Death in Nineteenth-Century British Literature

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John R. Reed (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Deathbeds," in Victorian Conventions, Ohio University Press, 1975, pp. 156-71.

[In the following essay, Reed overviews of Victorian attitudes toward death and describes assorted uses of deathbed scenes in literature, including that of moral instruction for the reader.]

Attitude Toward Dying

E. M. Forster observed that the Victorians had a strong affection for deathbeds,1 and Elizabeth Longford in her biography of Victoria explained that "Frank interest in death-bed scenes was quite normal. Partly because Victorians cared passionately about religion, the moment of passing from this world to the next was not one to be hushed up. Only paupers died in hospital so opportunities for study were plentiful." She adds that "The young Victoria collected from Queen Adelaide the 'painfully interesting details of the King's last illness'."2 J. F. Stephen was among those critics of the literature of his time who felt that deathbed scenes were abused, especially by a writer such as Dickens.3 But on the whole deathbed scenes were common in Victorian literature because they were an important practical and moral feature of life. "The fetish of deep family mourning was encouraged by the tradesmen concerned; but it was also one of the most strongly entrenched customs of the age. Mourning the dead is an instinct as old as man, but in no era had it become such an iron-bound convention as in the Victorian age."4 And deathbed scenes were a central part of the mourning tradition, which extended of course well beyond the actual interment.

George Eliot, identifying the books that Adam Bede read to improve himself, lists works that one might expect to have found in many an English home well into the nineteenth century. Among these books is "Taylor's 'Holy Living and Dying.' " (Adam Bede, Ch. 19)5 In The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651), Jeremy Taylor provided prayers, forms of conduct, and attitudes of mind to meet the difficulties of one's own or another's temporary or fatal illness. At one point he gives a list of "Arguments and Exhortations to move the Sick Man to Confession of Sins," that a minister or other concerned person might employ. There are twenty-four separate items in the list; and most of those he mentioned would reappear often in some of the moving or bathetic deathbed scenes of Victorian literature.

In a subsection of Holy Dying entitled "The Circumstances of a Dying Man's Sorrow and Danger," Taylor also presented the traditional belief that a man who has led a sinful life will experience a painful and arduous death, accompanied by fear and remorse. "But when a good man dies," he says, "angels drive away the devils on his deathbed," and thus "joy breaks forth through the clouds of sickness" which does "but untie the soul from its chain, and let it go forth, first into liberty, and then into glory." (Ch. 2, sec. 4) Martin Tupper, in "Life's End," rephrased Taylor's thoughts for his own audience, declaring that "when the bad man dieth, all his sins rise up against him, / Clamouring at his memory with imprecated judgments; / But when the good departeth, all his noble deeds / Surround him like a cloud of light to sphere his soul in glory." George Borrow, describing his father's death in his arms, had similar traditional views in mind. "I make no doubt," Borrow declares, "that for a moment he was perfectly sensible, and it was then that, clasping his hands, he uttered another name clearly, distinctly—it was the name of Christ. With that...

(This entire section contains 23261 words.)

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name upon his lips, the brave soldier sank back upon my bosom, and, with his hands still clasped, yielded up his soul." (Lavengro, Ch. 28) This is the tone of most virtuous deathbed scenes. But upon occasion, it is not the Bible, or Christ, that is prominent, as in Dr. Dabbs' account of Tennyson's last moments.

Nothing could have been more striking than the scene during the last few hours. On the bed a figure of breathing marble, flooded and bathed in the light of the full moon streaming through the oriel window; his hand clasping the Shakespeare which he had asked for but recently, and which he had kept by him to the end; the moonlight, the majestic figure as he lay there, "drawing thicker breath," irresistibly brought to our minds his own "Passing of Arthur."6

The sentimentalizing of a great poet's death might easily draw upon the secular deity of poetry, rather than the divine, but the scene is, one way or the other, clearly staged, as were so many deathbed scenes of the time. Henry Peach Robinson's popular photograph, "Fading Away," represents, perhaps, the common pictorial version of the scene. It is, therefore, refreshing to find a description such as Edward Fitzgerald's record of his father's death. There is no mention of Christ, Shakespeare, noble features, moonlight or other traditional trappings. Instead, Fitzgerald notes, of the father he loved, "He died in March, after an illness of three weeks, saying 'that engine works well' (meaning one of his Colliery steam engines) as he lay in the stupor of Death."7

Dickens employed the traditional warning tales of dying profligates in Pickwick Papers, but also utilized types who would reappear later in different guises. The Chancery prisoner's death in Pickwick Papers anticipates the death from inanition of Mr. Gridley, the man from Shropshire, and Richard Carstone, both victims of Chancery in Bleak House. Some deathbed scenes combine the innocence of childhood and pathos of adulthood, as with David Copperfield's mother, who "died like a child that had gone to sleep" in Peggoty's arms. (David Copperfield, Ch. 9) And other deathbed scenes, while being serious, also have a touch of the comic in them, like the death of Mr. Barkis. Hablot K. Browne captured this combination of sentiments in his illustration entitled "I find Mr. Barkis 'going out with the Tide' " in David Copperfield, where Barkis ludicrously embraces the chest containing his valuables, while the onlookers are all serious and sympathetic, and on the wall behind Barkis a picture shows Christ ascending into heaven.

Deathbed Scenes in Literature

In Victorian literature, deathbed scenes served every conceivable purpose. In Susan Ferrier's Marriage, Mary Douglas and Charles Lennox realize the depth of their love over the deathbed of Charles' blind mother. Deathbed scenes occur regularly whenever a moral pause is required in T. P. Prest's The Gipsy Boy, and Samuel Warren's "A Scholar's Death-Bed" is a typical sentimental set piece. Deathbed scenes are common in the poetry of the period, from Thomas Hood's thoroughly conventional, "The Deathbed," to Rossetti's subtley related poem, "My Sister's Sleep." The verse of "A Vagrant's Deathbed," describing the contrast between affluence and poverty, in Household Words (Vol. 3, no. 53) was complemented by more accomplished poems of established poets. Browning exploited the deathbed setting in "Evelyn Hope" and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb," while his wife wrote "A Thought for a Lonely Death-bed," a prayer requesting that nothing be interposed between the speaker and Christ when she comes to die. Tennyson used the device comically in "The Northern Farmer: Old Style" and melodramatically in "Rizpah."

The convention was obvious, in fiction as well as in poetry, though in fiction it appeared as part of a larger narrative, and therefore had a different function. In novels, for example, deathbed scenes are frequently instrumental in revealing the moral direction of the narrative. They become tests of character and turning points in action as much as dramatic scenes in their own right. The sentimental deathbed scene of Isabel Vane in East Lynne made a heavy moral point. Charlotte Brontë used a traditional deathbed scene to describe Helen Burns' passing in Jane Eyre, but was capable of a subtler utilization of the convention when, in Shirley, she employed all of the tricks of the deathbed scene and then had her heroine, Caroline Helstone, recover. Anthony Trollope was content to indicate predictable conditions in his deathbed scenes, and consequently, while the questionable Mrs. Proudie dies in bizarre circumstances, the good Mr. Harding dies mildly, and Bishop Grantly, in Barchester Towers, displays in death the attributes of his life, expiring in a mild and serene manner. Much of the last chapter of Froude's "The Spirit's Trial" (1847) is, in effect, a prolonged deathbed scene, at the end of which Edward Fowler has his friend read an account of a deathbed scene to him. As Edward is dying at Eastertime, the sun breaks out, and he exclaims, "See, see! he is coming!" (ch. 9) Playing to a somewhat different audience, Ouida employed deathbed scenes of a more piquant, though less meditative nature as with the death of Leon Ramon, or Rake's death in the desert in Under Two Flags (1867). And Allan Quatermain's prolonged deathbed scene in Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain (1887), provides a typical picture of the clean-living adventurer's resigned and trusting acceptance of the end.

One commonplace use of the deathbed scene was to give a fallen sinner the opportunity to demonstrate rehabilitation and repentence. Dickens gave even the most conventional of these scenes his own transforming touch. Thus, although Alice Marwood's dying moments are little different from many others, they are nonetheless particularly Dickensian. Repenting her former life, and brought to an appreciation of Christian truths by Harriet Carker, Alice dies thankful of her friend's help. Alice's eyes follow Harriet as she leaves the room:

and in their light, and on the tranquil face, there was a smile when it [the door] was closed.

They never turned away. She laid her hand upon her breast, murmuring the sacred name that had been read to her; and life passed from her face, like light removed.

Nothing lay there, any longer, but the ruin of the mortal house on which the rain had beaten, and the black hair that had fluttered in the wintry wind. (Dombey and Son, ch. 58)

If Alice's death demonstrates the redemption of a sinner on a personal level, Magwitch's death in Great Expectations indicates broader meanings, for his "deathbed scene" actually includes his courtroom denunciation of man's faulty justice and God's greater judgment. Afterward, Magwitch dies quietly, his last act being to kiss Pip's hand—a form of blessing and thanksgiving combined.

Deathbed scenes could also reveal the dreadful state of those who were remorseful, though not reformed. The drunkard tumbler's death in the "Stroller's Tale" in Pickwick Papers is a typical example. In this case the dying man is overcome with guilt, he fears the wife he has abused so long, and raves about the theatre and the public house. Finally he lapses into a fit of delirium tremens, and dies a convulsive and painful death. Similarly, in Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Arthur Huntington's short, brutish life of intemperance leads to death, and his abused wife, Helen, returns to tend him in his final illness, happily reporting that on his deathbed Huntington was penitent at last.

There is a conscious exploitation of the deathbed scene in Miss Braddon's Charlotte's Inheritance when Captain Paget, who has been a petty swindler and rascal all his life, faces his last moments.

Later, when the doctor had felt his pulse for the last time, he cried out suddenly, "I have made a statement of my affairs. The liabilities are numerous—the assets nil; but I rely on the clemency of this Court." (Book 10, ch. 6)8

And in G. P. R. James' The Gipsy, we learn something of why rascals might feel penitence on their deathbeds, though nowhere else. When Sir Roger Millington, a parasite who has assisted the evil Lord Dewry in his schemes, is dying, the local parson encourages him to repent and to help, with his dying breath, to undo some of his mischief. He fortifies his persuasion by reminding the dying scoundrel that man closes his eyes in death and wakes instantly in the other world stripped of his body, where the sins of his life are naked for all to see. Not surprisingly, the parson's argument succeeds. In Rossetti's "A Last Confession," a dying Italian, without repenting, regrets the loss of the woman he loved, but murdered. Still, the deathbed convention of the period contributes greater force to Rossetti's poem simply because his audience anticipates penitence. When it does not come, the poem becomes something sharper, perhaps more believable, than a mere deathbed confession with the normal pieties.9 Roger Scatcherd, in Trollope's Doctor Thorne, is a forceful example of the debauchee who dies penitent. Despite being worth a half-million pounds, Scatcherd regrets his entire life of vindictiveness and intemperance. Nothing, the obvious moral shows, can shield a man from the truthful last moments of the deathbed.

Another example of deathbed remorse draws the theme of misspent and misvalued life closer to the artist himself, for Tennyson's "Romney's Remorse" deals with the painter George Romney's deathbed regret that he had abandoned his wife in order to pursue his career. His debauchery was an indulgence not of the body, like Dickens' pathetic tumbler, but of the spirit. At last, he has "stumbled back again / Into the common day, the sounder self." But he is dying and his humble wife returns to tend him at the last. Now he hates the word art and exclaims: "My curse upon the Master's apothegm, / That wife and children drag an artist down!" He now sees his error in leaving his wife to seek artistic fame, and fears that he has "lost / Salvation for a sketch." He has no alternative but to lament and hope for forgiveness. In Kingsley's Two Years Ago (1857), the poet Elsley Vavasour dies repenting his vanity and false jealousy. He urges his friends to burn all of his poems and to prevent his children from making verses. The poet in Owen Meredith's poem, "Last Words," also laments a life devoted to the pursuit of fame through art. He tells his friend Will, who attends him at the end, that death is actually easier than life, and, he begins to feel hope beyond this world in which he has known only failure.

Already I feel, in a sort of still sweet awe,
The great main current of all that I am beginning to draw and draw
Into perfect peace. I attain at last! Life's a long, long reaching out
Of the soul to something beyond her. Now comes the end of all doubt.

The poet in "Last Words" has failed in his ambition to fashion from common men, "Man, with his spirit sublime, / Man the great heir of Eternity, dragging the conquests of Time!" just as Browning's Paracelsus failed in his extravagant aims. But on his deathbed, Paracelsus conveys to his faithful friend, Festus, his hopes for the progress of Man. He dies not lamenting his wasted life and his obscurity, but hopeful that, in the future, men will come to understand the message of love he has won with such effort.

Customarily deathbed scenes sought to show the importance of being ready for death, and to justify the existence of this overpowering mystery. Consciousness of death runs throughout Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe, climaxing in Guy Morville's deathbed scene. Aware that death is imminent, he has Amabel recite some verses from Sintram, which conclude hopefully.

Death comes to set thee free,
Oh! meet him cheerily,
As thy true friend:
And all thy fears shall cease,
And in eternal peace,
Thy penance end.

(vol. 2, ch. 13)

Guy, who has proved his noble and generous nature throughout his life, now dies a noble death. It is a typical picture.

At that moment the sun was rising, and the light streamed in at the open window and over the bed; but it was "another dawn than ours" that he beheld, as his most beautiful of all smiles beamed over his face, and he said, "Glory in the Highest!—peace—good will"—a struggle for breath gave an instant's look of pain; then he whispered so that she could but just hear—"The last prayer." She read the Commendatory Prayer. She knew not the exact moment, but even as she said, "Amen," she perceived it was over. The soul was with Him, with whom dwell the spirits of just men made perfect; and there lay the earthly part with the smile on the face. She closed the dark fringed eyelids—saw him look more beautiful than in sleep,—then, laying her face down to the bed, she knelt on. (vol. 2, ch. 13)

In many deathbed scenes a dying one passes on a moral responsibility to others. Constance Brandon, in Guy Livingstone, conveys to her saddened lover both remorse for his behavior and a yearning to seek a higher meaning in life. In Kingsley's Yeast, Argemone Lavington on her deathbed not only acknowledges the appropriateness of her death from a fever contracted while tending the poor her wealthy family has hitherto neglected, but passes on a legacy of moral duty to her faithful lover, urging him to remember her and labor to achieve the noble aim of seeing the slums cleared and disease brought under control among the poor.

