ll this is not to deny that early death could sometimes be simply a trick of the literary trade. Some young characters do seem to die of what one contemporary sarcastically called "Don't-know-what-to-do-with-him-phobia" (rpt. in Collins 222). In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike is an obvious candidate for death once Ralph Nickleby has been brought to book: a brain-damaged youth, his yearning for Kate Nickleby can never come to anything. Similarly, Dora Copperfield nominates a more suitable bride for David before making a convenient exit. Early death sometimes elevates a character already too good for this world, like Little Nell, or the saintly Edwin Russell in Dean Farrar's Eric or, Little by Little. Bereavement may be essential to plot or theme: little William must be sacrificed to force the denouement of East Lynne, punishing the mother who abandoned him like Defoe's bad mothers, by dying in her arms without even knowing who she is; less sensational is baby Leonora's death in The Daisy Chain, partly engineered to recall her mother Flora to what Yonge considers her proper sphere--the nursery.
On the whole, though, the art of the Victorians is deeply humanitarian. This is not just the case with the novel. The artist Luke Fildes, for example, spent two years painting the needy and destitute for his Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward. Where the Victorians soften and blur, as Fildes softens the outline of his hapless queue, they generally do so to comfort, or to attract sympathy. Where they now seem to exaggerate, they are often telling nothing but the unpalatable truth. Even with regard to some of the 'convenient' cases mentioned above, our judgement should not be too hasty. Far from unsympathetic to the individual mother's predicament, for instance, both Mrs Wood and Charlotte Yonge are also addressing social issues. Yonge's is very specific: Leonora dies with symptoms of withdrawal after having been dosed with narcotic cordial by an ignorant nursemaid. It is a fact that many children did die in this way. In the Lincoln Registrars' Notes for the June quarter of 1846, the "marked disproportion" of recent deaths in infancy is put down to "the extraordinary use of laudanum, Godfrey's Cordial, and other narcotics" (Registrar General's Quarterly Tables). Cassell's Household Guide was still warning mothers not to use Godfrey's cordial in the '70s, "one drop having been known to cause death" (1: 10). The incident in The Daisy Chain is Yonge's contribution to the campaign to end such fatal accidents, just as Jo's death in Bleak House is Dickens's contribution to the campaign for the street arabs.
Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward by Luke Fildes. 1874. [Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.]
Last modified 24 July 2007