their day’ which suggests that life on earth is temporary and that faith is above science. This is used as evidence to support the idea that the soul lives on after death and that science does not have to prove this. Nevertheless during the Victorian era, Dr. Duncan MacDougall attempted to weigh the soul. The evidence he used to support his hypothesis was that at the moment of death 21 grams were lost, which he believed was the soul departing the body. The two distinctive observations of the soul show the contrast between science and faith during the Victorian era.
The iambic tetrameter throughout the poem allows the reader to follow a regular rhythm, almost like a heartbeat. This could symbolise the way Hallam’s soul is kept alive within the writing itself and within In Memoriam.
(Early drafts of a Christmas verse from In Memoriam written out by unknown hand and collected by the Hallam family, 1833)
The idea of soul mates and people sharing one soul is explored in Wuthering Heights. In the novel, Catherine states, ‘I am Heathcliff,’ and after her death Heathcliff says that he cannot live without his ‘soul.’ This implies that Catherine is his soul. The idea of two people sharing one soul highlights how important it was for the Victorians to share lifelong connections even after death. The two characters are connected by the soul and this makes their connection stronger, purer and everlasting. This was something, which also reinforced the belief that the soul can live on after death. Likewise, Heathcliff pleads Catherine’s soul to ‘haunt’ him when he says, ‘Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I can not live without my life!’ This gives the soul a sense of importance. It also shows another perspective the Victorians had on the soul, which was that it could haunt someone on earth. In Wuthering Heights, Brontë refers to the soul as being omnipotent.
Quote from Wuthering Heights on a silver necklace worn in the 21st century. Used as evidence to support that ideas about the soul from Victorian literature are inspirational to this day.
Victorians were re-imagining lifelong connections after death and sometimes these connections were imagined in a ‘material’ way. In Digging up the Dead, Burch writes about the life of an 18th century surgeon, Astley Cooper. In this novel, several questions are raised. Is the soul only spiritual? Is it material? It states that ‘Someone who spoke of a ‘soul’ or a ‘living principle,’ as meaning a kind of superadded property, was merely being obscure.’ The word ‘obscure’ informs the reader about the uncertainties behind the belief of the soul. During the Victorian era, new scientific discoveries were made and many people started looking for evidence in order to believe in something or to truly understand it.
Burch also includes that ‘to suggest that the mind was the function of the brain, that there was no superadded and invisible quality that could be called a soul, was certainly a radical idea, and accepting such a materialistic view of life clearly carried other implications.’ This perspective implied atheism because the body was something that could be examined but the soul was invisible and some people refused to believe it existed. The novel also informs the reader about questions that appeared at the time such as, ‘did the soul – whatever that was – stay near the body for a while after death, or departed more rapidly? Could it be damaged by what was done to the body whilst it appeared lifeless?’ People wanted answers and some were only willing to believe in the idea of the soul if it was materialised.
(Photograph of a painting from the Wellcome Collection showing doctors examining a human skeleton.)
At the Wellcome Collection in London there is an End of life section, which explores some of the ways the Victorians kept death in mind. In the book A guide for the incurably curious, it states that ‘the living also had mementos of the dead, such as death masks and the brooches made from the hair of the deceased that were worn by Victorian women.’ Similarly, some people kept small portraits of faces that were half alive and half dead. This again is evidence to support the way the soul was materialised in the 18th century. It also illustrated the way the Victorians tried to materialise the soul as a way of keeping it alive.
In Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, Lutz describes the idea of hair jewelry as ‘making of the moment something permanent.’ This again shows the way the Victorians tried to materialize the soul and give it a sense of life. By holding on to the lock of hair indicated the way some Victorians tired to maintain a part of someone who had died. Therefore, although the Victorians believed in the soul, some also wanted something in the material form to remind them that the person is dead but their soul lives on. As stated by Lutz there was ‘a certain approach to the life-death boundary.’ Lutz also writes how death and the soul had an impact on writers like Hardy. In Far From the Madding Crowd the narrator states that ‘immortality consists in being enshrined in others’ memories.’
(Memento mori, locket containing hair. L De Winne © Australian Museum)
Overall, the Victorians had different beliefs about the soul that were constantly changing. Evidently, ideas about the soul inspired writers, artists and scientists of the Victorian era and some ideas remain relevant to this day.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. John Murray ed. N.p.: CreateSpace, 1847. Print.
Burch, Druin. Digging up the Dead: Uncovering the Life and times of an Extraordinary Surgeon. London: Chatto & Windus, 2007. Print.
Kohn, Marek. A Guide for the Incurably Curious. London: Wellcome Collection, 2012. Print.
Lutz, Deborah. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. N.p.: Cambridge UP, n.d. Print.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. In Memoriam A.H.H. Paperback ed. Marston Gate: Amazon.co.uk, n.d. Print.
A Human Face Half Alive, Half Dead. 18th Century. Wellcome Collection, Italy.
Demuth, Charles. The Governess First Sees the Ghost of Peter Quint. N.d. Http://www.paintingstar.com/item-the-governess-first-sees-the-ghost-of-peter-quint-illustration-4-for-the-turn-of-the-screw-s118143.html.
Emily Brontë Silver Necklace. N.d. Etsy. Etsy. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. https://www.etsy.com/listing/125844620/emily-bronte-whatever-our-souls-are-made
Lobley, John Hodgson. Anatomy Lessons at St Dunstan's. 1919. Wellcome Collection, St Dunstan's.
Schiavonetti, Luigi. Soul Leaving the Body. 1808. Belsebuub.com.
The Papers of Arthur Henry Hallam, including Manuscript Versions of Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H. N.d. British Library. British Library. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/an-introduction-to-in-memoriam
Winne, L. De. Memento Mori, Locket. N.d. Australian Museum. Australian Museum. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.
Further Secondary Research
Diniejko, Dr Andrzej. "Victorian Spiritualism." Victorian Web. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.
"Duncan MacDougall (doctor)." Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duncan_MacDougall_(doctor)
Furneaux, Holly. "An Introduction to In Memoriam A.H.H." Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. British Library, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/in-memoriam