The death of a good woman, especially a mother, often called for a sentimental tableau in the popular literature of the Victorian period. Mrs. Aubrey in Samuel Warren's Ten Thousand A-Year recovers from a brand of madness just in time to die a good and inspiring death. On the other hand, Alice Wilson, in Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton, having lived a pious life, glides into death by way of a second childhood. "The firm faith which her mind had no longer power to grasp, had left its trail of glory; for by no other word can I call the bright happy look which illumined the old earth-worn face. Her talk, it is true, bore no more that constant earnest reference to God and His holy word which it had done in health, and there were no deathbed words of exhortation from the lips of one so habitually pious." (Ch. 33) Instead, Alice's mind dwells in the happy memories of her childhood. "And death came to her as a welcome blessing, like an evening comes to the weary child." (Ch. 33) The virtuous and long-suffering mother of the prodigal Paul Tatnall in Joseph H. Ingraham's The Gipsy of the Highlands, manages, on her deathbed, to convert the young woman who loves her son with forceful and sustained arguments. Having accomplished this, she prays that her son may repent and be saved, but "here her voice failed her, and her eyes, after steadfastly regarding heaven, slowly closed, while a smile came like sunlight to her features, and then a shadow passed slowly across her falling countenance—a sigh! and the pure spirit of the brokenhearted and pious widow took its flight to heaven!" (Ch. 9) In the popular literature of the time, "Purity and innocence always triumphed over the powers of evil, and the story ended with a betrothal, or, quite as often, with the sinner repentant on his deathbed," Janet Dunbar observes.10

In The Ring and The Book Browning wrote a memorable deathbed scene which, like Magwitch's in Great Expectations, was less the expression of an individual spirit than the exemplification of a way of life, correcting a faulty world with the intensity of vision given to those who are on the verge of a presumably higher and finer realm. Pompilia is the embodiment of innocence, and her proper home is not this world, but the next. "The hovel is life," she says, anticipating liberation from it. Like Little Nell, she does not fear death, but looks forward to it almost gladly, certainly with relief. Her last words are for those who must remain in the world, and, although she does not, like Kingsley's Argemone, have any specific social labor to recommend, she does cheer on the laborers left in the vineyard.

So, let him wait God's instant men call years;
Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul,
Do out the duty! Through such souls alone
God stooping shows sufficient of His light
For us i' the dark to rise by. And I rise.

(Book 7)

Although Pompilia's virtue has earlier been questioned, there is little doubt in the reader's mind of her virtue. The same can be said of Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth. Although Ruth had lapsed from chastity in her youth, her adult life has been a series of virtuous triumphs, and her death represents the achievement of a higher virtue than that found in most of her neighbors, for she has contracted her own fatal illness while tending epidemic victims whose health concerns the entire community. Her death is an apotheosis of selfless dedication and it enjoys the appropriate furnishings.

"I see the Light coming," she said. "The Light is coming," she said. And, raising herself slowly, she stretched out her arms, and then fell back, very still for evermore. (ch. 35, Ruth)

Less theatrical, but equally indicative of feminine virtue is the long "deathbed" letter that Jane Graham leaves for her husband to read after her death in Coventry Patmore's The Angel in the House (sections 7 through 9 of "The Victories of Love"). Jane includes expressions of her love for Frederick and her hope for their future, as well as a record of her vision of heaven. Although this is not a genuine deathbed scene, it achieves the same effects and draws upon the same conventional materials. In some ways it is even more demonstrative of what the virtuous deathbed scene meant to Victorians, since it avoids entirely the actual physical death by concentrating on the thoughts recorded while Jane gradually weakened, thus making her posthumous letter resemble a private prayer.

The Child

If Charlotte Yonge had captured a prevailing sentiment about death in her picture of Guy Morville's end in The Heir of Redclyffe, she touched an equally evocative chord in her conventional account of the child, Felix Dixon's death. Gillian Avery has written that whereas Georgians tried to shock their readers into good behavior through the use of death, "the early Victorians strove to edify by recording pious deaths," and later Victorians became sentimental. In all cases, childhood death "tended to be linked with the themes of punishment and reward."11 A disobedient child could be instructive to others. In tract stories, a child's death is quite openly a "holy example" required for the conversion of the remaining characters of the tale.12 As the century progressed, the death of innocence was more markedly associated with the death of children. Peter Coveney writes of two popular novelists of the later Victorian period, "with Marie Corelli, as with Mrs. Henry Wood, death is never very far removed from her image of the child."13

Dying children were clearly representatives of innocence, but although "the child may die talking of heaven and angels, he does not seem to have heard of sin."14 In Misunderstood (1869), Florence Montgomery exploited both the punishment of the disobedient child and the innocence of his death, combining them both into one character, young Humphrey Duncombe. Humphrey is not a bad boy, though he is thoughtless. Yet, when he is dying, the narrator remarks that "natures like Humphrey's are not fit for this rough world. Such a capacity for sorrow has no rest here, and such a capability for enjoyment is fittest to find its happiness in those all-perfect pleasures which are at God's right hand for evermore." (Ch. 16) Humphrey has been capable of one profound emotion—love for his dead mother, and, on his deathbed, beneath his mother's picture, he imagines she has come to claim him.

Those who were standing round saw only the expression of pain change to the old sunny smile. His lips moved, and he lifted his arms, as his eyes were raised, for a moment, to the picture above him, on which the sun was pouring a dazzling light. They closed: but the smile, intensely radiant, lingered about the parted lips; the short breathing grew shorter . . . stopped . . . and then . . .

"It's no use my saying the rest," said little Miles in a whisper, "for Humphie has gone to sleep." (ch. 17)

Gillian Avery comments that the death of Humphrey in Misunderstood is "shamelessly derived from the death of Paul Dombey,"15 while Peter Coveney remarks that "William Carlyle of East Lynne is perhaps the most notorious of the Victorian dying children, whose ancestry lay in Little Nell and Paul Dombey." Coveney adds, however, that whereas such figures as Paul Dombey, and Eppie in Silas Marner are serious creations, William Carlyle's context "is no more than a moralizing melodrama, declaring the inevitable retributions of carnal sin."16 Little Paul's death in Dombey and Son was one of the most famous deaths in Victorian fiction. The dying is prolonged, but the deathbed scene is relatively brief, terminating with the suggestion that little Paul already views his dead mother and his Savior before he dies. "Mama is like you, Floy," he says to his sister. "'I know her by the face! But tell them the print upon the stairs at school is not divine enough. The light about the head is shining on me as I go!'" (Ch. 16) A scene such as this could be viewed as moving and moral, or merely as sentimental trash, but it sold.

Dickens made frequent and varying use of the dying child. Little Johnny, in Our Mutual Friend, dies in a spirit of charity, bequeathing his toys to the ailing child in the bed near his own, but his death is merely one more in a sequence of touching childhood deathbed scenes. Dickens had used a child's deathbed to point a moral as early as Pickwick Papers, when Gabriel Grub was forced to witness the pathetic event. Later, Scrooge, though obliged to witness a similar scene, had the opportunity to forestall it. There are, of course, other dying youngsters of various ages in Dickens' works, including Smike in Nicholas Nickleby and Jo in Bleak House, but the most memorable children's deathbeds, aside from Paul Dombey's, appear in The Old Curiosity Shop. Long before her own decline, Little Nell witnesses the death of a young schoolboy, his schoolmaster's most promising student. The meaning of this death is not lost on Nell.

But the sad scene she had witnessed, was not without its lesson of content and gratitude; of content with the lot which left her health and freedom; and gratitude that she was spared to the one relative and friend she loved, and to live and move in a beautiful world, when so many young creatures—as young and full of hope as she—were stricken and gathered to their graves. (Ch. 26)

There are other advantages to an early death that Nell does not consider, but some of them are indicated to her later by the schoolmaster who has learned to accept the death of the young and innocent through his faith in the triumph of good. "If the good deeds of human creatures could be traced to their source," he says, "how beautiful would even death appear; for how much charity, mercy and purified affection, would be seen to have their growth in dusty graves." (Ch. 54) Although we do not witness Nell's death, we see her soon after on her deathbed. She signifies death of innocence and her travail in this world is ended. "Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose." (Ch. 71)

The consolation suggested by the schoolmaster's words and implied in Dickens' portrayal of Nell, is echoed in Archbishop Trench's poem, "On An Early Death": "Nothing is left or lost, nothing of good, / Or lovely; but whatever its first springs / Has drawn from God, returns to Him again." This view was commonplace, and yet, it is possible, beyond the Christian comfort for the loss of youth and innocence, there is a more ominous implication. Peter Coveney sees in the transformation of the image of the child, from life-bearer, to death-borne, a grim indication about the Victorian age. "It is as if so many placed on the image the weight of their own disquiet and dissatisfaction, their impulse to withdrawal, and, in extremity, their own wish for death. .. . It is a remarkable phenomenon, surely," he adds, "when a society takes the child (with all its potential significance as a symbol of fertility and growth) and creates of it a literary image, not only of frailty, but of life extinguished, of life that is better extinguished, of life, so to say, rejected, negated at its very root.17

For many writers, and doubtless some portion of their audience, the deathbed became a sanctuary, where the qualities of childhood could escape the effects of time and suffering. The poems of poets such as Francis Thompson and Ernest Dowson suggest the wistful desire to worship what children stand for, while hoping that life will not touch them. On a gayer note, but no less exclusive, the world of children is largely removed to the province of fantasy in the works of R. L. Stevenson, Sir James Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and George MacDonald. This exclusion of the child from the corrupting ways of adulthood, suggests a growing conciousness of the nature of that society's failure and is, to a large extent, a confession of decline.


Despite its apparent sentimentality, the deathbed convention was much in keeping with the Victorian attitudes toward death, which, in general, would appear exaggerated and mawkish today. But some manifestations of the convention are truly memorable. It was not only women and children who could die deaths remarkable for their innocence and sweetness, for example. Though most adults were somehow qualified in their virtue by mere exposure to the world, some could transcend that sullying influence. Thackeray transformed the customary image of adult reconciliation with death into one of innocence more commonly associated with the deaths of children, and, in doing so, created one of the most famous deathbed scenes in Victorian literature. Old Colonel Newcome is wandering in his mind as the end draws near. He is a pensioner now of his old school, Grey Friars, but he feels no shame in his humble position. His concerns, even in his hallucinations, are for those he loves. Finally, the end comes.

At the usual evening hour the chapel bell began to toll, and Thomas Newcome's hands outside the bed feebly beat time. And just as the last bell struck, a peculiar sweet smile shone over his face, and he lifted up his head a little, and quickly said, "Adsum!" and fell back. It was the word we used at school, when names were called; and lo, he, whose heart was as that of a little child, had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of The Master. (The Newcomes, Vol. 2, ch. 42)18

There is a general resemblance here to other concluding deathbed scenes. Mordecai's death, for example, closes Daniel Deronda like a sort of benediction.

The traditional moral significance of deathbed scenes persisted beyond the nineteenth century. The dying curses that echoed through the popular romances of the time, and modifications of them, as in Bulwer-Lytton's A Strange Story, where the dying Dr. Lloyd angrily foretells his professional antagonist, Dr. Fenwick's, suffering and doubt, did not disappear from adventure tales. And religious significance remained in such stories as Mrs. Opie's novel, Adeline Mowbray (1905), where a freethinker recants on his deathbed.19 Some writers employed the convention merely as a technical convenience. Wilkie Collins opened Armadale with a prolonged deathbed scene, in which the older Allan Armadale, dying of a creeping paralysis, recounts the history of his misadventures with his antagonist, the other Allan Armadale. Collins realized that this was a strong scene, and used the technique in The Dead Secret as well. The device provides a forceful initiation to the story, but, aside from hinting of malign agencies at work and impending disasters prescribed by destiny, Collins did little to exploit the convention. There is a little more irony in Dutton Cook's A Prodigal Son (1863), where the first five chapters are taken up by the death of old George Hadfield. The tough old man dies with a smile on his lips and his doctor remarks that "He looked so grand and handsome, it was difficult to believe that he died cruel, and relentless, and unforgiving." (Vol. 1, ch. 5)

The deathbed convention was not a mere literary contrivance. Most families were acquainted with the fact of death near at hand. In "The Lifted Veil" (1859), George Eliot acknowledged, through the narrator of her story, the monumental importance of witnessing the dying moments of another being. Latimer, recounting how he had watched at his father's deathbed, exclaims, "What are all our personal loves when we have been sharing in that supreme agony? In the first moments when we come away from the presence of death, every other relation to the living is merged, to our feeling, in the great relation of a common nature and a common destiny." (Ch. 2) Possibly it was this sense of a common destiny, more than the attempt at moral persuasion, that was most captivating in the convention of the deathbed. Walter Houghton is, perhaps, too hasty in declaring that death scenes in Victorian novels "are intended to help the reader sustain his faith by dissolving religious doubts in a solution of warm sentiment."20 A powerful passage from Robert Bell's The Ladder of Gold (1850) demonstrates that the Chamber of Death signified more to Victorian readers than a consoling reassurance about the next life. It was, as much or more, a reminder of the vanity of this life.

Rich and poor, proud and humble, the wronged and the wrong-doer, are here brought to a common level. Their stormy passions, their grand projects, their great revenges,—what are they here in the Presence of the Dead—a breath of air which thrills a leaf and passes on. What are our loves and hates here? our honours, our humiliations?—a poor fading dream! Upon this threshold the unreality of life is made clear to us, and we see the pageant vanishing before our eyes. (Book 1, ch. 4)

Not all deathbed scenes were conventional. Many still appear faithful to the reality. There is the justly famous dramatic and realistic decease of Peter Featherstone in Middlemarch, where George Eliot actually seems to be taking pains to contradict the saccharine deathbed scenes which she herself was not totally innocent of using, as the death of Eppie in Silas Marner testifies. And Eliot's realism was in keeping with a growing tendency to resist the conventional form of the deathbed scene. As was so often the case, when conventions came to be attacked, Thomas Hardy was prominent in the assault. Not only does he introduce the bizarre deathbed sequence of old John South (who dies when the elm tree that has terrified him is cut down) into The Woodlanders, but in the death of Giles Winterborne in the same novel he presents a matter-of-fact exit, not a sentimental diminuendo. After becoming ill from exposure, Winterborne loses consciousness. "In less than an hour the delirium ceased; then there was an interval of somnolent pain-lessness and soft breathing, at the end of which Winterborne passed quietly away." (Ch. 43) This plain demise is in contrast to the brutal deathbed scene of Jude Fawley in Jude the Obscure. There Jude lies abandoned on his deathbed reciting to himself the lamentations of Job, while outside the crowds cheer on a festival day, and his wife sports with some gay associates. He dies alone and unheeded with only a wish never to have lived upon his lips. It is a bitter termination for a convention that had held the conviction of its readers throughout the century.

