decorated initial 'D'

ickens and his contemporaries did not, then, as one over-subtle critic has suggested, deliberately set out "to domesticate death ... and take it in by the fireside" as a ploy for coping with its prevalence in the harsh, urbanizing world outside (Welsh 212). Death was already a familiar presence at the family hearth. What many of them did was just the opposite. Like Josephine Butler, whose daughter's death sent her out to help fallen women, they took their personal grief and channelled it productively into their dealings with the world outside. Mrs Gaskell saw this as the very "secret of comfort": "the sufferer wrestling with God's messenger until a blessing is left behind, not for one alone but for generations" (Mary Barton 366). One way for the writer to invest early death with a positive meaning was by emphasizing the spiritual strength of the dying child, and encouraging others to learn from it.

Concern with this subject is not new in the novel. In the previous century it featured most spectacularly in Clarissa. Clarissa is described as a 'young lady' in the subtitle of Richardson's most famous work, [....]; but in her own and others' estimation, she is often a child. She dies while still in her teens, having refused to accommodate herself to the greed of this world. There is much lingering over her death-bed, both before and after she dies, but everything confirms not her weakness, but her strength. In her last letter to her brother, she insists that her suffering has been productive and that she is happy. (This is in vivid contrast to the almost equally prolonged but wretched struggle put up by the monstrous old bawd, Mrs Sinclair). Clarissa's courageous departure is an instance of the saintly early death syndrome already rampant in religious tracts; but her superiority to those around her is far better demonstrated, through the accumulation of detail in one long letter after another, and through the greater complexity of characterization.

Following the tradition of those early tracts, Mrs Sherwood had exploited younger children's deaths [in The History of the Fairchild Family] to one main end: to direct her child readers' attention to their own spiritual health. A good child like Charley Trueman dies serenely (like Clarissa) to provide a lesson about the rewards of virtue, while a bad child like Augusta Noble dies in agonies (like Mrs Sinclair). Both reassurances and warnings are also given to older readers: parents should realize from such episodes their own responsibility to guide their children well; they should take from them some lessons for their own lives, too. Mrs Sherwood's The Infant's Grave is the story of one bereaved mother who fails to learn. Having been comforted by being told that God planned her child's salvation and that he is now in heaven, the woman goes her way, resuming her life and eventually "the deceitful pleasures of the world" (74). In the midst of these, she dies "an early and sudden death" which "fixed her destiny forever" (75). The ending may — is intended to — shock, but the message is actually positive. There is no reason for parents to dwell morbidly on their losses, but they should not forget them, either; these experiences are valuable, and should aid them in working towards their own salvation. [....]

In the Victorian novel, children generally decline gracefully into death like the dying Clarissa, and readers of all ages are expected to find comfort and spiritual lessons in the manner of their going. Suffused with an angelic light, indicative of their special status, sick children's demeanours become less childlike, more saintly: even Thackeray's spirited Bryan, Barry Lyndon's nine-year-old son, acquires a different kind of spirit on his death-bed. A halo of bright curls, sunlight or lamplight is apt to grace the sick-bed pillow, confirming the child's holy condition and destination. Instead of protesting that he wants to stay in this world, like Tommy Anderson in Fielding's Tom Jones, Lucie Darnay's son in A Tale of Two Cities obediently and bravely prepares to leave his parents and sister: "I am called, and I must go!" Appearance and behaviour like this both help to soften a mother's grief, so that "those were not all tears of agony" that ran down Lucie's cheeks as "the spirit departed from her embrace that had been entrusted to it" (240).

Novelists who describe the experience of a child's death in more detail emphasize the value of the young life less superficially. Not unexpectedly, in view of Mrs Gaskell's own recent loss [of her infant son William], a more profoundly moving episode occurs in Mary Barton itself. Here, attention is drawn to the preciousness of Mrs Wilson's little boy by the intensity of the struggle to give him up. At last the desperate mother hands her dying son, whose twin brother already lies dead from the "ghoul-like fever," to her sister-in-law:

May happen yo'd better take him, Alice; I believe my heart's wishing him a' this while, for I cannot, no, I cannot bring myself to let my two chiler go in one day; I cannot help longing to keep him, and yet he sha'nt suffer longer for me. (270)

Alice accedes, and the boy soon expires in his aunt's arms. A mother who thus commits "her child, a portion of her own being, to the corruption of the grave ... resigning the life which out of her own life had been created, unto the Creator of all" has the comfort of knowing she has made a great sacrifice: the foregoing quotation is taken from Dinah Mulock's mid-century best-seller, John Halifax, Gentleman, in which Ursula Halifax is elevated to the status of the mourning Virgin when her blind daughter Muriel is consigned to God again (292).

