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owhere is the Victorian novelists' desire to strengthen resolve more keenly felt than when they deal with early death. [....] This is the point at which the Romantic ideal of the innocent child, and the Evangelical ideal of the saved child as a spiritual guide, reinforce each other. However, the novelists rarely adopt either the visionary modes of Romantic poetry or the saccharine iconography of the tract: the novel form which they inherited offers its own unique opportunities for stressing the value of childhood, and exploring [in a positive way] the last phase of a child character's earthly consciousness.

The claim that early death was on the wane, and that the Victorians' preoccupation with it was therefore excessive and obsessive (see Grylls 41-42), has not gone uncontested (see Poltz 168-69). It seems to me quite untenable. Demographical data must be treated with caution: after Victoria's accession, the population did indeed continue to mushroom; but it was a young population. According to the 1851 census, for instance, the mean age of males in Great Britain as a whole was 25.87 years, only slightly up on the figures for 1841 (25.49 years) and 1821 (25.13 years); the mean lifetime in England was only 40 years. Those who got through the critical early childhood period often had to watch helplessly as parents, siblings, and their own offspring were snatched away from them by disease. Statistics are open to various interpretations; not so the stricken cry which arises from the pages of the official commentary of the census itself, to touch us with a sense of widespread individual loss: "[U]ntimely death is a great evil. What is so bitter as the premature death of a wife, -- a child, -- a father?" (32).

Nor did things seem to be getting better. The London Bills of Mortality up to 1830 had shown a considerable improvement in death-rates for the under-fives (1730-79: 66.2 percent; 1780-1829: 'only' 37.8 percent). But this improvement was patchy, and a steady momentum could not be maintained. Pondering "the chances of the duration of Life" soon after Victoria's accession, Sir Edwin Chadwick himself posited that recent encouraging figures only masked a "positive deterioration" among certain classes (242); decades later, Sir William Farr found actual evidence of an overall deterioration in the youngest age-group:

The death-rate of infants [under 1 year of age] in England and Wales, in 1875, was 158 per 1,000, or 4 per 1,000 above the average rate in the 10 years 1861-70. This implies that the mortality among infants is increasing. ([90]

Farr's deductions are not always reliable, but this one seems safe and is significant [...], making it clear that the novelists were, in fact, deeply concerned with actual trends in their society. "I learn from the statistical tables that one child in five dies within the first year of its life; and one child in three, within the fifth," writes Dickens in the voice of an anxious father. "That don't look as if we could never improve in these particulars, I think!" ("Births. Mrs Meek, of a Son," The Uncommercial Traveller 430).

It is worth stressing that the novelists' interest in the subject was rarely, if ever, academic. One bereavement could be harrowing enough; there were often several. [....] Tuberculosis was the 'family attendant' not only of the Brontës , but also of the Trollopes, the MacDonalds, and the Oliphants. George MacDonald, for example, lost his mother to the disease in 1833, when he was eight; his fourteen-year-old half-sister Isabella in 1855; his father and brother John one after the other in 1858; and later four of his own children, two of them again within a year of each other. Another, Grace, survived childhood only to die in 1884 after giving birth to a baby destined to follow her with the same disease. No wonder MacDonald (subject to frequent chest troubles himself) was constantly preoccupied with the subject of death, and set himself to make sense of it even in his children's writings.

Not only the fact of death but also the process of dying, in a period when diagnosis and treatment were fraught with uncertainties, and pain management was primitive, would wring the heart. What it was to watch a loved family member being inexorably eaten up by consumption, long before her time, can be gauged from Charlotte Brontë's growing anxiety and fears for Emily and Anne, and her even more pathetic attempts to snatch reassurance from a less haggard look, the remote possibility of a cure; or from G.H. Lewes's anguished entries in his diary (8-13 May 1869) as he and George Eliot nursed his second son through his losing battle with spinal tuberculosis. 'Thornie' suffered excruciating pain, and died in Eliot's arms: "This death seems to me the beginning of our own," she wrote in her grief (Letters 5: 60). Childless herself, she had already mourned the deaths of several much-loved nieces and nephews, as well as that of her sister Chrissey in 1859.


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Last modified 15 July 2007