Deathbed scenes in Victorian literature could be moving or bathetic; they could be technically convenient or structurally important; but they were generally accepted and appreciated. The deathbed presented the last preserve of truth; it was a final opportunity to repent, admonish or encourage. As a result, it customarily bore, for Victorians, an importance far greater than what we place upon it. Very likely there were few of those staged deliveries of touching last words in reality. Perhaps those mortal scenes were uglier than writers cared to admit. But in literature they were an automatic means for conveying clearly and without reserve, the basic importance of the moral scheme which underlay so much of the writing of the time. As faith in a life after death waned, death could still be viewed as the touchstone of human vanities, but the deathbed scenes disappeared as mortuary practices changed and most deaths began to occur in hospitals rather than homes.21 Offensive as many modern readers now find the deathbed convention, it was, for its time, a truly immediate reality that bound fictional convention and social fact together.


1 E. M. Forster, Marianne Thornton (1797-1887): A Domestic Biography (London, 1956), see chapter four entitled "The Death Beds."

2 Elizabeth Longford, Queen Victoria: Born to Succeed (New York, 1966), p. 310.

3 See Sir James Fitzjames Stephen on A Tale of Two Cities in Saturday Review, 17 Dec. 1859; reprinted in The Dickens Critics, eds. George H. Ford and Lauriat Lane, Jr. (Ithaca, New York, 1961), pp. 38-46.

4 Janet Dunbar, The Early Victorian Woman: Some Aspects of Her Life (1837-57) (London, 1953), p. 60. John Morley's Death, Heaven and the Victorians (Pittsburgh, 1971), describes in detail the Victorian preoccupation with death and burial, and the numerous moral, social, and economic implications that influenced mourning customs of the time.

5 Coventry Patmore's wife, Emily, considered Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying her favorite book (Derek Patmore, The Life and Times of Coventry Patmore [London, 1949], p. 107). Since she died in 1863, it may be assumed that Taylor's work was still well known and respected. John Morley notes that Taylor was often quoted on matters concerning death and the rites of burial. (p. 21)

6 Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by His Son, 2 vols. (New York, 1905), 2, pp. 428-29. Thomas Hardy supposedly asked to have stanza 81 of Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat read to him on his deathbed. Not all poets died grandly, though reports might make it seem so. B. R. Jerman has an interesting study, "The Death of Robert Browning" in the University of Toronto Quarterly 35, no. 1 (1965), pp. 47-74. In The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zossima's corpse causes a scandal, because his fellow monks have not expected such a saintly man's remains to stink of corruption. (Part 3, Book 7, ch. 1)

7 Edward Fitzgerald, Letters & Literary Remains of Edward Fitzgerald, 7 vols. (New York, 1966: reprint), 2, p. 4; dated, 1852.

8 An earlier reference to Colonel Newcome's "Adsum," shows that Braddon was fully conscious of Thackeray's earlier and more memorable employment of the convention.

9 The crusty old character, Bernard Haldane, in George Alfred Lawrence's Barren Honour. A Tale (1868), does not die a calm and reconciled death, but remains bitter toward the woman who broke his heart.

10 Dunbar, Victorian Women, p. 122.

11 Gillian Avery, Nineteenth Century Children: Heroes and Heroines in English Children's Stories 1780-1900 (London, 1965), p. 212.

12 Ibid., p. 220.

13 Peter Coveney, The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society: A Study of the Theme in English Literature (Baltimore, 1967), p. 188.

14 Avery, Nineteenth Century Children, p. 174.

15 Ibid., p. 175.

16 Coveney, Image of Childhood, p. 179.

17 Ibid., p. 193. However, the negation of life in the child is intended to lead to positive results in the way that evil was, through the inscrutable ways of providence, meant to perpetrate a greater good. An example of this is in a tale published in the March, 1865 issue of the Cornhill Magazine, entitled "Willie Baird: a Winter Idyll," in which a little scholar dies, and his saddened teacher lives on with the boy's dog, who had tried to lead the teacher into the storm to save the dying boy. The teacher had not understood, and the boy had died. But the death has a moral effect upon the teacher. "I read my Bible more and Euclid less," he says.

18 U. C. Knoepflmacher writes of Vanity Fair that "The novel's many death scenes are not due to a mawkish Victorian fascination with such situations, but rather stem from Thackeray's desire to remind the reader that death, the end of life, is the only true vanquisher of vanity" (Laughter & Despair: Readings in Ten Novels of the Victorian Era [Berkeley, 1971], p. 82).

19 Patricia Thomson, The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal 1837-1873 (London, 1956), p. 158.

20 Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870 (New Haven, 1964), p. 277.

21 As one might expect, deathbed scenes retained an interest for spiritualists. Sophia Morgan wrote, in From Matter to Spirit (London, 1863): "The apparent recognition by the dying of those who have gone before, is a common and notorious fact." (p. 176) She gives several instances in chapter ten of deathbed recognitions of dead beings.

Andrew Sanders (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "They Dies Everywhere . . . ," in Charles Dickens Resurrectionist, The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1982, pp.1-36.

[In the following essay, Sanders examines Charles Dickens ' portrayals of death and of deathbed scenes and asserts that they reflect both Victorian fascination with death and concern about the very high mortality rate of urban-dwellers in the nineteenth century.]

The death-rate in Bleak House, John Ruskin argued, functions merely as 'a representative average of the statistics of civilian mortality in the centre of London'; it might therefore be further adduced that the substantial number of fatalities suffered during the span of Dickens's novels from Pickwick to Edwin Drood reflects that in the real urban world of the nineteenth century.1 No major character dies in Pickwick Papers, though dark mortal shadows are cast over the story by deaths and hauntings in the interpolated tales and especially by the account of the death of the 'Chancery prisoner' in Chapter 44. From Oliver Twist onwards, however, characters, major and minor, are variously struck down in the course of narratives and their death-beds, or at least death-scenes, come to take on a considerable local or thematic importance in the development of a story. Oliver Twist's unmarried mother dies in childbed in the first chapter of the novel, to be followed by the news of little Dick's impending demise and by the violent deaths of Nancy, Sikes, and Fagin. Smike's deathbed, if we except those of the 'widow's son' in Sketches by Boz and the 'Chancery prisoner', effectively Dickens's first, haunts the closing chapters of Nicholas Nickleby and forms a striking contrast to the despairing last hours of Ralph Nickleby. Little Nell's death is virtually the goal of the progress traced in The Old Curiosity Shop, though her chief persecutor, Daniel Quilp, is to drown on 'a good, black, devil's night' and to be washed up, a glaring corpse, on a deserted mud-bank. Barnaby Rudge is pervaded by violence, and the unsolved murder at the Warren seems almost to presage the murderous actions of the mob during the Gordon Riots. If Martin Chuzzlewit, which displeased so many of its first readers, accounts for the death of no major character, it at least contains the murder of Tigg, the suicide of Jonas Chuzzlewit, and Mrs Gamp's superlative expatiations on the loveliness of corpses. Dombey and Son opens, like Oliver Twist, with the death of a mother and it goes on to describe the decline of its first protagonist, the death-beds of the newly-converted Alice Marwood and the desolate Mrs Skewton, and the violent end of Carker. Mrs Copperfield dies of the effects of bearing David's brother in Chapter 9 of David Copperfield, to be followed in due course by the roughly parallel death of Dora, by Barkis going out with the tide, and by the dramatic drownings of Ham and Steerforth. In Bleak House, Jo dies of the apparent effects of fever and neglect, Richard Carstone wastes away, his life-blood sucked by a vampire law-suit, Lady Dedlock is found dead at the gates of the squalid grave-yard where her former lover lies buried, Tulkinghorn is found shot, and Krook is the supposed victim of spontaneous combustion. Stephen Blackpool is mortally injured by falling down a disused mine-shaft in Hard Times, and Josiah Bounderby is to die after the novel's close of a fit in a Coketown street. Mr Dorrit declines into distraction and death and Merdle opens his jugular vein in his bath in Little Dorrit, while Blandois is killed in the collapse of the Clennam house, a collapse which also occasions Mrs Clennam's terminal stroke. A Tale of Two Cities opens with Dr Manette's recall to life and ends with Sydney Carton's anticipation of his resurrection from the steps of the scaffold, having meanwhile accounted for the identifiable deaths of the villainous Marquis St Evrémonde, and Mme Defarge and the numerous unnamed but innocent victims of the September massacres and the guillotine. Great Expectations opens in a grave-yard, moves to a London dominated by Newgate, and describes the diverse ends of Mrs Joe, Miss Havisham, Compeyson and Magwitch. Our Mutual Friend begins as a mangled corpse is dredged from the Thames and witnesses the peaceful deaths of little Johnny and Betty Higden, the violent ones of Gaffer Hexam, Rogue Riderhood and Bradley Headstone, and the attempted murders of John Harmon and Eugene Wrayburn. The unfinished Edwin Drood is centred on yet another murder, but the mystery of the novel will remain forever unsolved as a result of the intervening death of the only man ever able to solve it correctly.

Calculating the exact number who die in the course of Dickens's novels is as vain an exercise as estimating Lady Macbeth's fertility-rate, but it is none the less clear that the novelist was a man much preoccupied with mortality. As a recorder of his times he was also transcribing, and eventually transforming, the evidence of the urban civilisation around him, data which was as much relative to the facts of death as to those of life. Given the vast increase in the population of Victorian Britain, and its steady annual growth, Death posed questions which disturbed more than simply religious hope. The grave-yards groaned with a surplus worse than that of the slums, and Death as the ultimate omnium gatherum steadily undid more people than ever streamed optimistically through the crystal aisles of the Great Exhibition. The Victorians delighted in statistics, and if Dickens did not exactly share the delight in Benthamite cataloguing demonstrated by many of his contemporaries, he must at least have shared their shock at the published evidence of Parliamentary Commissions, conscientious journalists, Registrars General, and corresponding members of the Statistical Society of London. The thirst for knowledge, and for a scientific basis for reform, paralleled an increase in social ill, and a lack of social hygiene appalled men and women aware for the first time of the benefits of sanitary improvement. Although the bubonic plague had declined a century or more before as a basic condition of urban life, it was effectively replaced by epidemic waves of cholera, typhus, typhoid, dysentery and smallpox. If Samuel Pepys's fellow-citizens blindly shut their windows at night, burnt bonfires at street-corners and incense in their houses, the Victorians publicly fretted over the fact that their science seemed to explain the causes of infection without providing them with an effective means of combatting it. The catalogues of ill, from the opening of Tennyson's Maud to the reports which stimulated the Public Health Acts of 1866, 1871 and 1875, pointed to the fact that peace was proving a worse killer than war. As Edwin Chadwick soberly and unpoetically noted in his Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of 1842, 'the annual loss of life from filth and bad ventilation are greater than the loss from death or wounds in any wars in which this country has been engaged in modern times'. Yet more disturbingly, the evidence assembled by Chadwick's commissioners suggested that 'the ravages of epidemics and other diseases do not diminish but tend to increase the pressure of population'.2

Chadwick's report reminded early Victorians, as much as Bleak House reiterated the fact to mid-Victorians, that diseases bred in the slums took their revenge on society as a whole. A huge new urban population, in London and in the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North, transferred rural poverty into the cities and concentrated problems into smaller, but densely populated, areas. In a city of London's scale the classless effects of disease and death were accentuated by proximity. Castes separated from each other by hedges and park walls in the country shared the same water supply and drainage in the town; however much they endeavoured not to, they jostled each other in the central streets, and the mansion merely hid the tenement to its rear. If the juxtaposition of rich and poor, and of two distinct nations unknown to each other, has been exaggerated for propagandist reasons, in London at least, each class, and the infinite and often subtle gradations which blurred real class distinctions, shared a common geographical if not social setting. There was, nevertheless, as Dickens himself noted in 1863, a noticeable class distinction in the capital's mortality-rates. 'The most prosperous and best cared for among men and women', he told an audience at a banquet in aid of the Royal Free Hospital, 'know full well that whosoever is hit in this great and continuing battle of life .. . we must close up the ranks, and march on, and fight out the fight. But', he went on, extending his analogy, 'it happens that the rank and file are many in number, and the chances against them are many and hard, and they necessarily die by thousands, when the captains and standard-bearers only die by ones and twos.'3 In 1830, for example, the average age at death for a gentleman or professional man and his family was forty-four; for a tradesman or clerk and his family it sunk dramatically to twenty-five, while for a labourer and his family it was only twenty-two.4 Edwin Chadwick himself noted that in the socially mixed parish of St George, Hanover Square, in 1839, the average age at death was thirty-one, though that average was pulled down by the statistics for infant mortality amongst the poorer parishioners.5 Such figures are deceptive in one important regard, for they are biased by the very fact of the inclusion of infant mortality-rates, and, as a result of better hygiene, nourishment and medical treatment, a child born into a middle-class family stood a marginally better chance of survival than one born lower down the social scale. If the figures are adjusted by placing infant deaths in a special category, a slightly brighter picture of average life-expectancy emerges. Between 1838 and 1854, statistics for England and Wales suggest that the average age at death for both men and women was 39.9 years; having survived the first fifteen of those years, however, life-expectancy could be extended to 58.2 years. After the age of twenty-five, it extended again to 61.1. For the period 1950 to 1952, by contrast, these averages read 66.4 years, 69.4 and 70 respectively.6

As the nineteenth century advanced into the twentieth, life-expectancy gradually extended, largely as a result of a more general application of precisely those benefits which once exclusively strengthened the middle-class infant. This improvement was noticeable to the Victorians themselves, and became a matter of some self-congratulatory relief and compensation for the frightening conclusions drawn by Chadwick and his fellow-statisticians in the early 1840. There had been a general national decline in the death-rate in the period 1780-1810, but it had begun to rise again with the development of the large industrial towns, a factor which greatly disturbed the Census Commissioners in 1831.7 The rate varied between regions, however, with London generally better off than the new northern cities.

