Death in Nineteenth-Century British Literature Overviews - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 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...

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