Dickens and the Business of Death, by Claire Wood

The Victorians found much profit in the grave, and Boz was there to document its blackly comic excess, writes Ruth Richardson

May 28, 2015
Book review: Dickens and the Business of Death, by Claire Wood

In looking at Charles Dickens and the death business, Claire Wood has hit upon a wonderfully rich subject. Her focus is the Victorian funerary business and the industries it spawned – the mourning warehouses, the coffin furniture manufactories, the funerary displays that wealth (and insurance monies) generated – and what Dickens made of them. The book tells us that it starts at the time of the 1832 Anatomy Act, but it takes off with Dickens’ withering description of the Duke of Wellington’s ponderous funeral cortège at mid-century, and thereafter diffuses into the second half of Victoria’s reign. The book’s mainsprings are the 1851 Great Exhibition’s proliferation of manufactures, and the Paris Morgue: “death commodification” is the pervasive theme.

Dickens is a gift to anyone interested in the Victorian celebration of death, prolific as a storyteller and social observer through a long writing lifetime from 1836 to 1870. His unashamed interest in and creative use of deathly matters are aspects of his vision many readers and scholars have relished before. He was both hilariously funny and archly critical from very early on – one has only to think of Mr Sowerberry the undertaker offering his snuffbox to Mr Bumble the parish beadle in Oliver Twist. The box takes the form of a patent coffin, and both men sniff pinches of its contents during a cosy chat about the profits to be made from pauper funerals. Oliver, Sowerberry’s new pauper apprentice, will be forced to sleep among coffins and starved almost to death by the undertaker’s wife. Keeping the lad small saves expenditure and makes him useful for work as a funeral mute at the burials of other (better-off) children. Dickens interweaves the commodification of the dead and the living, using humour to hit home.

Dickens and the Business of Death is slender for its price. The cover design is seductive, but there’s a paucity of other illustration. It has an excellent bibliography, but more leaves are devoted to adverts than are permitted to the skeletal index. I would have liked to see more passages from the novels quoted in the text: it is annoying to be told what a passage says but not to be able to read the original for oneself (one is instead presented with reported text-speech). One of the book’s weaknesses is that whenever any brief passage is quoted from Dickens, too often a lengthy paraphrase follows immediately afterwards, as if the reader lacks the wit to grasp what he wrote. Interpretation is one thing, paraphrase another.

Literary conventions demand that academic writers learn how to utilise diction to assert the profundity of their own insight, but here the editor’s pencil seems to have been paralysed with respect to certain weight-bearing phraseology. Things are distanced or defamiliarised a hundred times, positioned, in tension or in uncomfortable proximity, ambiguous, compelling, imbricated, inscribed, reified, presented, in an ahistorical eternal present. I found myself having to skip quite a lot, as too often the insights seem not only slight in themselves, but derivative or repetitive in their permutations. But there are a few places in this apprentice piece where Wood lets herself go, giving us fleeting glimpses of her own joie de vivre in reading Dickens. Her section on the paper mill in Our Mutual Friend, connecting recycling and resurrection, offers a happy example. I had hoped, perhaps, for something more, but this book is less about mortality than academic commerce.

Ruth Richardson is honorary professor in medicine and the humanities, Hong Kong University, and past president of the Dickens Society.

Dickens and the Business of Death
By Claire Wood
Cambridge University Press, 256pp, £60.00
ISBN 9781107098633 and 9781316237434 (e-book)
Published 5 March 2015

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