Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mourning and Condolence in Victorian Times: Wring the Heart

Customs are honed from many forces

Image by Sarah Klockars-Clauser
Consider the history of almost any way of doing something and you will discover roots in practical circumstances, religious proscriptions, superstitions, and emotionally wrought coping mechanisms. The Victorian period, 1837 to 1901, was renowned for rigid societal controls.

Dying was messy and best kept private

Jacqueline Banerjee of Kobe College, Nishinomiya, Japan describes this scenario in her essay, “Frail Treasures: Child Death and the Victorian Novel”

"Options for medical help were limited, and death was still dealt with inside the household: Victorians had to attend dying family members, so death was very much a part of their lives, and deathbed watches happened at home, not in hospitals (Hunter). Besides death, there is the process of dying, and dealing with that was also a difficult undertaking: “the process of dying, in a period when diagnosis and treatment were fraught with uncertainties, and pain management was primitive, would wring the heart.”

The Don't Know Dickens blog observes: "When Esther Summerson becomes seriously ill in Dickens’ Bleak House, she does not go to the hospital; instead, she sequesters herself at home for weeks as she tries to limit contact with those she cares about."

Mourning by the book

One description of death and mourning in the Victorian era stressed the scrutiny to which mourners were subjected. They were expected to NOT socialize normally. Furthermore, there were specific timelines for different losses, and the color of dress marked your status on the timeline:

  • loss of a child led to nine months' deep mourning, followed by three months' half mourning (wearing grey or lavender)
  • Widows had to remain in full or deep mourning for one to two years
  • the deaths of uncles and cousins led to prescribed mourning periods

Failure to adhere to such customs could lead to accusations of callousness or immorality.

In A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, Herbert F. Tucker wrote:

"Mourning ceased to be mourning precisely because it would not cease." 

Describing this as a cultural disorder, "melancholia", Tucker cites examples of Tennyson's Tithonus (1860,) Haggard's She (1887,) Stoker's Dracula (1897,) Trollope's The Small House at Allington (1864.) It seems that the culture was entrenched in the appearances of conformity to mourning's precepts for duration, dress, and social involvement. 'Feel better' too early and you were attacked as antisocial and vain.
Queen Victoria [Source]

Queen Victoria 

After her coronation in 1838, Alexandrina Victoria discovered a soul mate in the suitor, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. In marriage, he was a trusted advisor, attentive husband, and father of her nine children. But Albert's death, due to typhoid fever in 1861, was a tremendous blow. She wrote these words to her daughter, Victoria:

"How I, who leant on him for all and everything—without whom I did nothing, moved not a finger, arranged not a print or photograph, didn't put on a gown or bonnet if he didn't approve it-- shall go on, to live, to move, to help myself in difficult moments?"

Queen Victoria embraced rigid mourning in all of her personal, household, and public affairs. Her husband's rooms and routines were maintained as if he had only stepped away. After a 20 year retreat from public life, what began as a sign of marital devotion became known by the press and parliament as pathological

Mary Todd Lincoln [Source]

Mary Todd Lincoln, the 'Republican queen"

Did you know that Mary Todd Lincoln also exercised an extended period of mourning? After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, Mrs. Lincoln "went into mourning and remained in widow’s clothes until her own death in 1882."  Mourning her husband simply added to an already serious state of grief that began with the 1862 typhoid related death of her dear son, Willie.

The President's widow was in a difficult public position. Believing luxury would shore up confidence in the president's authority, she incurred deep debts beyond her Congressionally-allotted allowance. During this season of Civil War and severe hardship, she "compulsively shopped", applying retail therapy to the furnishings of the White House and her own station of social prominence. 

While Tucker concurs on the absurdity of extremes in Victorian mourning, he chastises the modern Western world's haste of disposition and emotional discharge. "We now treat with hasty neglect the great last fact of life that once obsessed our forebears, and part of the price we pay is the way our observance of death defaults to a threadbare, hollow repetition of theirs." [Source, p.122]

What does the Condolence Coach take away from reading about this era?

  • Grief often causes depression
  • It is not always easy to be with a grieving person, but
  • To judge or impose an arbitrary timeline on a grieving person is unfair
  • Do not give advice about the household or personal property
  • Support- your condolence note- can acknowledge the loss of a wonderful person (use their name!)

Thank you for caring!

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