That acceptance was the common, if difficult, goal is amply attested to in Augustus Hare's collection of Epitaphs for Country Churchyards, published in 1856. Anonymous verses such as this could be read on many a country tombstone:

Weep not, dear mother, weep not, I am blest,
And I must leave heaven did I return to thee;
For I am where the weary are at rest,
The wicked cease from troubling. Come to me.

In the service of this goal, there clearly was a temptation to prettify, even falsify the whole experience of child death. Emily Brontë is unusual in daring to show, in Linton Heathcliff, a young invalid's tyranny, and a far from graceful decline from pettishness to moroseness and apathy. It was only much later, with Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, that such realities would be squarely faced again. Perhaps in reaction to Mrs Sherwood's more grisly episodes, some children's writers avoid the experience itself and dwell on the charming accoutrements of such a death. At the end of "Bertha's 'Good-Night'" in The Girls' Birthday Book of 1860, the true nature of Bertha's sleep is glossed over:

You might have seen on that bed a few days after a pretty white coffin, with silver nails and figures of winged angels, and the name of Bertha on it; and inside, under that beautiful lid, lay a lovely, lovely figure, strewed over with sweet-smelling violets. (188)

In another story intended primarily for girls, "The Weeping and the Smiling Child" (in Mrs Gatty's Aunt Judy's Christmas Volume for Young People, 1870), the smiling child in a white muslin dress 'sleeps' among gorgeous flowers in the glimmer of candlelight; her selfish sister, suffering torments of guilt as she kneels by the coffin, is the unenviable weeper. Both more and less than fairy-tale endings, in which a Snow White or a Sleeping Beauty is restored to this world again, flowery tableaux like these seem designed to hide the frightening facts of physical suffering and decay, rather than help children and their parents to face them. This is the kind of "mystification" that has elicited some scathing analyses of children's literature in recent years (see Rose 11).

However, elsewhere there is restraint in the use of the conventional formulae, a freshness of approach, and a reassurance that does not preclude a full acknowledgement of the realities involved. Dickens's most notorious child's death-bed scene, Little Nell's in The Old Curiosity Shop, may seem a poor example to give here. But the physical details of Kit's and his companions' journey — their slow, hushed progress through the white wintry landscape, the snow on their eyelashes, and the numbing of their limbs — prepare us with delicacy not only for the presence of death, but also for its emotional toll. The scattering of winter berries and green leaves on Nell's couch is not simply (as Barbara Hardy suggests [66]) part of the blurred pathos of the scene: it reminds us of this journey, and works on a symbolic level to hint more subtly at the new life which the narrator promises for her. [....] Having overcome his own reluctance to let Nell go, which lingered even after Forster jogged his arm about her, Dickens finally comes to the point himself with repeated assertions of her death (652-54). Some self-pity may inform his threnody for dead innocence; but the rhapsodic commentary which punctuates these assertions, in the narrator's and schoolmaster's voices, attempts to address rather than obscure the issue of a beloved child's mortality, and, as usual, draw lessons from it. Nell has long been seen as her grandfather's guide; but now she is very clearly the old man's spiritual guide. Dickens goes on to demonstrate that nothing can ever fill the "weary void" Nell leaves in this life (660); but there is, of course, the hope of reunion in the next. The "wrestling" and the "blessing" which Mrs Gaskell talks about are both felt in this episode.

A more strained assent than that found here, or in many of Augustus Hare's epitaphs, informs the brief reference to The Lord's Prayer on Milly Barton's tombstone in George Eliot's "Amos Barton": "Thy will be done" ([....] 114). Milly herself is an adult, of course, but she has been buried with her new baby in her arms, leaving a husband and six surviving children behind. The nineteenth-century tomb of the Walton family at All Saints Parish Church, Kingston-upon-Thames, records, amongst other deaths, those of a young wife and her five-week-old infant, and expresses the further implication of this reference: "Thy will be done O Lord not mine." Another of Hare's epitaphs expands the frequently appended exhortation to the living in a slightly unusual way for such an inscription:

Can aught be more than this?
Yes, Christian, yes!
It is much more to live,
And a long life to the 'good fight' to give.... (62)

Read one way, these words are an encouragement to the mourners, to go on with their own endeavours; but read another way, they hide real bitterness: early death represents a loss of opportunity. Acceptance was not invariably achieved, and Eliot was not the only one to suggest this. Indeed, Nell's grandfather, like (for example) seven-year-old William's mother in East Lynne, soon follows his little angel to the grave. To facilitate acceptance, moreover, was not the novelists' only purpose. Many felt that in certain cases, acceptance was hardly in order — especially not when the death could be laid at a society's door.