By 1880, one can sense the relief of Thomas A. Welton who reported to the Statistical Society of London that over a twenty-five-year period the overall mortality-rate had declined by about 25 per cent.8 The zymotic diseases (scarlatina, typhus, typhoid, and typhinia) and diseases of the lungs remained the biggest killers, but, Welton noted, the general risk of falling victim to one or the other was slowly diminishing, the rate in London (1.98 per cent) remaining appreciably less than that in Manchester (3.14 per cent) or Liverpool (3.10 per cent). Some fifteen years earlier the Journal of the Statistical Society had commented extensively on the findings of the twenty-fifth annual report of the Registrar General. So pervasive was the high rate of infant mortality in the period 1850-60 that the Journal did not bother to adduce reasons or to diagnose likely causes. In the age-group 5-10 years, however, it was noted that more than half the deaths of the children concerned were attributable to the zymotic diseases, while the remainder were supposed to be the various results of scrofula, tabes, phthisis, hydrocephalus and a category generally labelled 'diseases of the brain and lungs'. Amongst children aged between 10 and 15, the death-rate remained one in every two hundred, though consumption is now increasingly cited as the main cause of death, only marginally overtaking the fevers and diphtheria. In the age-group 15-25 it is noted that smallpox emerges as the biggest single killer, though half of the deaths of young women are attributed to consumption, and a significant proportion to the effects of childbirth. Two out of every hundred men aged between 25 and 35 and three out of every hundred women were left widowed. Only after reaching the age of 45 does it seem that the risk of dying from organic disease other than those of the lungs outbalances the dire effects of the zymotic diseases, diarrhoea, dysentery, phthisis and cholera.9 It scarcely comes as a surprise to learn that in 1839, with a population approaching two million, there were 45,277 funerals in London, 21,471 of them being of children aged under ten years.10 For infants the mortality-rate remained 150 in every 1000 births until the end of the century, only dropping to 138 in every 1000 births between 1901 and 1905.11 Edwin Chadwick even estimated that of the £24 million deposited in savings banks in 1843, some £6-8 million was saved in order to meet the expenses of funerals, that is, extraordinarily enough, between a quarter and a third of saved capital.12

It is with these figures in mind that we can begin to grasp not only the alarming mortality-rate at Mrs Mann's baby-farm in Oliver Twist, and the death of the brickmaker's child in Bleak House, but also the sudden departure of little Johnny in Our Mutual Friend, and the slow declines of older children like Nell Trent and Paul Dombey. The deaths in childbed of the mothers of Oliver Twist and Philip Pirrip, of Mrs Dombey, and of the two Mrs Copperfields, equally have a perspective, as does the extensive use of the imagery of fever in Bleak House. Thrombosis, which kills, amongst others, Mrs Skewton, Mr Bounderby and Mrs Clennam, is a disease associated exclusively with old, or at least middle age. It was to kill Dickens himself at the age of 58. The vague, though once, it seems, definable 'brain fever', accounts, as one recent commentator has shown, for a substantial number of near fatalities in Victorian fiction, amongst them Pip's.13 Tuberculosis, a familiar enough remover of the less robust characters of other contemporary novelists, seems comparatively rare in Dickens's novels, though it kills 'the widow's son' in one of the earlier Sketches by Boz; nevertheless, as several medically qualified Dickensians have noted, he is otherwise an excellent observer and recorder of symptoms.14

Bleak House remains, however, the most significant investigation amongst Dickens's works of the various effects of disease on urban life in the nineteenth century. An unspecified contagious disease, most probably, given the nature of Esther's subsequent scars, smallpox, becomes not only a uniting image for the story, but also a sign of the real destructiveness caused by the rottenness of society. It is, of course, useful that Dickens remains unspecific, for he is thereby able to exploit a more general Victorian concern with fever. The contemporary concern was well founded, for fevers, even those loosely diagnosed as 'brain fever' and likely to be the result of mental as much as physical disease, regularly reached epidemic proportions in the middle years of the century. It was not idly that George Eliot gave Lydgate an interest in 'special questions of disease, such as the nature of fever or fevers' in a novel set in the early 1830s, for the problem was very much associated with the growth in the urban population at the time. In larger concentrations of people than Middlemarch, most notably London, Glasgow and some of the northern manufacturing cities, typhus and typhoid were already endemic. Typhus, a sickness especially associated with poverty and dirt, produced severe epidemics in 1848, 1856 and 1861. Typhoid fever, recognised as a separate affliction after the middle of the century, was, by contrast, classless. It killed Prince Albert at the age of 42 in 1861, and very nearly killed his son Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1871. Cholera first appeared in England in 1831-2, though a more serious outbreak occurred in September 1848, reaching its height during the following summer, and killing 52,293 people in 1849 alone.15 It appeared again in the mid-summer of 1853, first in London, but gradually spreading throughout the kingdom and causing a total of 20,097 deaths in England and Wales by the end of 1854. A fourth epidemic began in July 1865 killing a further 14,378 men and women, 5548 of them in London.16 Other contagious diseases were largely confined to children. The incidence of scarlet fever gradually increased; an outbreak of an especially malignant form occurred in Dublin in 1831, and by 1834 as many had died of it as had suffered during the cholera epidemic of 1832. It crossed to England in 1840, and reached epidemic proportions in 1844 and again in the terrible year of 1848. In the 1850s almost two thirds of the deaths were of children under five. Diphtheria, also only recognised as a separate disease in 1855, was endemic throughout Europe and North America for the remainder of the decade. An epidemic of smallpox is estimated to have killed an average of 12,000 people annually during the years 1837-40, though after the Vaccination Act of 1840 was enforced, incidence in the United Kingdom dropped to the none the less alarming figure of 5000 per annum.17

Medical observers shared with sanitary and social reformers the firm, and often justified belief, that the slums of the cities provided a breeding ground for contagious disease. The Thames, which had always functioned as London's main artery of traffic as much as its chief sewer, had become, by the 1850s, an offensively rank carrier of infection. During a period of speculation about appropriate mural decoration for the newly completed Houses of Parliament, Punch published a cartoon showing 'Father Thames introducing his offspring (Diphtheria, Scrofula and Cholera) to the Fair City of London', suggesting that the design, with its bloated and skeletal horrors, might be suited for a fresco.18 At the time of the 'Great Stink' in the summer of 1858 Disraeli, an otherwise acclimatised Londoner, was driven out of a Commons Committee Room facing onto the river by the 'pestilential odour'.19 Domestic sanitation, with sewage drained directly into the Thames, was often primitive even at the most august addresses in the capital. The relatively newly reconstructed Buckingham Palace reeked with 'filth and pestilential odours from the absence of proper sewage', and one of the workmen employed to improve matters in 1848 reported that he had hardly ever been in 'such a set of stinks'.20 If one 'amazing Alderman' declared, according to the 1867 Preface to Oliver Twist, that the diseased slums of Jacob's Island did not exist, indeed had never existed, Dickens's description of the riverside squalor in the novel is fully justified in other near contemporary accounts. It in fact might seem that the novelist was suppressing some details which might have offended more sensitive noses and stomachs, an understandable precaution given his personal experience and that of official investigators of similar conditions. When in 1842, for example, Dickens, accompanied by Forster and Maclise, took the visiting Longfellow on a night tour of 'the worst haunts of the most dangerous classes' in London, Maclise was 'struck with such a sickness on entering the first of the Mint lodging-houses . . . that he had to remain, for the time [they] were in them, under guardianship of the police outside'.21 In his avowedly propagandist Alton Locke of 1850 Charles Kingsley was less circumspect. Kingsley's hero is led, during one of the worst epidemics of fever in the transpontine slums, into 'the wildernesses of Bermondsey' to

a miserable blind alley, where a dirty gas-lamp just served to make darkness visible, and show the patched windows and rickety doorways of the crazy houses, whose upper stories were lost in a brooding cloud of fog; and the pools of stagnant water at our feet; and the huge heap of cinders which filled up the waste end of the alley—a dreary, black, formless mound, on which two or three spectral dogs prowled up and down after the offal, appearing and vanishing like dark imps in and out of the black misty chaos beyond.

Kingsley quite clearly intends us to see this blind alley as a living hell (his echoes of Milton tell us as much), though if it is compared with any of the flatter descriptions in Chadwick's Report, or even with Engels's appalled and impassioned account of Manchester at the same period, it can be appreciated that the only exaggeration consists in Alton Locke's 'pointing' of the incident. Victorian readers would readily have understood his shorthand use of words and phrases like 'stagnant water', 'cinders' and 'offal'. Like a Dantesque visitor to Hell, Alton is led further into the horror:

Downes pushed past . . . unlocked a door at the end of the passage, thrust me in, locked it again, and then rushed across the room in chase of two or three rats, who vanished into cracks and holes. And what a room! A low lean-to with wooden walls, without a single article of furniture; and through the broad chinks of the floor shone up as it were ugly glaring eyes, staring at us.—They were the reflections of the rushlight in the sewer below. The stench was frightful—the air heavy with pestilence. The first breath I drew made my heart sink, and my stomach turn. But I forgot everything in the object which lay before me, as Downes tore a half-finished coat off three corpses laid side by side on the bare floor.

There was his little Irish wife:—dead—and naked—the wasted white limbs gleamed in the lurid light; the unclosed eyes stared, as if reproachfully, at the husband whose drunkenness had brought her there to kill her with the pestilence; and on each side of her a little, shrivelled, impish, child-corpse—the wretched man had laid their arms round the dead mother's neck—and there they slept, their hungering and wailing over at last forever: the rats had been busy already with them—but what matter to them now?22

Kingsley is determined to prove his point that there is a fearful connection between the sanitary condition of the slums and disease, and that the unburied bodies of the dead continue to spread the contagion amongst the living. Downes, Alton's drunken Virgil, has even imagined in his delirium tremens that he has seen the fever devils coming up through the cracks in the floor 'like little maggots and beetles .. . I asked 'em and they said they were fever devils'. His medical science is in fact only marginally less developed than that of a Victorian doctor, but Kingsley's point is that poverty breeds not only ignorance but also the very causes of infection. The shanty, built over a sewer, both creates and is obliged to partake of the tainted water below and the pestilential air above.

The fate of the destitute Irish family in Alton Locke may have shocked both Charles Kingsley, in the persona of a self-educated tailor, and his predominantly middle-class readers, but the degradation that he describes does not seem to have been atypical of the desperately poor in the worst years of the cholera and typhus epidemics in London. But the concern with the idea that the living poor spread the contagion to their better-off brothers and sisters in a great sanitary chain of being was equalled by a very present fear that the living might be infected by the unburied dead, and even by the barely interred coffins in an overcrowded burial-ground. Downes's family, like the cases pungently described in Edwin Chadwick's supplementary report on The Practice of Interment in Towns, remain to decompose slowly in his lodgings simply because he is too poor to bury them. Even if he had been able to afford the not inconsiderable cost of a funeral, or had been forced to resort to the Parish as a pauper, it is likely that their place of burial would have resembled the urban grave-yard which lies at the centre of Dickens's Bleak House. Again, Dickens does not appear to have been exaggerating.23

The prejudice against 'intra-mural interment' was a relatively new one in early Victorian England, and the alternative, the establishment of extra-mural cemeteries, even newer. Both, suspiciously enough to traditionalists, had spread from rational France in the closing years of the eighteenth century, and both reversed an ancient Christian pattern. Jews and Romans had buried their dead without the city wall; early Christians, gathering for worship around the tombs of the martyrs, had gradually rejected earlier taboos, and then built their churches over the hallowed sites. The faithful chose in their due turn to be buried as close as possible to the saints. As the faith spread, so did the idea of a church with an attached burial-ground, and with the graves of the more influential parishioners actually under the flagstones of the nave and aisles of the building itself. The nineteenth-century Londoner's problem lay not only in his by now damnosa haeritas of the remains of his forbears, but also in the far more damnable problem of how to dispose of the increasing annual toll of his dead fellow-citizens. By the 1820s and 1830s even the vaults under newly constructed churches were full, as were suburban burial-grounds situated some distance away from the parish church itself. For Dissenters, with their own burial-grounds, the physical, and indeed sanitary, problem was just as disturbing. Nevertheless, by the 1870s the writer of a guidebook to London could remark on the happy, though recent enough, abandonment of what he refers to as 'the barbarous practice of interring human bodies within the precinct of the Metropolis'. In recommending visitors to London to see the new suburban cemeteries (Kensal Green, Highgate, Nunhead, Norwood, Abney Park and Brompton), he drew a clear distinction between their handsomeness and the old graveyards—'the plague-spots of the population'.24 The taste for metropolitan improvement, and the Victorian belief that all improvements were worth visiting, is matched by the new faith in the dignity and beauty of the cemeteries themselves. The sloping lawns of Highgate and the classical avenues of Kensal Green must have contrasted vividly with memories of the old burial grounds and with Dickens's imaginative vision of the hemmed-in graveyard which festers at the core of Bleak House.25

By 1852 Dickens's comment on the 'pestiferous' and 'obscene' church-yard to which Captain Hawdon's body is borne may well have seemed outmoded to many of his readers and merely a further expression of the manner in which the novel is set back in the immediate past. In 1839, some thirteen years before the novel's publication, George Alfred Walker had described the horrifying state of forty-three metropolitan burial-grounds in his notorious Gatherings from Grave-Yards, or, to give the book its full propagandist title, Gatherings from Grave-Yards, Particularly those of London: With a concise History of the Modes in Interment Among different Nations, from the earliest Periods. And a Detail of dangerous and fatal Results produced by the unwise and revolting Custom of inhuming the Dead in the midst of the Living. Within a distance of two hundred yards in Clement's Lane off the Strand, and therefore close enough to the Hall of Lincoln's Inn, there were four burying-grounds from which, Walker recorded, 'the living breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated with the odour of the dead'. Of one he avowed that the soil was 'saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence', and in another close by a local resident described how a grave had been dug under his window for a deceased neighbour: 'A poor fellow who died in this house, in the room above me: he died of typhus fever . . . they have kept him twelve days, and now they are going to put him under my nose, by way of warning to me.'26 In 1843 the indefatigable Edwin Chadwick conducted a special Parliamentary enquiry into the practice of interment in towns and published a detailed report, based on the evidence of a wide range of witnesses from all over Britain, describing the likely risks to public health from both the state of the grave-yards and from delays in burying the dead. Chadwick himself summed up the nature of London's problem: overcrowding had left the city's church-yards tiered with coffins like geological or archaeological strata, and his ready statistics pointed the horror:

In the metropolis, on spaces of ground which do not exceed 203 acres, closely surrounded by the abodes of the living, layer upon layer, each consisting of a population numerically equivalent to a large army of 20,000 adults, and nearly 30,000 youths and children, is every year imperfectly interred. Within the period of the existence of the present generation, upwards of a million of dead must have been interred in these same spaces.

