18 April 2024


Judith Flanders, Rites of Passage: Death and Mourning in Victorian Britain, Picador, 2024.

‘Don’t be so morbid!’ is usually the reaction to any spontaneous discussion of death and dying in the 21st century. For example, bringing up the subject of funerals arrangements while in good health is thought of as the province of those guilt-inducing TV advertisements for funeral plans, themselves usually shown on channels dedicated to old stuff for wrinklies. 
Even then and even we of a somewhat more relevant age, tend to turn off the TV ads in either or both senses, mental and/or physical. Death and dying are tasteless and too scary to be considered. After all, it’s not as if we’re ancient Egyptians or the Victorians, both cultures who seemed to live for death.

Judith Flanders’ incredibly well-researched book, Rites of Passage: Death and Mourning in Victorian Britain, lays bare the attitudes to death  and dying during Victoria’s long reign, reinforcing some preconceptions but utterly demolishing others. For example, yes, Victoria herself was indeed obsessed with mourning her dead beloved, Prince Albert, to a degree that edges into what would be considered sectionable now.

Flanders details the extraordinary lengths to which the Widow of Windsor went to memorialise her husband in everyday life: not only was his room kept as it was on the day he died, but the servants had to lay out several changes of clothes per day and bring up hot shaving water for him as if he lived and breathed. She wrote of him as ‘He’ and ‘Him’, capitals intended, and talked of his belongings being ‘sacred relics’. And when her grandson was married, she interposed herself staring glumly at a bust of her husband between the newly weds in an official photo. 

The bride’s white dress contrasts starkly with the old queen’s black widow’s ‘weeds’.

All that is true. Yet somehow today we have the idea that her subjects not only approved of Victoria’s pathological mourning, but actively replicated it, believing it to be right and proper. Yet in reality, a great many people, we are told, objected to her mindset and way of life, preferring to stick to a minimal schedule of mourning dress – enough, if only just, to be considered respectable.

Of course the Victorians had much to mourn. With large families and virtually no effective medical care, death was everywhere, especially among small children. Flanders points out that we tend to think of the famous literary Bronte family as particularly unlucky in that regard: their mother died young, followed by her two eldest girls, then – after a few years – the one son, Branwell met his end (in his case through drink and drugs), rapidly followed by Emily and Anne. Charlotte staggered on for a few years before joining them. 

Their old father was the last remaining Bronte, having buried his wife and all his children, some young and some adult, all gone before him. But astonishingly tragic though this might seem to us, this was by no means an unusual run of grim luck in their era. Families, whether rich or poor – or struggling middle-classes like the Brontes – were all hit hard, often serially, by death.

Another modern preconception that Flanders demolishes, robustly – and justly - calling it ‘preposterous’, is the idea that because children were so likely to die young, somehow their parents didn’t care as much as we would. Familiarity gave them a sort of shield of callousness. But no, of course families were just as devastated as we would be, and it is cruelly ‘preposterous’ to think otherwise.

Religion was a great comforter to many of the bereaved, not to mention the dying themselves, though it could take rather too sicky sentimental a form for today’s tastes. Doggerel rhymes were offered, such as: ‘Their wings were grown/To Heaven they’re flown’. (We might snigger, but a glance at modern headstones reveals a very similar taste in epitaphs.) 

Religious ministers were never slow to jump in with their bizarre – and to us, offensive – mixtures of comfort and threat, as with the Reverend Edwin Davies, whose Children in Heaven, or, Comfort for Bereaved Parents, in which he pronounced that some children died early because their parents were insufficiently pious. Just imagine reading that when your child is lying dead and your whole world has collapsed. But never mind, he explained that they shouldn’t berate themselves. Their child had probably died early to prevent them falling prey to the temptations of the world as they grew up. Oh, so that’s all right, then.

The religious theme included paintings of angels carrying off babies and beautiful dying maidens dissolving upwards into radiant light, though on the whole they are not for us, especially we ironic and satirical Brits. But there’s no doubt such cloying effusiveness did give a degree of comfort, even a passing joy, to those most deeply and intimately affected.

The parents of one family hideously battered by serial child deaths would quietly read the baptismal prayer on the morning of the anniversary of their passing, and the burial prayer in the evening. Again, this might make the modern reader writhe slightly with embarrassment, but then no one could doubt either the depth of their loss or the unostentatious comfort these little ceremonies brought.

While the death of Little Nell in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop has long been the stuff of irreverent glee – witness Oscar Wilde’s famous line ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing’ – as Flanders points out, hundreds of thousands of readers wept along with Dickens at the fictional death, no doubt reliving the agony of their own child bereavements.

Yet by no means all the Victorians are recorded as meek, submissive invalids with a complete Christian acceptance of death. The novelist Mrs Oliphant, who lost all five children, began by accepting they were ‘with God, in His hands’. But later, as the terrible parade of death continued, she burst out: ‘Can I trust her with God? Can I trust that He has done what was best for her?’ She confessed, ‘I cannot feel resigned… I keep on always upbraiding and reproaching God.’

We’re also told of a pious woman who, in the 1880s, died in childbirth in her twenties after ‘a week of blood and vomit’, crying ‘God has forgotten me!’

Flanders also takes us into what we often think of the great Victorian set scenes, the deathbed, but which is preceded by the lengthy process of dying in the sick room. Today our dyings tend to be short, hidden away, and surrounded not by representations of winged cherubs, but tubes, beeping machines and masked and gowned medical professionals.

Without such benefits, the Victorian dying had a bad time of it, and their nursing fell remorselessly on the females of the household. In one case of a middle-class death, Flanders notes that the women still had to do all the caring, even sitting up through the night with the invalid, whereas the fifteen-year-old boy of the family was required to do none of it. 

Without dwelling too deeply on the details, the author does point out the inevitable problem of having a dead body remain in an open coffin in a house for a week or so before burial, as was the custom. In one case, the heat was intense and very rapidly the grieving widow could bear her vigil no longer, as her husband was, as she put it euphemistically, ‘so greatly changed’.

The physical realities of dying and death were omni-present for the Victorians, especially one might have thought, for the grieving parents who dressed their dead child up and posed for a photograph with them, having transported them somehow to a studio. Grim though this undoubtedly was, from their perspective it was often the only photograph they’d ever have with them.

This book is packed with masses of detail, some grim, some touching, most thought-provoking. But perhaps instead of being sickened by the Victorians’ mourning – which became a veritable industry - we should try to understand them. And perhaps, just perhaps, they still have something to teach us about the one thing that we will all share, ‘morbid’ or not.

Highly recommended.
  • Lynn Picknett

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