Death was no respecter of class: Prince Albert died of typhoid in 1861, and was nearly followed by the Prince of Wales in 1872; his sister, Princess Alice, along with a small daughter, died from diphtheria in 1878. But, inevitably, it dealt most savagely with the under-nourished, badly-housed and over-worked. Chadwick had pointed out in 1842 that the age of death could vary considerably between adjoining drained, partly drained and undrained streets even in the same locality, and therefore between the different classes of people inhabiting them. Nor was age always a factor: large families of children were orphaned as epidemics swept rapidly through the overcrowded and insanitary areas of the industrial cities, killing young adults in their prime. Nevertheless, a disproportionate number of very young children perished. As well as the dreaded typhoid and cholera, the childhood diseases of scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough are all cited in Registrars' notes in the Quarterly Returns as causes of alarming increases in the death rates in urban areas. In the Spring Quarter of 1846, for example, 118 people died in Sheffield South, 41 of them under the age of one. The whole figure was found to be "very considerably above average ... which must be attributed principally to the fact that measles has scarcely ever been known so prevalent and fatal as during the last 3 or 4 months" (Registrar General's Quarterly Tables 1842-48).

Again, much was achieved simply by showing the child character's own positive attitude to death. It reminded people that the children of the poor had more chance of misery in adult life. The novelists showed young people like Mrs Gaskell's Bessy Higgins in North and South, or Dickens's Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend, actually wishing themselves well out of it: "Have pity on me. Take me up and make me light!" cries the latter to the angels she sees during her "chilled, anxious, ragged" and suffering childhood (290). Even reformers like Annie Macpherson, the revivalist and social worker who helped Dr Barnardo from the sixties onwards, sometimes felt that early death could be a special mercy for them, considering the imminent temptations of alcohol and other vices. Another epitaph from Hare's collection illustrates this attitude well:

Here innocence and beauty lies, whose breath
Was snatch'd by early, not untimely death;
Hence was she snatch'd, just as she did begin
Sorrow to know, — before she knew to sin.
Death, that can sin and sorrow thus prevent,
Is the next blessing to a life well spent. (15)

Andersen's "The Story of a Mother," in [a] collection dedicated to Dickens (A Christmas Greeting to My English Friends, 1847), exactly captures the mood of the times. Here, a mother makes extraordinary sacrifices to try to recover her child, but gives up her quest at the very end when she discovers that her daughter's future in this world might have been nothing but "sorrow and distress, horror and wretchedness":

Then the mother wrung her hands, fell on her
knees, and prayed to our Lord: "Oh hear me not
when I pray against Thy will, which is the best!
hear me not! hear me not! (47)

The sentiments in this passage perhaps owe something to Wordsworth's much earlier "The Two April Mornings," in which a village schoolmaster tells of his acceptance of his nine-year-old daughter's death; perhaps, too, to the ending of Chapter 71 of The Old Curiosity Shop. But now, the stress is as much on the wickedness of the world as on the child who has left it.

Andersen was particularly pleased with the tale, recording his satisfaction that this and another story of resignation had "given many grief-stricken mothers consolation and courage" (The Complete Fairy Tales 1084). But not everyone approved of robbing death of its sting in this way; should not society be improved instead? Charles Kingsley thought so. On behalf of the Ladies' Sanitary Association, he spoke furiously against such a point of view: "I would rather have the living child, and let it take its chance, than let it return to God — wasted. O! it is a distressing thing to see children die." (Sanitary and Social Essays 262-63). The child must be preserved for the struggles of life, he says: guarded against evil, yes, but not by sending the soul back precipitately. Dickens, who sees to it that Jenny Wren is cured of morbid tendencies, was foremost among those who begged "men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts" (Bleak House 705) to look unnecessary death in the face. He wanted them to see it for what it was: the Evangelical politician, Henry Drummond, talking specifically of working children's premature deaths, uncompromisingly and emphatically termed it "WHOLESALE MURDER!" (24).

Deaths of this kind are therefore presented with unbridled indignation by the Victorian novelists. Pathos comes in, of course, in fact it is sharpened by the sufferer's victim status, and played upon in order to manipulate the reader's response. The dying child is still seen as brave and strong, and there is still a hope of better things to come. The aim, however, is not "Comfort in Sorrow" (the heading for the chapter following Bessy's death in North and South). The author wants to criticise rather than console, to rub the public's averted nose in the stink of the back-alleys. Prevention is the "blessing" aimed at here. Such is preeminently the case with Jo, the poor crossing-sweeper in Bleak House, who has no family to weep for him anyway, and whose case is treated as representative of all those from the squalid tenements of Tom-all-Alone's. These are the destitute, who live like bewildered, driven animals while the Chadbands and their likes are squabbling among themselves, and self-righteously blaming others for their condition. As Dickens pointed out much earlier, Jo's "whole material and immaterial life is wonderfully strange; his death, the strangest thing of all" (274). The strangeness that readers are asked to note here is the inhumanity of society, of course; it is pointed up vividly by Jo's attitude when he is at his last gasp: he is not afraid to die, just very anxious to be "laid along" with that one kind gentleman who "wos very good" to him (704). This detail is far more telling than his well-known repetition of the beginning of The Lord's Prayer.


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Last modified 24 July 2007