Fatal attraction to chattering classes

Death in the Victorian Family
February 7, 1997

Death in the Victorian Family is not about death in the Victorian family; it confines its attention to the famous, well-connected, and literate. Pat Jalland consigns what she calls "working-class families" to "other scholars", hers being a project determined by the capricious remains of those who could engage in the luxury of discursive dying and burying.

Jalland's sources are both rich and meagre. She has selected manuscripts from 55 families (1830-1920), suggesting that "there is no reason to suppose these families were unrepresentative of the professional middle-class and the upper-middle and upper classes as a whole". Such a claim is easy to make but almost impossible to sustain. The starting-point were the 50 families of politicians, unrepresentative by definition, that fuelled her earlier Women, Marriage, and Politics. Families were added, using the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts' Guides to Sources for British History, and sources included according to whether they yielded "valuable material on the history of death, grief, and mourning". Nothing can be inferred from this book about the relative importance of death as a preoccupation in such families, since records that deal with death insubstantially are excluded. Such limitations fail to prevent Jalland from generalising. More egregiously, in the absence of contrary evidence, the book often provides unconvincing speculation. Having conceded, for instance, that it is "difficult to evaluate" the response of mourners to funerals because "family comments I were surprisingly few and brief", Jalland concludes that one of the few responses she could find, that of Florence (Dolly) Herbert, was probably typical: "many mourners must have felt as sick at heart as Dolly Herbert, but few testimonies to such feelings have survived".

Had there been a greater awareness of the textual parameters of the family experience of death this could have been a much more stimulating project. There are occasional sneers at novels, and at Dickens in particular, in a book that elsewhere neglects to consider the significance of fiction and the theatre in the fabrication of Victorian rites of passage. "Sensible people", for Samuel Butler in The Way of all Flesh, "get the greater part of their dying done during their own lifetime"; and it can certainly be argued that dying, like living, is often a performance whose rhetoric is synthetically, or fictively, determined. As it is, Jalland's tireless ambition is to plead for the "conviction", the "simple faith", sincerity, a lack of "artifice" or whatever, of letters and memorials that can also be read as participating in the ideological process of enabling life after death, the life of bourgeois and aristocratic society that is.

This book is in two parts: the first considers "Death and Dying"; the target of the second is "Grief and Mourning". Part one constructs a model of the "good death", arguing for the importance of evangelical fervour. "Good deaths" were rare; the assumption was that "the manner" of "dying could provide the final proof of salvation". The best deaths required either a noble struggle with pain, or its comparative absence, and some last, faith-affirming words. Many of the records on which Jalland draws have to negotiate the chasm between the real and the ideal. Sudden deaths, suicides, the expiry of unbelievers, and the deaths of children created problems for this model. Part one ends with a study of death in the Gladstone and Lyttelton families (1835-1915).

One of Jalland's aims is to show the extent to which the demise of evangelicalism, together with the secular and scientific developments of the period, accelerated the movement towards a "20th century" where religious consolation and ritual are absent. Two other factors are held to be critical: an improvement in mortality rates, mostly relegating death to old age, and the impact of the first world war. The latter, in Jalland's view, has destroyed "the links with hundreds of years of Christian history which had taught the importance of the good death and the hope of life eternal", death now being perceived "as a major taboo of the British people". It is nonsense to proclaim, so perfunctorily, the disappearance of religious consolation and ritual. But then no evidence is offered for such a preposterous totalisation of a culturally plural, miscegenated, postwar Britain. Whether or not Britain is a "post-Christian" society is there to be debated; here, it is simply taken for granted.

In part two, "Grief and mourning", there is little fresh insight. In her redaction of the debates over cremation, funeral reform, and simplifying the mourning rituals of the well-to-do, for example, Jalland draws on a range of easily available secondary material. She defers to a raft of contemporary commentators - variously categorised as "social historians", psychologists, and psychiatrists - who, effectively, supply the book's commentary. Beverley Raphael, for instance, is all-pervasive. Do we need Raphael to tell us that growing old involves a process of "disengagement" from life? What is the point of being informed that "memory" is important in the "dynamics of grief"?

Jalland attempts both a historical narrative of death in the Victorian period and journalistic observations on what she sees as the spiritual malaise of contemporary society. It is problematic to have to deal with so many platitudes, prejudices, and contestable generalisations about the 20th century in a book purporting to be about death in the Victorian family. Quite simply, a 1970 study of 68 Bostonian widows and widowers should have no bearing on the 19th century unless there is some kind of ahistorical congealing of past and present. The question is why we need to read a book about death if research shows how much commonality there is between anterior and contemporary versions of it. The challenge of Sweeney's "Birth, and copulation, and death/ That's all, that's all, that's all" is that of retrieving the cultural specificities of such processes. Otherwise, for sure, people die, they are disposed of, and those who live on have to grieve and cope, or fail to do so.

Jalland ranges impressively: Victorian doctors and nurses, ideas on palliative care and competing versions of heaven, among other topics, are touched on. But the focus is too diffuse. For a reader who develops an interest in the fatal experiences of families albeit not typical of the tiny segment of society from which they are drawn, this could be a valuable book; for those seeking a history of death in the Victorian family, it is a severe disappointment.

Peter Rawlings is associate professor in English, Kyushu University, Japan.

Death in the Victorian Family

Author - Pat Jalland
ISBN - 0 19 820188 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 464

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