The attendant risk of infection seemed self-evident:

A layer of bodies is stated to be about seven years in decaying in the metropolis: to the extent that this is so, the decay must be by the conversion of the remains into gas, and its escape as a miasma, of many times the bulk of the body that has disappeared.27

Like Walker, Chadwick was intent on not sparing tender feelings in his campaign in favour of hygienic and dignified interment in suburban cemeteries. The nastiness of the urban burial-grounds is systematically catalogued and reported, and words like 'miasma', 'effluvia', 'emanation', and the less classical, but no less emotive, 'stench', run through the report and are reiterated as unpleasant reminders of the ever-present causes of disease. In some poor districts the smell of the decomposing dead was intermingled with the pervasive stink of sewerage, though local residents seemed frighteningly immune to the fact:

The sense of smell in the majority of inhabitants seems to be destroyed, and having no perception even of stenches which are unsupportable to strangers, they must be unable to note the excessive escapes of miasma as antecedents to disease. Occasionally, however, some medical witnesses, who have been accustomed to the smell of the dissecting room, detect the smell of human remains from the grave-yards in crowded districts: and other witnesses have stated that they can distinguish what is called the 'dead man's smell' when no-one else can, and can distinguish it from the miasma of the sewers.28

Elsewhere, Chadwick's witnesses gave evidence of the supposedly dire effect of actually living near a graveyard. One Mr Barnett, the medical officer for the parish of Stepney, testified to certain distressing incidents in his area which have the macabre overlaid with a new sense of the risk to the health, rather than simply to the sensibilities, of the living:

Some years since a vault was opened in the churchyard and shortly after one of the coffins contained therein burst with so loud a report that hundreds flocked to the place to ascertain the cause. So intense was the poisonous nature of the effluvia arising therefrom, that a great number were attacked with sudden sickness and fainting, many of whom were a considerable period before they recovered their health.

The vaults and burial ground attached to Brunswick chapel, Limehouse, are crowded with dead, and from the accounts of individuals residing in the adjoining houses, it would appear that the stench arising therefrom, particularly when a grave happens to be opened during the summer months, is most noxious. In one case it is described to have produced instant nausea and vomiting, and attacks of illness are frequently imputed to it. Some say they have never had a day's good health since they resided so near the chapel-ground.29

The pressure for official action to close the urban burial-grounds went hand-in-hand with a determined advocacy of the beauty and propriety of the new cemeteries. City church-yards not only seemed likely causes of infection for the living, they also removed any dignity from the dead. In 1848, for example, a substantial couplet poem, ponderously entitled 'The Cemetery: A Brief appeal to the feelings of Society on Behalf of Extra Mural Burial', first evoked the horrors of interment in the city:

Hark! cracks the mattock on a coffin lid,
And earth gives up her injured dead, unbid.
Wrought loose as mole-hill 'neath th'oft ent'ring tools,
Each opening grave, a banquet meet for Ghoules,
Bids yawn in livid heaps the quarried flesh;
The plague-swoln charnel spreads its taint afresh.
In foul accumulation, tier on tier,
Each due instalment of the pauper bier,
Crush'd in dense-pack'd corruption there they dwell,
'Mongst earthy rags of shroud, and splinter'd shell.

The anonymous versifier then waxed pastoral, contrasting such 'noisome vapours' to the kind of rustic churchyard doubtless familiar to his readers from the works of the elegiac eighteenth-century poets. It is a typical enough piece of city/country opposition, but the point of it is to stress the advantages offered to the city-dweller by the cemeteries, true expressions of the ideal of rus in urbe and yet as stately as the park of a great country-house:

Let plumy pine with cedar blend, and yew,
To tuft the walk, and fringe the avenue:
But oh! let love be first, and second art,
Let Cemeteries win the people's heart;
Though lowly lay secure the weary head,
And in the tomb domesticate the dead.


The cemetery is then democratic, and should prove both acceptable and lovable to paupers as much as to the more substantial owners of plots in existing necropolises in the suburbs. A similar mood inspirited a visitor to Kensal Green in 1842 who later delightedly described his impressions in Ainsworth's Magazine: 'What an escape', he wrote, 'from the choked charnel house to that verdant wide expanse, studded with white tombs of infinite shapes, and stone marked graves covered with flowers of every brilliant dye!'31 The architectural and horticultural potential of cemeteries was emphasised in the following year by a true inheritor of the picturesque tradition, the builder and landscape gardener, John Claudius Loudon:

A church or church-yard in the country, or a general cemetery in the neighbourhood of a town, properly designed, laid out, ornamented with tombs, planted with trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, all named, and the whole properly kept, might become a school of instruction in architecture, sculpture, landscape-gardening, arboriculture, botany, and in those important parts of general gardening, neatness, order and high-keeping.32

Loudon's high sentiments derive not simply from a taste for Arcadian landscapes, but also from that other later development in the picturesque, an attachment to the contours of English scenery, and particularly to the melancholy beauty of the country church-yard. The cemetery might, for some, express an ideal of the Elysian Fields, or even an Egyptian tomb-scape, but for sentimental or empassioned Gothicists it needed to embody an English mediaeval tradition.

Gray's elegiac meditation on graves and worms and epitaphs remains the best-known example of a widespread enough eighteenth-century fashion for churchyards and church-yard poetry. To the Victorians, however, the contrast between G. A. Walker's observations in Clement's Lane and Gray's at Stoke Poges must have seemed both striking and provocative. Nevertheless, the ideal of burial in the country was too firmly established ever to be quite superseded in the literary imagination by cemeteries, however Arcadian their design and lay-out. In 1814, Wordsworth, another direct heir of the picturesque tradition, appended to The Excursion an 'Essay upon Epitaphs' which stressed the extent to which the living and the dead blessedly intermingled in a rural setting:

A village church-yard, lying as it does in the lap of nature, may indeed be most favourably contrasted with that of a town of crowded population; and sepulture therein combines many of the best tendencies which belong to the mode practised by the Ancients, with others peculiar to itself. The sensations of pious cheerfulness, which attend the celebration of the sabbath-day in rural places, are profitably chastised by the sight of the graves of kindred and friends, gathered together in that general home towards which the thoughtful yet happy spectators themselves are journeying. Hence a parish-church, in the stillness of the country, is a visible centre of a community of the living and the dead; a point to which are habitually referred the nearest concerns of both.33

Wordsworth's church-yard stands properly in the midst of a community, reminding the living of the dead and of the fact of their being part of a continuous process of growth and decay; the epitaphs are imbued with meaning as engraved sermons in stones. The mood of the Essay was reflected as much in the pictorial arts as in the literature of the post-Romantic period. Benjamin W. Leader's 'The Churchyard at Bettwys-y-Coed', for example, remains, despite its Welsh setting, solidly in a Wordsworthian tradition though it was not exhibited at the Royal Academy until 1863. Children play amid the stillness of a grave-yard, the tomb-stones moulding into the mountain landscape. In Joshua Mann's 'The Child's Grave', painted in the mid-1850s, a family is seen visiting a country church-yard, the apparently bereaved mother accompanied both by an older woman and by a surprisingly large brood of surviving children. Millais's 'The Vale of Rest', which bore the inscription 'where the weary find repose' at its exhibition in 1858, shows a nun digging a grave at sunset while a contemplative sister beside her looks out at us from the canvas. Arthur Hughes's 'Home from Sea', exhibited in its final form five years later, has a young sailor lying weeping on his mother's grave in the then rural church-yard at Chingford in Essex, while his sister kneels beside him dressed in deep mourning. Yet more complex in its iconography is Henry Arthur Bowler's truly Tennysonian 'The Doubt: Can these dry bones live?' of 1853. The picture shows a lady leaning on the tombstone of one John Faithful and contemplating some recently disturbed bones. The answer to the lady's rhetorical question is provided by the words 'I am the Resurrection and the Life' inscribed on the stone, and by the single word 'Resurgam' on a nearby slab. A butterfly, the traditional emblem of the soul, has lighted on a skull in the foreground, while on the slab a chestnut, fallen from the overhanging tree, has begun to germinate.34

When Dickens leads his Little Nell, herself a popular enough subject with painters, into her first country church-yard, she, the town-bred and town-haunted child, is overcome by an almost instinctive wonder. It is a wonder doubtless cultivated in her by her creator's own reading of the Romantic poets:

She walked out into the churchyard, brushing the dew from the long grass with her feet, and often turning aside into places where it grew longer than in others, that she might not tread upon the graves. She felt a curious kind of pleasure in lingering among these houses of the dead. . . . (ch. 17)

In Chapter 53 of The Old Curiosity Shop, when the evidently mortal Nell has reached the pleasantly decaying village in which it is clear that she too is to end her days, she once again lingers in the church-yard. As if in response to a Wordsworthian summons,

Some young children sported among the tombs, and hid from each other, with laughing faces. They had an infant with them, and had laid it down asleep upon a child's grave, in a little bed of leaves. It was a new grave—the resting place, perhaps, of some little creature, who, meek and patient in its illness, had often sat and watched them, and now seemed to their minds scarcely changed.

She drew near and asked one of them whose grave it was. The child answered that that was not its name; it was a garden—his brother's. It was greener, he said, than all the other gardens, and the birds loved it better because he had been used to feed them. When he had done speaking, he looked at her with a smile, and kneeling down and resting for a moment with his cheek against the turf, bounded merrily away.

Nell has already the mark of death upon her, but through the children, Dickens allows her one further lesson in patience before obliging her to listen to the somewhat more chilling doctrines of the old sexton whom she encounters immediately afterwards. Dickens's language may not be particularly resourceful here, for he is evidently ill at ease with an elegiac country churchyard mood, but it must none the less be appreciated that it is precisely because he finds the death of his heroine so painful a subject to talk about that he chooses to set it in a conventionally soothing context. Wordsworth's dead or dying children find, like the mysterious Lucy, a place in the natural scheme of things, and Dickens, by removing Nell from the manmade city, attempts to come to terms with the inevitability of her mortality by re-exploring an established literary convention. Nell at least seems to have no fear of death as she speaks to the equally fearless and trusting children; surrounded by a nature which is itself dying only to be reborn in spring, she sees life and death as a continuum. It is a hope that her creator too desperately holds to at this early point in his career. When Dickens visited Mary Hogarth's tomb at Kensal Green in June 1837 he found that the 'grass around it was green and the flowers as bright, as if nothing of the earth in which they grew could ever wither or fade'; only the poignantly fresh memory of his dead sister-in-law disrupted the illusion of a serene immortality in the natural world. But by allowing that Mary and Nell become part of a larger creative process, some meaning emerges in the face of loss. The suburban cemetery, like the church-yards in The Old Curiosity Shop, seemed to suggest that in Nature a vivid memory of the past united with a promise of continual growth. When Dickens later desired that 'a rose-tree or a few little flowers' be planted on Mary's grave he was expressing the same hope, a hope which was otherwise denied in the decaying burial-grounds of London.35 In 1854, three years after the death of his infant daughter, the fatally named Dora, the novelist removed the child's body from a vault at Highgate and had it interred in 'a very small freehold' in the cemetery, 'to lie under the sun', later asking Angela Burdett Coutts to have a tree from her nearby estate planted beside the plot.36

Dickens's attachment to the tombs of Mary and Dora, and his concern to have them beautified in the most natural way possible, was not untypical of his times. The Victorian cemetery, like the lingering nostalgia for the countryside, expressed an idyllic and pastoral alternative to the spiritual emptiness of the city. Nature hallowed and comprehended Death. To many Victorian city-dwellers, mortality was no less a familiar phenomenon than it had been to their recent forbears, but a new insistence on commemorating the dead, and the inevitable pressure of population, demanded a dignified alternative to the evident unpleasantness of intra-mural interment. The Victorians were heirs not only to the invigorated pastoral tradition of the Romantics, but also to the new sensibility about death which had gradually established itself during the eighteenth century. As the nature of family relationships had developed, partly as a response to evolving economic conditions, so had a need to memorialise the beloved after death. The living justified their continuing love by celebrating it, both through the performance of an elaborate ritual of mourning and through the construction of a dignified funerary monument.37 The Victorian celebration of death in art overlaps with, and draws from, an existing literary mode. Emotional shows, death-bed scenes, crêpe bands and black ostrich plumes were not, as has frequently been suggested, an outward and visible sign of a decline of faith, or of an increase in secularism, but of an increased attention to ordinary family relationships. If Dickens, for one, loathed the extravagance of bourgeois pompes funèbres and the whole panoply of the undertaker's shop, he did so largely because he found them un-natural and a false expression of a real enough grief. They intruded themselves between the mourner and the mourned, and, rather than helping to purge the sense of loss, they dramatised its horror and served as an affront to both commemoration and understanding. If, however, we can now begin to appreciate that some of the more pompous forms of Victorian mourning merely represented a democratisation of ceremonies once confined to the ritual funerals of kings and noblemen, we ought also to see that what has often been labelled 'the Victorian death-bed' is in fact an extension of a norm of aristocratic tragedy into the bourgeois novel. In its transference from the epic and from the stage into the novel the tragedy was redirected, defused, occasionally even transformed. Though comparatively few Victorian novels are directed exclusively towards a climactic death-bed, or even death-scene, the nature of dying has a crucial structural and emotional function in a wide range of important contemporary fiction.38 Dickens's use of death, death-beds, and mourning in his novels reflects, therefore, not simply an established literary norm but also the social changes which contributed to the rise, and eventually to the triumph, of the novel as an art form.

