Victorian Obsession With Death
Victorian Obsession With Death
Fetishistic Rituals Helped Survivors Cope With Loss of Loved Ones
By D. Lyn Hunter,
The Victorians are known for their prudish and repressed behavior. But few are aware of their almost fanatical obsession with death.
And no one was more fixated than the era's namesake, Queen Victoria, ruler of England from 1837 to 1901.
She elaborately mourned the death of her husband, Prince Albert, for 40 years -- dressing in black every day and keeping their home exactly as it was the day he died, said Carol Christ, executive vice chancellor and provost, and expert on Victorian death.
Each morning, servants set out Albert's clothes, brought hot water for his shaving cup, scoured his chamber pot and changed the bed linens. The glass from which he took his last dose of medicine stayed by his bedside for nearly four decades.
A bust or painting of the prince was also included in nearly every photographic portrait of the royal family, prominently displayed among the children and relatives posing for the picture.
While modern sensibilities may deem this behavior odd and peculiar, it was considered de rigueur in the 19th century, said Christ, who leaves her post after spring semester to resume teaching in the English department. Christ shared her research on Victorian death with a group of students at the Foothill housing unit March 21, as part of Residential and Family Living's "Last Lecture" series.
Because of high mortality rates in Victorian England, she said, death and mourning became a way of life for survivors.
"These days, nearly 80 percent of deaths happen in hospitals, not in the home, so we are removed from this process," said Christ. "In London, in 1830, the average life span for middle to upper-class males was 44 years, 25 for tradesman and 22 for laborers. Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working class families were dead by five years of age."
Death was a common domestic fact of life for Victorians, she said, so they developed elaborate rituals to deal with it.
The deathbed became a focal point for families who were in the process of losing a loved one, said Christ.
Typically, one or more grieving relatives would surround the bed waiting to hear the last words, signifying the transition from this world to the next.
"The Victorians valued last words," said Christ. "In fact, the use of narcotics was discouraged, to keep the dying as lucid as possible in the hopes of hearing a climatic testimony to the meaning of life."
These scenes were highly dramatized in much of the literature and artwork of the time. For example, Dickens devoted numerous chapters from his novels to prolonged deathbed watches.
Photographs, death masks and portraits of the recently deceased were also produced, as well as jewelry that utilized a locket of the dead person's hair.
"The houses were filled with mementos," said Christ. "It was almost fetishistic."
After the loved one had actually passed, women were expected to follow a complex code of mourning that lasted for two and a half years, said Christ.
For 12 months and a day, they wore a plain, black dress made of a drab, blended fabric, which covered the entire body, including a cap. Black ribbon was tied to their underwear. After two months, two flounces could be added to the skirt. After one year, the women could switch their dress fabric to silk colored in lavender, mauve or violet. They were also forbidden from socializing during this 28-month period.
"Not only was it easy to recognize who was in mourning, but you could also tell for how long," said Christ. "These days, no one would ever know if someone recently lost a loved one."
From our modern point of view, it is easy to make fun of these rituals, but Christ said Victorian culture recognized death as an integral part of life and they maintained an honest understanding of loss and grief. Modern society has a tendency to deal with death in more medical terms.
"We don't die any differently now than back then," said Christ. "But how death is represented has changed drastically."
Victorian rituals provided stability and refuge in the face of sweeping changes, she said. The era was characterized by scientific progress and challenges to religion during this time, including Darwin and the theory of evolution. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London lauded the technical and industrial advances of the age, and geological discoveries revealed the true age of the planet, much older than described in the bible.
"Mourning," said Christ, "created a powerful sense of being bound to the loyalty of the past."
Residential and Family Living developed the Last Lecture series seven years ago as a means to increase contact between students and faculty. Upcoming lectures include Oliver Grillmeyer, computer science, Wednesday, April 19 at 8 p.m. in Unit 1; and Kathryn Klar, Celtic Studies, Wednesday, May 3 at Clark Kerr. For information, call 642-2907.