We are all familiar with the quintessential image of Queen Victoria in her widow’s weeds, dressed from head to foot in deep mourning for her beloved Albert, the Prince Consort. “Why may the earth not swallow me up?”, wrote an anguished Queen to her eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, in her first letter after her husband’s unexpected passing.
Queen Victoria’s grief was genuine, but in hindsight one can also feel a bit of theatricality in the obsessive, even exaggerated way she came to display her very real bereavement. Naturally, the Queen was no ordinary woman because of her personality as well as her station, but her long reign left an indelible mark on the way society perceived death – a society which, we must remember, changed radically during the six decades she sat on the British throne.
We tend to think of Queen Victoria as the prime example of the moral norms that governed society in the 19th century. In fact, society took a very different view on death – and mourning -, and in many respects behaved in a much more self-restrained way than did the sovereign. And when we talk about society, we actually refer to upper and middle-class society, who would have had the financial and material means to address social mores much more strictly than their socially lower contemporaries.
For all our evolution, nowadays the subject of death is almost taboo. It is best not spoken about, almost as if in some way it is not going to happen. Victorians, however, took a decisively different view. We must remember that death was much more common in the Victorian era, with people dying at a much younger age than today – and infant mortality being especially prevalent in all strata of society.
The way we mourn our dead today has also changed radically. Dressing up in black after a close relative’s death is almost unheard of among the younger generations, and no one, rich or poor, observes an official period of mourning – except in political contexts (i.e. national mourning following the death of a head of state or government). Today we still express our loss quite openly, but we’ve changed our black mourning clothes for messages on social media, or leaving out candles and flowers near local landmarks when a tragedy occurs, or someone famous dies.
Victorians were also quite outspoken when it came to expressing their personal loss, but the way they showed it was very different from ours. Death was accepted as a part of life – and for most, it was a manifestation of the will of God – so one had to unprotestingly accept it. Only a minority thought it best not to tell the dying of their impending demise, an enterprise in which many doctors collaborated if they didn’t wish to make their patients feel anguished or depressed. Those who were especially devout would prepare for the inevitable by tying up loose ends, paying off their debts and, very importantly, leaving a will, even going as far as arranging their own funerals – which were thought to be necessarily extravagant, lest neighbours should thing the family meagre or lacking in resources.
Attitudes towards infant mortality, which is rare in Western societies these days, were also very different during the 19th century. Victorians half feared, half expected some of their children to die young, and so were psychologically prepared to face the facts when they came. This does not mean that they did not grieve over their losses. For years English novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in her diary about her young son Willie, who died in infancy. Marion Sambourne (the wife of cartoonist and illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne) was less sympathetic to those who experienced such cruel losses – one day after her sister Tabitha lost her baby, Marion wrote in her diary “Tabby came to tea and dinner – seems to feel her baby’s loss v[ery] much. Very happy quiet day.”
While black and other dark colours were invariably used to signify the death of an adult, white was consistently used as a funereal colour for children. In 1903 the Grand Duke of Hesse’s only daughter, Elizabeth, died of typhoid fever while holidaying with the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia at their hunting lodge in Poland. Little Elizabeth’s funeral in her native Darmstadt (Germany) was, at her father’s behest, a large display of white fanfare, including a white coffin, white flowers and white horses.
But black was and still is the colour of mourning in the West. As soon as a member of the family died, the body would be left either in a parlour room or a bedroom to be prepared for burial, which could take place as soon as the day after (in southern European countries) to two or three weeks later (in Nordic countries). Meanwhile, windows and shutters would remain closed and mirrors would be covered in black crêpe. Servants would be given black armbands as a sign of mourning, while every-day appliances and utensils would be touched up in black or otherwise replaced given the circumstances: in Federico García Lorca’s theatre piece The House of Bernarda Alba, the bitter and recently-widowed Bernarda reprimands her daughter Adela for giving her a coloured fan, instead of a black one, to bear the excruciating heat.
Following the death of a close relative, there was to be no socialising for an extended period, which meant that, aside from very close family members and friends, no visitors would be received by the mourning family, and their venturing out into the street would be frowned upon by good society. Friends and family were expected to pay calls within two weeks of the death, but would not be received by anyone except perhaps a servant – instead, they would leave calling cards as a way of transmitting their condolences. Again, The House of Bernarda Alba exemplifies this when Bernarda literally locks herself at home after her husband’s death, not realising that her five daughters, all of marriageable age, crave nothing else but to escape their mother’s home and get husbands of their own – with catastrophic consequences for the family.
Writing to one’s friends and relations after the passing of a relative had to be done on formal writing paper with a thick black border – and the thicker the better! Obituaries would also to be printed and handed out at the funeral, often depicting a photo of the deceased. The Victorians adapted quite well to technological advances that were at their disposal when it came to mourning their dead: post-mortem photographs were extremely common, even among the poor. Equally popular was taking a cast in plaster of the deceased’s face, hands and even arms, which would later be displayed in the household as a memento. Locks of hair were taken from the dead before burial, often kept in bespoke lockets – it was even common for the family to bury locks of their own hair with the dead!