The bonds of affection and love which bind husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and friends, lovers and lovers, are, it has been argued, conditioned as much by a social and cultural environment as by the dictates of the heart. To some important degree, the heart is cultivated by the world in which it seeks direction. The relationship between parent and child based on love rather than honour or duty marks a shift in socially acceptable norms between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Laurence Stone has recently suggested of the mid-seventeenth century, 'The key to all understanding of interpersonal relationships among the propertied classes .. . is a recognition of the fact that what mattered was not the individual but the family; younger sons, and particularly daughters, were often unwanted and might be regarded as no more than a tiresome drain on the economic resources of the family.'39 Later in his lengthy study Stone notes the significant change in attitudes and emotions that had set in by the middle of the following century:

The death of an infant or young child was no longer shrugged off as a common event on which it would be foolish to waste much emotion. A good example of the new response by a conventional eighteenth-century Christian is that of James Boswell to the death of his five-month-old son David in 1777 . . . Boswell carried the corpse upstairs and laid it on a table in the drawing-room. The next day, 'I was tenderer today then I imagined, for I cried over my little son, and shed many tears. At the same time I had a really pious delight in praying with the room locked, and leaning my hands on his alabaster frame as I knelt.' . . . The death of an adolescent child had inevitably always been far more traumatic for the parents, but even here there are changes. There was an intensification of grief in the eighteenth century, and it was expressed not only more openly and more bitterly, but also less ritually, in a more personal, more introspective manner. Members of the nuclear family now dramatized their sense of loss in violently expressive, and no doubt highly therapeutic ways. .. . At the height of the romantic period, the sufferings of parents at the death of a child reached an extreme intensity.40

Stone supports his contention by quoting examples of bereavement in both aristocratic and bourgeois households, and he thereby helps to establish a social basis from which we can draw literary conclusions for both the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. A similar argument, based largely on French evidence, runs through Philippe Ariès's study, Western Attitudes toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present Day. Ariès notes a shift in the treatment of death in literature from the conventionally extended death-scenes in the chansons de geste and the ritual death-beds of the mediaeval Christian citizen on the one hand, and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dramatisation of dying on the other:

Beginning with the eighteenth century, man in western societies tended to give death a new meaning. He exalted it, dramatized it, and thought of it as disquieting and greedy. But he already was less concerned with his own death than with la mort de toi, the death of the other person, whose loss and memory inspired in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the new cult of tombs and cemeteries and the romantic, rhetorical treatment of death.41

Ariès traces a move away from the ritual death-bed of the Middle Ages, one based on an accepted ars moriendi, in which the dying man himself organised the scene, presided over it 'and knew its protocol', towards an almost dissociated interest in the deaths of others, an interest which partially served to deflect the knowledge of one's own mortality away from oneself. La mort de toi usefully veils la mort de soi. It is precisely the shock which hits Tolstoy's dying Ivan Ilyich:

In the depths of his heart he knew he was dying but, so far from growing used to the idea, he simply did not and could not grasp it.

The example of a syllogism which he had learned in Kiezewetter's Logic: 'Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,' had seemed to him all his life to be true as applied to Caius but certainly not as regards himself. . . .

And Caius was certainly mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my thoughts and emotions—it's a different matter altogether. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.42

Tolstoy's story is scarcely paralleled in the literature of western Europe in the nineteenth century, and certainly not in England, for it examines the process of dying from the point of view of the dying man rather from that of the bystanders at the death-bed. Though it serves to justify Ariès's point, it ultimately also qualifies it. Nevertheless, much of what Ariès argues can usefuly be applied to the literature of Victorian England and especially to Dickens. Dickens was well aware that his treatment of death in his novels could prove therapeutic for novelist and reader alike; if the loss of Mary Hogarth lies behind the exposition of the sad fate of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, the novel was also intended to 'do something which might be read by people about whom Death had been,—with a softened feeling, and with consolation'.43 When Dickens later extracted and adapted the scenes surrounding the death of little Paul Dombey for a public reading, he was much moved to find that 'mothers, and fathers, and sisters, and brothers in mourning' came up to him afterwards and thanked him for his seemingly intimate understanding of their loss.44

A novelist like Dickens could, however, draw on and adapt a pattern of the death-bed which was well enough established in literature and art. Although eighteenth-century models might seem the most obvious sources, two highly significant seventeenth-century models can be seen to have contributed to the tradition. Shakespeare's account of the dream of his pious Queen Katherine, a dream preparatory to a peaceful death, is elaborately choreographed and functions as the culmination of a line of meditations upon death in Henry VIII. After hearing quietly of the penitent death of Wolsey, and after duly forgiving her erstwhile enemy, Katherine falls asleep to the 'celestial harmony' of a 'sad and solemn music'. As she slumbers there enter to her

solemnly tripping one after another, six Personages, clad in white robes, wearing on their heads garlands of bays, and golden vizards on their faces, branches of bays or palm in their hands. They first congee unto her, then dance: and, at certain changes, the first two hold a spare garland over her head, at which, the other four make reverend curtsies. Then the two that held the garland deliver the same to the other next two, who observe the same order in their changes, and holding the garland over her head. Which done, they deliver the same garland to the last two, who likewise observe the same order. At which (as it were by inspiration,) she makes (in her sleep) signs of rejoicing, and holdeth up her hands to heaven. And so in their dancing vanish, carrying the garland with them. The music continues. (IV. ii)

The scene might be paralleled in a Victorian lantern slide. The play itself steadily maintained its popularity on the nineteenth-century stage partly as a result of its demands for spectacle and suggestions of the supernatural. A production at Drury Lane in 1811, directed by and starring John Philip Kemble, was only outclassed in its effects by that of Samuel Phelps in 1848. But the most celebrated nineteenth-century production of Henry VIII was Charles Kean's of 1855 which ran for one hundred nights at the Princess's Theatre.45 Kean had been determined to express his idea of 'the domestic habits of the English court' in spectacular terms, and Ellen Terry, who at ten played the topmost angel on a ladder in the vision scene, admitted in her autobiography that the play contained effects which she had never seen surpassed.46 Queen Katherine's vision proved equally popular as a subject for Romantic artists, most significantly so for those who, like Fuseli and Blake, had mystical or religious leanings.47

Queen Katherine may, given the conventions of the Shakespearian theatre, have to be borne away to die off-stage, but the point about the nature of her going hence and her salvation is clearly made. She is absolute for death, and she has, like many of her Victorian descendants, already glimpsed the joys of heaven. If Katherine does not ritually organise her death-bed, she at least is seen to embrace two of its crucial stages—she forgives her enemies, and she is instructed in a due humility before God and man by the saintly Griffith. One further, and more certain, seventeenth-century influence on the nineteenth-century death-bed ought also to be cited here, that of the safely Protestant Jeremy Taylor's handbook Holy Dying. Taylor provided the literate common man with a manual of preparation for a good death in order to enable him to anticipate a bliss akin to the dying queen's. Shakespeare had proved theologically circumspect about Katherine's last hours, and Taylor too assumes that priestly assistance and the viaticum are inessential to the human passage between earth and heaven. Holy Dying, first published in 1651, maintained its steady popularity for the next two hundred years, having reached its twenty-eighth edition by 1810, and being reprinted at least twenty times again before the end of the century. The enterprising and scholarly printer, William Pickering, alone saw five separate finely produced editions through the press between 1840 and 1853.48 Taylor had written in his dedicatory epistle to Richard, Earl of Carbery, of the vital relationship between holy dying and a preparatory holy living:

My Lord, it is a great art to die well, and to be learnt by men in health, by them that can discourse and consider, by those whose understanding and acts of reason are not abated with fear or pains: and as the greatest part of Death is passed by the preceding years of our life, so also in those years are the greatest preparations to it; and he that prepares not for Death before his last sickness, is like him that begins to study Philosophy when he is going to dispute publicly in the Faculty. All that a sick and dying man can do is but to exercise those virtues which he before acquired, and to perfect that repentance which was begun more early.49

Holy Dying was to serve as a constant reminder of la mort de soi, and its accessibility to the devout Victorian should be remembered, for, despite other shifts in literary taste, established spiritual classics retained their power and influence. It should scarcely surprise us, for instance, that a copy of Taylor's work is listed amongst Adam Bede's books, and that he proves to be amongst Dorothea Brooke's favourite authors.

With the growth of evangelical discipline in the last years of the eighteenth century, new, and to some extent severer, manuals of death-bed devotion, doubtless intended as up-dated complements to Taylor's, appeared. Henry Venn's The Complete Duty of Man of 1812, for example, recommended more rigorous repentance in order to secure the promise of salvation, while a laxer, but none the less emotional and moral, High Church tradition was asserted in John Warton's two-volume didactic work Death-bed Scenes, published in 1827.50 In his Miscellanies on Various Subjects of 1823, the Reverend William Hett of Lincoln reprinted meditations on the four last things which he had first written for his parishioners some seventeen years earlier. In the manner of a Baroque Emblem Book Hett outlined the subject of an engraving to be prefaced to his thoughts on the death-bed:

The good man's sick chamber.—He is sitting in the middle of the bed, his back supported.—His wife hanging over the bed side, his left hand grasped in her two hands, her eyes fixed upon his face in a silent agony of distress.—The children near the mother all in tears: the two little ones clinging to her, and attentive to her only: the larger ones dividing their grief between each parent.—The servants, male and female, standing in a group, at a small distance from the bottom of the bed, in mute and serious attention to the last good words of their dying master, which he is in the act of uttering. In the features of his countenance, the inward sentiments of hope and joy rising, as far as is possible, superior to the appearance of languor and debility.—His medical friend, at a small distance from the wife, in an attentive posture, his face full of thought, indicating this sentiment, 'How nobly a Christian can die!'—In the window an hourglass nearly run out.—Upon a small round table, near the bed, on the right hand of the sick man, a Bible open at this passage of Job, which is legible, 'I know that my Redeemer liveth.' A prayer-book open at the Burial Service, with these words legible, 'I am the resurrection and the life.'51

If the ars moriendi is not strictly being practised as an art, at least this tableau suggests that there is an ideal to be aimed at, if not exactly lived up to. When, in 1779, John and Charles Wesley first published their collection of hymns 'for the use of the people called Methodists', they included some fourteen in the section 'describing Death'; nearly all eagerly look forward to the release of the spirit from its carnal prison, and express an earnest joy at the passage of the Christian soul out of the Vale of Tears and into the celestial kingdom. There is little room for mourning. One, which seems particularly alien to twentieth-century taste, delightedly contemplates a corpse, with a relish worthy of Mrs. Gamp:

Ah, lovely appearance of death!
What sight upon earth is so fair?
Not all the gay pageants that breathe
Can with a dead body compare:
With a solemn delight I survey
The corpse when the spirit is fled
In love with the beautiful clay,
And longing to lie in its stead.


The hymn, which pursues the thought through a further five verses, was reprinted in the many subsequent editions of the Wesleys' poetry in the nineteenth century, and it serves to remind us that in one area, at least, a firmly mediaeval contemplus mundi could still effectively operate. If Venn's The Complete Duty of Man, Warton's Death-bed Scenes, and Hett's Miscellanies attempted to bring the sinner to repentance by meditating on the inevitable end of life, the Wesleys know that they are preaching to the converted. Nevertheless, by the end of the eighteenth century the moralistic contemplation of mortality no longer remained a clerical preserve. It was already firmly established in popular imaginative literature.

Edward Young's long-popular and esteemed Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality was first published between 1742 and 1745; between 1800 and 1870 alone there were some eight collected editions of Young's works, and twenty-three of Night Thoughts as a separate poem. Despite Dr Johnson's caveat that Young's poetry abounds in thought 'without much accuracy or selection', its ten thousand thoughtful lines seem to have held the attention of generations of devout and discriminating readers.53 In the second book, 'On Time, Death and Friendship', the poet describes a holy death-bed for the benefit of the worldly and impious Lorenzo:

The chamber where the good man meets his fate
Is privileged beyond the common walk
Of virtuous life, quite in the verge of heav'n.
Fly, ye profane! if not, draw near with awe,
Receive the blessing, and adore the chance
That threw in this Bethesda your disease:
If unrestored by this, despair your cure;
For here resistless demonstration dwells:
A death-bed's a detector of the heart.
Here tired dissimulation drops her mask
Through life's grimace, that mistress of the scene!
Here real and apparent are the same.
You see the man, you see his hold on heav'n,
If sound his virtue; as Philander's sound.
Heav'n waits not the last moment; owns her friends
On this side death, and points them out to men;
A lecture silent, but of sov'reign pow'r!
To vice confusion, and to virtue peace.


The sovereign power of the death-bed to convert the unbeliever and the sinner had perhaps been suggested to Young by the action of the dying Addison who in 1719 had summoned Lord Warwick ('a young man of very irregular life, and perhaps of loose opinions') to see 'how a Christian can die'.55 Although the effect of 'this awful scene' on the young earl is not known, Addison's action seems to have impressed his contemporaries as a pattern for the modern Christian's departure; his words were certainly in the Revd. William Hett's mind some hundred years later when he outlined the image of the ideal death-bed to his parishioners, and it is possible that the pious hope of contemporaries that David Hume would repent of his professed atheism when faced by death drew from a similar source.56

Of comparable influence was Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, the culminating volume of which appeared in 1748. Clarissa was, as Richardson reminded readers of the second edition, not to be considered 'a light Novel, or transitory Romance' but as an inculcator of 'the HIGHEST and most IMPORTANT Doctrines'; the highest and most important of these doctrines emerges as the heroine's ability to die as a Christian and thereby to move those who observe her to a true repentance. Although some impatient readers may be struck by the unconscionable time that Clarissa takes to die, Richardson endeavours to enliven the extended deathbed with exemplary instruction and incident. In Letter XXXII of the final volume, for example, Mr Belford writes to Lovelace describing the dying heroine's almost baroque preparations for her own burial; having, as a prelude, already dreamed of 'flying hour-glasses, death's heads, spades, mattocks, and Eternity', Belford describes Clarissa's personally designed coffin-plate, engraved with texts and ornaments, including a winged hour-glass, an urn, and a white lily 'snapt short off and just falling from the stalk'; her coffin, which she refers to as 'her palace', is ready by her bedside, her shroud draped over it. When in Letter LX Belford describes her last moments to Lovelace, he writes disjointedly with 'a weight of grief upon his mind. It is a moving scene, even wrenched out of its context:

Her sweet voice and broken periods methinks still fill my ears, and never will be out of my memory.

After a short silence, in a more broken and faint accent;

—And you, Mr Belford, pressing my hand, may God preserve you and make sensible of all your errors—You see, in me, how All ends—May you be

—And down sunk her head upon her pillow, she fainting away, and drawing from us her hands.

We thought she was gone; and each gave way to a violent burst of grief.

But soon shewing signs of returning life, our attention was again engaged; and I besought her, when a little recovered, to complete in my favour her half-pronounced blessing. She waved her hand to us both, and bowed her head six several times, as we have since recollected, as if distinguishing every person present; not forgetting the nurse and the maid-servant; the latter having approached the bed, weeping, as if crowding in for the divine lady's last blessing; and she spoke faltering and inwardly,—Bless—bless—bless—you All—And now—And now—(holding up her almost lifeless hands for the last time) Come—O come—Blessed Lord—JESUS!

And with these words, the last but half-pronounced, expired: Such a smile, such a charming serenity over-spreading her sweet face at the instant as seemed to manifest her eternal happiness already begun.

