Illuminated initial D

Deathbed scenes play an important role in Victorian fiction and Victorian religion, and Ward appropriately ends Robert Elsmere's long, painful journey with the scene of his death. Unlike religious deathbed scenes that describe either a resigned, peaceful, even welcome death or some sort of spiritual vision of Christ, Robert's has him hallucinating about a happier, long-vanished past. And yet Ward associates a vision with his death, but it is Catherine not Robert who experiences a sight of the divine, and it is not entirely comforting.

As her husband became more feeble and “was entirely confined to his room, almost to his bed . . . . there came a horrible week, when no narcotics took effect, when every night was a wrestle for life.” Watching him in his “fevered sleep,” Catherine, a mere “shadow of herself,” gazes out the sickroom window at the early morning sun.

As she sat there, her Bible on her knee, her strained unseeing gaze resting on the garden and the sea, a sort of hallucination took possession of her. It seemed to her that she saw the form of the Son of man passing over the misty slope in front of her, that the dim majestic figure turned and beckoned. In her half-dream she fell on her knees. 'Master!' she cried in agony, 'I cannot leave him! Call me not! My life is here. I have no heart—it beats in his.'

And the figure passed on, the beckoning hand dropping at its side. She followed it-with a sort of anguish, but it seemed to her as though mind and body were alike incapable of moving — that she would not if she could. [603-04]

Hearing a sound from Robert's bed, she turns and sees him sitting up. “For a moment her lover, her husband, of the early days was before her,” but as she hastens to him, he does not see her for he thinks he's returned to an earlier period of their lives.

An ecstasy of joy was on his face; the whole man bent forward listening.

'The child's cry! — thank God! Oh! Meyrick — Catherine— thank God!'

And she knew that he stood again on the stairs at Murewell in that September night which gave them their first-born, and that he thanked God because her pain was over.

An instant's strained looking, and, sinking back into her arms, he gave two or three gasping breaths, and died. [604]

Robert Elsmere's life thus ends not with his having a consolatory or rewarding vision of God or an afterlife but with a hallucination in which he finds himself at a happier moment in Catherine's and his past — a moment in which their child was born and her pain ceased. Therefore, the deathbed scene, which Ward presents preceded by Catherine's own “hallucination,” closes with another that suggests the dying man's happiness lay only in the past — a denial, an inversion, in other words, of conventional scenes of comfort and conviction.

Sources

Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Robert Elsemere. Ed. Clyde de L. Ryals. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.


Victorian Web Overview Authors Mrs Humphry Ward

Last modified 16 July 2014