Glad to Go

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Death in the Victorian Family by Pat Jalland
    Oxford, 464 pp, £25.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 19 820188 5

Nothing proves a better test of historical difference than what we all have in common. Like us, the Victorians thought the death of the young more terrible than that of the old; they found sudden loss more difficult to cope with than losses they had long anticipated; they relied on family and friends for comfort in times of bereavement; they took solace from memories of the dead, whom they were inclined, at least in the early stages of their grief, to idealise. Some of our received opinions about the Victorians’ mortuary excesses owe as much to their own self-criticism as to their actual practice: contemporary reformers were quick to denounce the expensive funerals popular at the beginning of the period, for example, just as they later campaigned against the ‘ghoul-like ghastliness’ of extravagant mourning-dress for women. Then as now, there were many ways of dying and many modes of grieving for the dead. But a death in the Victorian family did differradically from one in our own – if only because ‘in’ the family was hardly a figure of speech. Until the First World War, the event almost invariably took place at home. And until the later decades of the century, Jalland argues, it typically took place in a climate of religious belief that made all the difference not only to the dying but to those left behind.

Thanks to the Evangelical revival, a very specific model of how to die well dominated the thinking of early Victorians – shaping the aspirations, if not always the achievement, even of High Anglicans and Tractarians. At home, surrounded by family members, the dying took leave of the world, having had ample time to resign themselves to God’s will, beg forgiveness for their sins and demonstrate their worthiness to be saved. Pain and suffering were not only borne with courage but welcomed as a final test of merit and an opportunity for atonement. Ideally, the death-bed provided an instructive scene for the living, an occasion for the witnesses to reaffirm their faith and prepare their own souls for the end. To die ‘badly’, on the other hand, was to die unprepared and suddenly – the death so often preferred by the unbelieving generations to come. Like us, Jalland suggests, later Victorians increasingly came to think of a ‘good’ death as one that occurred painlessly and without warning: a heart attack in the night rather than a long consumptive decline. When their father died of typhoid in 1900, Leo and (Katherine Maxse congratulated themselves not only on his lack of pain but on his peaceful ignorance of what was happening – ‘a 20th-century perception of a good death’ far removed from the Evangelical death-beds of a half-century earlier.

Although Death in the Victorian Family draws on a range of published material, from Evangelical tracts and magazines to the columns of the Lancet, its principal evidence consists of private memoirs, letters and diaries, a record covering almost a century (1830-1920) in the manuscript archives of 55 families. Jalland calls her work ‘experiential history’, but, as she is quick to acknowledge, the experiences in question are strictly confined to the recording classes: herwitnesses include ‘politicians, scientists, clergymen, diplomats, landowners, doctors and intellectuals’, but not, for example, tenant farmers or industrial workers. Especially in the early decades, when Evangelical influence was at its strongest, a number of these family members not only corresponded with one another but deliberately set out to produce death-bed memorials – detailed accountings of the medical and spiritual progress of the dying in their midst. Jalland argues that there is no reason to consider her sample unrepresentative of middle and upper-class Victorians generally, but her method of selecting her material inevitably over-represents those who thought such records of death worth making and preserving.

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