Clothing was of course the easiest and most visible way of telling the world of one’s bereavement, and so black clothes became an indispensable item in the Victorian household. Many retail businesses began to specifically cater for their mournful clientele during the Victorian era, selling all sorts of articles and accessories in black, grey and other dark colours. But purchasing new clothes was not a luxury everyone could afford, so many resorted to dyeing their casual daily clothes in black. Again, this was something which could be done in a specific establishment, or more cheaply at home (but note that underwear was the only part of a person’s wardrobe that was kept white, as the black dye’s pigments would have been too aggressive on the wearer’s delicate skin).
But even the subject of having to purchase black clothing for mourning purposes was criticised by many, as this curious and ironic extract taken from Crinolines and Crimping Irons shows:
LADY: I wish, sir, to look at some mourning.
SHOPMAN: Certainly; by all means… How deep would you wish to go, Ma’am? Do you wish to be very poignant?…. We have the very latest novelties from the Continent. Here is one, Ma’am, just imported – a widow’s silk – watered, you perceive, to match the sentiment. It is called “Inconsolable”, as is very much in vogue in Paris for matrimonial bereavements. And we have several new fabrics introduced this season to meet the demand for fashionable tribulation.
LADY: And all in French style?
SHOPMAN: Certainly – of course, Ma’am. They excel in the funèbre. Here, for instance, is an article for the deeply afflicted. A black crape – makes up very sombre and interesting. Would you allow me, Ma’am, to cut off a dress? Or if you would prefer a velvet, Ma’am –
LADY: Is it proper, sir, to mourn in velvet?
SHOPMAN: O quite! – certainly. Just coming in. Now there is a very rich one – real Genoa – and a splendid black. We call it “The Luxury of Woe”… Only 18/- a yard, and a superb quality – in short, fit for the handsomest style of domestic calamity.
LADY: And as to the change of dress, sir; I suppose you have a great variety of half-mournings?
SHOPMAN: Oh! Infinite – the largest stock in town. Full, and half, and quarter, and half-quarter, shaded off, if I may say so, like an India-ink drawing, from a grief prononcé to the slightest nuance of regret.
How one should go into mourning was, of course, dictated by a strict moral code that most, but not all, would observe. It largely depended on one’s social standing, gender and the type of loss. Mourning periods also varied greatly, depending on one’s closeness to the deceased – even a husband’s second wife would be expected to go into mourning after the death of his first wife’s parents! A widow was expected to be in full mourning for a whole year and one month, wearing bombazine (a fabric of silk or silk and wool) covered with crêpe, lawn cuffs and collars; then a second mourning (in which the poor woman would lose the crêpe but retain all other elements) for six months; this would be followed by ordinary mourning (six more months) in which she would not wear any crêpe and replace the bombazine with simple silk or wool, adding jet jewellery and ribbons during the last three months, if so desired; finally, the widow would go into half-mourning for an additional six months, being allowed to wear grey, lavender, mauve or black-and-grey, but no other colours.
Mourning a spouse according to social etiquette implicitly meant that a widowed man or woman should not expect to marry for as long as the period of mourning lasted – if they wished to remarry at all! But as we all know, many men rushed to remarry within the year, especially if they were the sole breadwinners in the household and therefore had young mouths to feed, while women, who had very few legal rights, would often have no choice but to remarry if they were to avoid falling on hard times. Even today many people of a certain generation express surprise when a widow or widower decide to remarry – surely a remnant of this strict Victorian code!
While church funerals were often attended by everyone who knew the deceased, the actual burial was an affair usually reserved only for the men – it was feared that women, overcome with grief, would become hysterical. But there were exceptions, as we see in Cranford, when, against all social norms, Miss Jenkyns heroically accompanies Miss Jessie to the funeral of the latter’s father, being the only person left to mourn the deceased: “It is not fit for you to go alone. It would be against both propriety and humanity were I to allow it”, Miss Jenkyns retorted. Even women of my maternal grandmother’s generation, born well into the 20th century, would not ordinarily attend burials, as it was not thought proper!
Attitudes towards death changed radically after the First World War. The sudden realisation of the cruelty of death in such a violent and industrial scale made most Europeans realise that death was not the romantic, social element of their imaginings, but a cruel and often unfair blow that would sooner or later come to us all. Deep mourning was significantly reduced by the late Edwardian period, and the interwar years saw the end of materials such as bombazine, which had been so popular just a generation earlier. No doubt our way of mourning will continue to evolve in subsequent generations, though there is little chance – I am relieved to say – of us going back to the strict moral codes of our Victorian ancestors.