O Lovelace!—But I can write no more!57

Belford breaks down with emotion, and the hiatus in his manuscript is marked with printers' flowers. The hiatus doubtless also left time for more emotional readers to recover their composure before the narrative resumes. If Clarissa's preparations for death remind us of the seventeenth century, the manner of her death looks forward to the nineteenth. Like the Wesley hymn, she joyously contemplates her release from the body, but her creator bids us mourn with Belford, penitent certainly, but also involved imaginatively with the characters and their emotions. Richardson had also spoken in his 'Advertisement' of accommodating his moral message 'to the Taste of the Age', an age which was able to associate deep emotion as much as religious inspiration with a fictional death-bed.

The religiously charged death-bed, used as a moral exemplar, was therefore scarcely the invention of the Victorians. Even its exploitation in evangelical tracts, teetotal lantern-slides, popular ballads, and mawkishly sentimental poetry shows something of a continuity with the previous century. The image, once established, could serve the earnest moralist, just as it served Young and Richardson, as a 'detector of the heart' and an instructor in 'the highest and most important doctrines'. One just pre-Victorian example, intended for young children, might suffice to demonstrate a norm familiar enough to Dickens's contemporaries. Even if most English families of the first half of the nineteenth century must have been personally familiar with the painful frequency of child mortality, it must be admitted that The Child's Companion or Sunday Scholar's Reward somewhat exaggerates the phenomenon for the purposes of its moral argument. In the twelve monthly issues of the magazine intended for distribution amongst scholars at the newly established Sunday Schools in 1828 the death-beds of no fewer than four children are graphically described, and the threat of an early death is frequently posed as a warning to young readers. Susan Neate of Cheltenham dies in the June number at the age of six; Martha Kinsey of Manchester follows in July at the age of nine; the inaptly named George William Strong of Woodbridge dies in October, aged seven, followed in November by Francis Bartley of Rotherhithe, aged five. All were devout Sunday Scholars, deeply grateful to their instructors for their education, and sure and certain of their resurrection. In September, readers were advised by 'A Father' of the benefits to the soul of a sick-bed which afforded leisure 'for self-examination'. In November we are told of a boy called James, 'a thoughtful boy', who writes the word ETERNITY in a book while he is ill; James recovers, but the same issue contains the account of the premature death of Richmond Wilberforce who disappoints his grieving father by reaching eternity before his hoped-for ordination to the ministry. This is followed by further counsels from 'A Father', who begins a short sermon on Death with the advice 'sooner or later you must die, for "the wages of sin is death" ' December opens with the warning that some small readers may be in eternity before another year closes, and the number ends with an article, accompanied by a delightfully funereal woodcut, entitled 'That's a little baby's grave'.58

Lest we be persuaded to suppose that these childhood death-beds have been fictionalised, or at least piously tampered with, for the purposes of evangelical propaganda, it is worth comparing them with what purports to be the actual account of the death of the eighteen-year-old daughter of a High Church clergyman forty years later in the century. Agnes Skinner had proved to be as precocious a child as the smuggest of the Sunday Scholars or the most responsive of Mr Brocklehurst's protegées. She could sing the psalter in church without difficulty by the age of four, and before the service began she would thrust a Bible into her mother's hand, and whisper, 'Find me about the virgins, mamma.' At the age of eleven she prophetically drew a little tombstone on her slate, and 'as it were, in a fit of abstraction', put her name on it and added the date 1868. When the year 1868 duly came round, it was painfully obvious to her family that Agnes was dying of consumption. While she lay on her death-bed, the parish choir sang her favourite hymns in the hallway downstairs, she sent her savings from her pocket-money to help the poor, bade her cousin to try to take her place in her mother's affections, and meditated on what language was spoken in Paradise. Agnes died, like Clarissa, with the name of Jesus on her lips.59

It is nevertheless difficult to determine the extent to which the Victorian fascination with mortality, and the conduct of the death-bed, are instances of art imitating life or of virtuous life following patterns established and enshrined in its art. The assumption that Dickens in particular was to blame for the debasing of the sober art of fiction by over-indulging in death-bed sentimentality seems to have established itself early on. Despite the fact that in the 1840s Dickens's descriptions of the ends of Little Nell and Paul Dombey had reduced the otherwise harshly critical Francis Jeffrey to tears, the more hard-headed James Fitzjames Stephen, writing in the Saturday Review in 1858, found it proper to complain publicly of the nature and number of his fictional fatalities. Perversely enough, though, as the twentieth century has proved, prophetically, currency is first made of the contrast between English novels and French ones:

The outrageous rants, surgical operations and post mortem examinations which afford such lively pleasure to Parisian readers, would be out of place here; but if anyone can get a pretty little girl to go to heaven prattling about her dolls, and her little brothers and sisters, and quoting texts of Scripture with appropriate gasps, dashes and broken sentences, he may send half the women in London, with tears in their eyes, to Mr Mudie's or Mr Booth's.

The reference to a Parisian taste for post mortems is doubtless derived from the continuing succès de scandale of Madame Bovary, but the reviewer has conveniently forgotten (again like his modern successors) both the romantic upsurge which produced Paul et Virginie, and more recent tear-jerkers, those potentially operatic classics, La dame aux camélias by Dumas fils and Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de Bohème. Nevertheless, he goes on to roundly accuse Dickens with having both created and exploited the distressingly vulgar state of death-bed affairs in England:

He is the intellectual parent of a whole class of fictions. .. . No man can offer to the public so large a stock of death-beds adapted for either sex and for any age from five-and-twenty downwards. There are idiot death-beds, where the patient cries ha! ha! and points wildly at vacancy—pauper deathbeds, with unfeeling nurses to match—male and female children's death-beds, where the young ladies and gentlemen sit up in bed, pray to the angels and see golden water on the walls. In short, there never was a man to whom the King of Terrors was so useful a lay figure.60

It is amusing and vigorous criticism, but it is inevitably grossly unfair. Like the easy jests of critics since, it demonstrates a disturbing failure both to sympathise with the nature and intent of Dickens's art, and to grasp the tradition in which he is working. Dickens draws from and adapts a popular literary norm, and he does so in high seriousness. The springs of his moral art determine not only his treatment of life, but also his interest in death.

We need to draw a clear distinction between what many Victorians accepted as healthy enough 'sentiment', and what the post-Victorians suspect as an indulgence in 'sentimentality'. As has frequently been suggested, not all of the first readers of The Old Curiosity Shop were as lachrymatory in their enjoyment of the novel as Francis Jeffrey, but the greater number seem to have been genuinely and comparably moved. If the 'Nelly part' of the story struck Thackeray, for one, as 'lugubrious', it seems to have remained more consistently acceptable to the rest of his contemporaries than, for example, the 'weak and artificial' Little Dorrit.61 Dickens may play on his readers' emotions, especially in his earlier novels, but his impulse to do so derives from a real enough emotional reaction within himself. It may well be that a subject is either too painful to him, as the account of Nell's demise certainly was, or that it strains his imaginative and verbal resources, but that should not suggest to us that he was insincere or lacking in full emotional and intellectual commitment. We often fail to appreciate the effect of Dickens's transitions, or occasionally lurches, between comedy and potential or realised tragedy. As the Saturday Review critic willingly granted, the novelist varies both the nature and the occupants of his death-beds, but if we look more closely at his developing art, it should also become evident that he moderates and shapes them to serve precise fictional, thematic, and indeed emotional, purposes. Death, which loomed so largely and oppressively as 'the King of Terrors' to his age, must also be allowed to be as much of a vital, as opposed to gratuitous, presence in his novels as it is in the work of his great contemporaries. If we except The Old Curiosity Shop, none of his novels moves as inexorably towards a culminating death-bed as had Clarissa, though all contain and imaginatively exploit mortality as an essential part of human experience, physical as much as spiritual. Dickens, like Mrs Gaskell, or the Brontë sisters, or even George Eliot, gives death both a fictional context within a realist scheme, and something of a moral force; in Dickens's case, however, it also has a crucial role in an evolving design.

As many contemporary biographies demonstrate, the concluding acts of a subject's life held a fascination for the Victorians which has been replaced in our own century by uneasiness and embarrasment. Details of the mortal sickness, death-bed confessions or professions, last words, and complex funerary arrangements, once considered an essential element in the exposition of character, are now likely to be suppressed or at least tainted with the pejorative overtones of the word 'Victorian'.62 In the nineteenth century, however, the deathbed retained its ancient moral importance as the final tester of the soul, but as the F. D. Maurice affair of 1853 revealed, questions of the soul's ultimate destiny remained of prime public interest. To steadily Protestant England, the four last things—Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell—were the only last things, and decisions concerning Heaven and Hell were fixed and eternal. The mortal soul, consigned to one or the other, was judged everlastingly without the doubtful benefit of a purgatorial middle way. If Jacobean playwrights, a steady stream of tract-writers and composers of sacred and profane lives, and a positive lava-flow of Hell-fire preachers had asserted the damnation not only of notorious sinners but also of the large body of men unfortunate enough not to be numbered amongst the elect, Victorian novelists generally speculated circumspectly or not at all. Having given life to characters and led them through temptation, few were prepared to continue judging them after death. F. D. Maurice attempted to voice publicly a churchman's honest doubts as to the doctrine of eternal damnation, but the arguments behind his case were not only current in liberal-Christian circles, they were often already accepted. Unitarians, at least, had long argued that a loving God could not properly abandon his creation so easily to the everlasting bonfire.63 It was scarcely surprising that Maurice's Theological Essays should have been dedicated to his old friend Tennyson, for if a doubt about any life after death runs through In Memoriam, the idea of Hell certainly does not. Nevertheless, if the agnostic George Eliot found Maurice's argument 'muddy rather than profound', his fellow-churchmen were greatly disturbed by his supposedly reasoned challenge to orthodoxy.64 The literature of the period suggests, however, that if an easy division of characters into sheep and goats was possible in this world, it was proper to relieve the pain of loss by assuming that in the next the sheep alone lived on. If Mrs Gaskell was already firmly established in the Unitarian theological tradition, it is perhaps significant to the nature of his death-beds that Dickens chose to worship as a Unitarian in the 1840s. Certainly, he allots extended death scenes only to his virtuous characters, and visions of eternal bliss only to his most innocent.

Although Nell's actual death takes place off-stage (Dickens's own grief seems to have insisted that it did), we are given sufficient assurances as to its divine nature. Nell bequeaths her love to the living, and her soul to the angels. Her creator, actively distressed by the death of one 'so young, so beautiful, so good', wrenches comfort from the idea of life going on in this world:

Oh! it is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach, but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and it is a mighty, universal Truth. When Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the Destroyer's steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to heaven. (OCS, ch. 72)

As Alexander Welsh has noted, memory seems to supply immortality and 'good deeds that spring from the wounds of the dead are deeds inspired in the living'.65 This idea remains constant in Dickens's work, both as a form of comfort to the living and as a reassurance in the face of an actively encroaching death, but Welsh is surely too narrow in his fundamental assertion that 'Dickens does not believe in supernatural powers'.66 His references to an afterlife may well suggest that they are merely 'intimations' of immortality, but the fact that 'none of [his] imputations of another existence is very definite' does not necessarily undermine their acceptability as statements of faith, or as testimony to an as yet veiled reality. In The Old Curiosity Shop the blessed memory of its dead heroine creates an active goodness in this world, while her continued existence as an angel in another is much more vaguely implied, but this superstitious, even gratuitous faith is one that seems to have answered a purely local need. As Dickens's art develops, so does his understanding. It is true that there is a steady belief in the fact that the kingdom of Heaven is made up of children, but it is scarcely an unorthodox or heretical faith. If heaven is made up of Nells, Paul Dombeys, Jos, and little Johnnys, it is better so than if it were a refuge for the likes of Harold Skimpole, who merely thinks of himself as a child. In his later novels the idea of memory as a guardian angel is not only developed, it is gradually allowed to become subsidiary to a grander assertion of resurrection, one which is not confined to children but which is open to all who accept the idea of rebirth in the spirit. Florence Dombey may be inspired by the memory of a dead mother and a dead brother, but that does not mean that the novel implies that that existence is stronger than one beyond the watery, rippling sunlight on the wall. If we cannot accept the promise held out to both Jo and to Richard Carstone in Bleak House, we will inevitably fail to understand what Dickens is saying in A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend. Dickens's 'implied' heaven is surely potent enough as Jo and Magwitch drift out to scriptural quotations, as Sydney Carton mounts the scaffold, or as Betty Higden is 'lifted up to Heaven' beside the rushing waters of the Thames.

This promise of salvation is held out even to some of the villains. Carker, run down by an avenging train, is given a glimmer of eternal hope, though it is no more than a glimmer amidst the encircling gloom, and it is posed as a rhetorical question—'who shall say that some weak sense of virtue upon Earth and its reward in Heaven, did not manifest itself, even to him'. Otherwise Carker's frantic wanderings, and his sudden, accidental destruction are almost a reprise of the demise of that most haunted, but unredeemed, of Dickens's villains, Bill Sikes. Sikes denies himself repentance, it seems; he is driven out like Cain, and drawn desperately to fire; his end, strangulation in a noose intended as his means of escape, leaves him no time to seek for redemption. His wanderings seem to have presented him only with a Dantesque reiteration of his crime, an agony or torment from which he cannot be released. Ralph Nickleby too dies suddenly, and alone, rejecting hope and decency 'with a wild look .. . in which frenzy, hatred, and despair, were horribly mingled' as a storm-cloud lowers above him. Quilp drowns with 'a yell, which seemed to make the hundred fires that danced before his eyes tremble'. Jonas Chuzzlewit poisons himself, while Steerforth (if he is to be classed amongst such villains) drowns at sea in yet another storm. Rigaud is killed in the collapse of the creaking Clennam house; Mme Defarge is accidentally shot as she struggles with Miss Pross; Compeyson dies as he wrestles in the water with Magwitch, and Rogue Riderhood and Bradley Headstone drag each other down, locked in an unyielding and deathly grip. Only Fagin, whose execution we do not witness, is allowed time to contemplate his impending end, and he, so long associated with the Devil, thrusts aside the kneeling, praying Oliver as he rejects the last chance of repentance; left alone in his cell as his visitors leave Newgate, 'he struggled with the power of desperation for an instant; and then sent up cry upon cry that penetrated even those massive walls, and rang in their ears'. Fagin, like Sikes, has made his own Hell.

The essence of Dickens's attitude to the death-bed can be seen in the letter he wrote in November 1840 in response to a request for an opinion of the work of an aspiring young poet, R. S. Horrell. Dickens's criticism of the submitted poems mixes muted praise with outright dissatisfaction, and he complains at length of one poem purporting to describe the despairing last hours of a painter haunted by the face of an imagined beloved. Horrell, he believed, had perverted the proper object and intention of a death-bed:

To make that face his comfort and trust—to fill him with the assurance of meeting it one day in Heaven—to make him dying, attended, as it were, by an angel of his own creation—to inspire him with gentle visions of the reality sitting by his bedside and shedding a light even on the dark path of Death—and so to let him gently pass away, whispering of it and seeking the hand to clasp in his—would be to complete a very affecting and moving picture. But to have him struggling with Death in all its horrors, yelling about foul fiends and bats' wings, with starting eyes and rattles in his throat, is a ghastly, sickening, hideous end, with no beauty, no moral, nothing in it but a repulsive and most painful idea. If he had been the hero of an epic in seventy books, and had out-Lucifered Lucifer in every line of them, you could scarcely have punished him at last in a more revolting manner.67

Horrell's archly romantic account of a haunted death-bed had left no room for what Dickens seems to have regarded as essential: hope, comfort and room for repentance. The imagination rather than opening heaven to the dying man, served only to accentuate his despair, and Horrell seemed to have stifled any chance of the redemption of either a desolate past or a horrific present.

'Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead.' This proposition is desperately posed by Ebenezer Scrooge as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come points to his grave-stone in a gloomy and overgrown city church-yard. Scrooge is allowed to add a qualification, however: 'But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.' The accompanying Spirit gives him no answer until he moves from the inspiration to the act of faith:

'Spirit!' he cried, tight clutching at its robe, 'hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?'

The Spirit wavers, trembles, and then disappears as Scrooge's resolution translates itself into fervent prayer. The grave-yard 'walled in by houses, overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite', is suddenly transformed into Scrooge's familiar bedstead, and Time lies before its newly awakened occupant, offering him the chance of a fuller and happier life. A Christmas Carol, the first of the Christmas books, meditates like all of its successors, on time, past, present, and to come, and it sees death countered only by the hope of new life. Scrooge is allowed, unlike Dives in the parable, to come back to life, and he, unlike Lazarus too, is allowed to warn and to preach repentance. In changing from the man he was, he is not simply reborn, he is seen literally to defeat death. Earlier in the story, as he had been forced to contemplate his own unwanted corpse, Scrooge had been struck by the horror of death, a horror which Dickens stresses before he counters it:

Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand WAS open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man's. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!68

Over the good man, though not yet over Ebenezer

Scrooge, Death has no Dominion, however blighted the world in which he had his being, even a world dominated by a festering grave-yard. Good deeds, springing from the assured heart, redeem first the man, and, gradually, the world beyond him.


1 'Fiction, Fair and Foul' (Nineteenth Century, June 1880), vol. XXXIV of the Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, p. 272. For Dickens's death-rate see also William R. Clark, 'The Rationale of Dickens' Death Rate', Boston University Studies in English, vol. II, no. 6 (Autumn 1956) pp. 125-39.

2 Edwin Chadwick, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842), M. W. Flinn (ed.) (Edinburgh, 1965) pp. 422-3.

3 6 May 1863. The Speeches of Charles Dickens, K. J. Fielding (ed.), (Oxford, 1960) p. 320. For Dickens's interest in public health see also Norris Pope, Dickens and Charity (1978) ch. 5. p. 248. For further comment on this subject see John Morley's excellent study Death, Heaven and the Victorians (1971) p. 7.

5 Edwin Chadwick, 'On the best Modes of representing accurately, by Statistical Returns, the Duration of Life', Journal of the Statistical Society of London, vol. VII (1844) p. 6.

6 Quoted from B. Benjamin, Health and Vital Statistics (London, 1968) p. 115.

7 See George Rosen, 'Disease, Debility, and Death' in H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff (eds), The Victorian City, vol. 2 (1973) pp. 626-7.

8 Thomas A. Welton, 'On Certain Changes in the English Rates of Mortality': A Paper read to the Statistical Society, 17 Feb. 1880, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, vol. XLIII (1880) pp. 65 ff.

9Journal of the Statistical Society of London, vol. XXVIII (1865) pp. 402 ff.

10 Figures based on those in Chadwick's Supplementary Report. . . On the Practice of Interment in Towns (1843) pp. 256-66.

11 Rosen, op. cit., p. 649.

12 Chadwick's Supplementary Report, pp. 55-6.

13 Audrey C. Peterson, 'Brain Fever in Nineteenth Century Literature: Fact and Fiction', Victorian Studies, vol. XIX (June 1976) pp. 445 ff.

14 See for example Walter Russell Brain, 'Dickensian Diagnoses', British Medical Journal (1955), reprinted in Some Reflexions on Genius and other Essays (1960) pp. 123-36. See also the exhibition catalogue Dickens and Medicine (Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, June 1970).

15 For Dickens's possible experience of the outbreak at Chatham in 1832 see W. J. Carlton, 'When the Cholera raged at Chatham', The Dickensian (June 1953).

16 These figures are quoted from R. Thorne Thome's The Progress of Preventive Medicine during the Victorian Era 1837-1887 (1887) by George Rosen, op. cit., pp. 634-6.

17 Ibid., pp. 652-5.

18Punch, vol. xxxv (1858) p. 5.

19 Quoted by Denis Smith in his 'The Building Services' in M. H. Port, (ed.) The Houses of Parliament (New Haven and London, 1976) p. 226.

20 Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, vol. II (1851) p. 402.

21 John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, ed. J. W. T. Ley (1928) p. 279.

22 Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: An Autobiography, vol. II (1850) pp. 204-7.

23 For the grave-yard in Bleak House see Trevor Blount, 'The Graveyard Satire of Bleak House in the context of 1850', R. E. S. New Series, vol. xiv, no. 56 (1963).

24Black's Guide to London and its Environs, fifth edition (1873) p. 19.

25 The history of cemeteries in the nineteenth century has been excellently charted by James Stevens Curl in his The Victorian Celebration of Death (Newton Abbot, 1972). For cemeteries see also Chapters 3 and 4 of John Morley's Death, Heaven and the Victorians, and Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes towards Death from the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Patricia M. Ranum (Johns Hopkins UP, 1974) pp. 15-21, 70 ff. For Dickens's attitude to, and use of, urban graveyards see A. W. C. Brice and K. J. Fielding, 'Bleak House and the Graveyard' in Robert B. Partlow Jr (ed.), Dickens the Craftsman: Strategies of Presentation (Carbondale, Illinois, 1970).

26 G. A. Walker, Gatherings from Graveyards (1839) quoted by Morley, op. cit. pp. 35-6.

27 Edwin Chadwick, Supplementary Report on . . . the Practice of Interment in Towns, p. 27.

28 Ibid., pp. 23-4.

29 Ibid., p. 15.

30 'The Cemetery: A Brief Appeal to the Feelings of Society on Behalf of Extra Mural Burial' (1848). Quoted by Curl, op. cit., pp. 136-7.

31 Quoted by Morley, op. cit., pp. 42-3.

32 J. C. Loudon, On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries and on the Improvement of Churchyards (1843) p. 1.

33 'An Essay upon Epitaphs', The Poetical Works of Wordsworth, ed. Thomas Hutcheson, new edition revised by Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford, 1936) pp. 730-1.

34 Leader's 'The Churchyard at Bettwys-y-Coed' is now in the Guildhall Art Gallery and Hughes's 'Home From Sea', thought to have been first exhibited (without the figure of the girl) in 1857, in the Ashmolean Museum. Both are reproduced in Jeremy Maas's Victorian Painters (1969) pp. 228 and 136. Bowler's 'The Doubt' is now in the Tate Gallery. Both it and Mann's 'The Child's Grave' are illustrated in Christopher Wood's Victorian Panorama: Paintings of Victorian Life (1976) pp. 105 and 106. Millais's 'The Vale of Rest' is also in the Tate Gallery.

35The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens, ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey and Kathleen Tillotson, vol. 1, pp. 268, 390.

36Letters from Charles Dickens to Angela Burdett-Coutts 1841-1865, selected and edited by Edgar Johnson (1953) pp. 264-5, 294. For the possible relationship between Nell's country grave and Mary's suburban one see F. S. Schwarzbach, Dickens and the City (1978) pp. 59-62.

In November 1831 Dickens had written a particularly weak eight-stanza poem entitled 'The Churchyard' in Maria Beadnell's album. It is largely a meditation on the contrast between the rich and the poor and on the equality enforced by death. See Collected Papers (Nonesuch Dickens) vol. II, pp. 281-2. The last illustration to Nicholas Nickleby ('The Children at their Cousin's Grave') also precisely reflects this mood.

37 For Victorian funerary art see Morley, op. cit., and Curl, op. cit. See also Geoffrey Rowell, 'Nineteenth-century attitudes and practices' in G. Cope (ed.), Dying, Death and Disposal (1970).

38 For a useful general survey of death-beds in Victorian fiction see Chapter 7 of John R. Reed's Victorian Conventions (Ohio University Press, 1975). See also Philip Collins's pamphlet, From Manly Tear to Stiff Upper Lip: The Victorians and Pathos (Victoria University Press, Wellington, New Zealand, 1974).

39 Laurence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977) p. 112.

40 Ibid., pp. 257-9.

41 Ariès, op. cit., pp. 55-6.

42The Death of Ivan Ilyich, trans. Rosemary Edmonds in The Cossacks and Other Stories (Penguin Classics, 1960).

43Pilgrim Letters vol. II, p. 188. See below Chapter 3.

44The Letters of Charles Dickens (Nonesuch Edition), ed. Walter Dexter (1938), vol. III, pp. 61-2. See below Chapter 4.

45 See the introduction by R. A. Foakes to the Arden Edition of Henry VIII (1957). See also the Revels History of Drama in English vol IV 1750-1880, p. 20.

46 Ellen Terry, The Story of my Life (1908) p. 21.

47 See W. Moelwyn Merchant, Shakespeare and the Artist (1959) pp. 84-6. See also Peter Tomory, The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli (1972) p. 33.

48 See Geoffrey Keynes, William Pickering, Publisher: A Memoir and A Checklist of His Publications (rev. edn, 1969) p. 91.

49 Jeremy Taylor, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, with Prayers and Acts of Virtue To Be Used by Sick and Dying Persons and Rules for the Visitation of the Sick (1847) p. xi. There was a copy of the Beauties of Taylor (1845) in Dickens's library at Gad's Hill Place.

50 For Venn and Watson, and for a masterly general survey of Victorian attitudes to the four last things, see Geoffrey Rowell, Hell and the Victorians (Oxford, 1974) pp. 7-8.

51 William Hett, Miscellanies on Various Subjects, in Prose and Verse (1823) pp. 21-2.

52A Collection of Hymns, for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1830) pp. 50-1.

53The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, 4 vols (Edinburgh, 1815) vol. 3, p. 265.

54 Edward Young, Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality (1821) p. 28. In a footnote in his The Childhood and Youth of Charles Dickens (1891) Robert Langton notes a slight, and perhaps joking parallel between Young and Dickens (p. 222).

55 Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, vol. 2, pp. 210-11.

56 James Boswell visited the dying Hume on 7 July 1776, who professed to him that he 'had never entertained any belief in Religion since he began to read Locke and Clarke' and that he 'did not wish to be immortal'. The prospect of meeting friends again in Heaven seemed to Hume 'a foolish and absurd notion'. Boswell left him 'with impressions which disturbed [him] for some time'. See Boswell on Hume: 'An Account of my last interview with David Hume Esq.', printed in Norman Kemp Smith's edition of Hume's Dialogue concerning Natural Religion (Oxford, 1935).

57 Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, vol. VII (1748) pp. 129-30, 218-19. Dickens had a copy of the 1810 edition of Clarissa [8 vols] in his library at Gad's Hill Place. He also saw a French stage-adaptation of the novel in Paris in 1847, at the time of the composition of the death-bed of little Paul Dombey. He found that in the play Clarissa died 'better than the original'. Nonesuch Letters, vol. II, p. 10.

58The Child's Companion, or Sunday Scholar's Reward, vol. VI (1828).

59 (Maria Towle), James Skinner: A Memoir (1883) pp. 254-72. The states of mind of the Sunday Scholars and of Agnes Skinner are wonderfully, if irreverently caught by Mark Twain in his account of Huckleberry Finn's visit to the Mississippi home of the recently deceased Emmeline Grangerford (Huckleberry Finn, Chapter 17). Although the novel dates only from 1884, Emmeline's Crayon drawings of funereal subjects exactly reflect the sentimental art of the first half of the nineteenth century. It is small wonder that the pictures give Huck the 'Fan-tods', and that his unease is accentuated once he learns that she had also kept a scrap-book in which she collected obituaries, notices of accidents, and 'cases of patient suffering' snipped from the Presbyterian Observer.

For the eighteenth-century and Romantic interest in children see also Peter Coveney's The Image of Childhood: The Individual and Society: A Study of the Theme in English Literature (1967) and Gillian Avery's Nineteenth-Century Children: Heroes and Heroines in English Children's Stories 1780-1900 (1965).

60 Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, Saturday Review, vol. 5 (8 May 1858).

61 W. M. Thackeray in a review of Reybaud's Jerome Paturot, Fraser's Magazine, vol. XXVIII, pp. 349-62. John Hollingshead, 'Mr Dickens and his Critics', The Train, August 1857. Reprinted in Philip Collins (ed.), Dickens: The Critical Heritage (1971) p. 376.

62 For the use of the death-bed in Victorian biography see Chapter 3 of A. O. J. Cockshut's Truth to Life: The Art of Biography in the Nineteenth Century (1974).

63 For the Maurice affair and its place in the general Victorian discussion of Hell see Rowell, op. cit., pp. 76-89. See also W. O. Chadwick, The Victorian Church, part one (1966) pp. 545-50.

64The George Eliot Letters, ed. G. S. Haight, vol. II, p. 125.

65 Alexander Welsh, The City of Dickens (Oxford, 1971) ch. XII, pp. 196 ff. My debt to Professor Welsh's study is considerable.

66 Ibid., p. 196.

67 To R. S. Horrell, 25 November 1840. Pilgrim Letters, vol. 2, p. 155.

68 All quotations from A Christmas Carol (1843) are from vol. I of the Penguin English Library Edition of the Christmas Books edited by Michael Slater.


Representative Works


Responses To Death