Posts Tagged death and mourning

Margaret Hale: The Morbid Homemaker

23 March 2012
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Daniela Denby-Ashe Portrays Margaret Hale in the BBC Adaptation of “North and South.”

Margaret Hale is a good and proper English lady who confronts angry rioters and challenges men on questions of industrial labor relations. Her brother is a mutineer living in exile in Spain. Her father is former vicar turned non-conformist who has relocated his family from an idyllic southern village to a bleak northern industrial town where her mother’s health promptly begins to fail. At nineteen years old she has to contend with death, civil unrest and the police, but along the way she grows  enamored to her dynamic new way of life in the North of Britain.

Published as a weekly from 1854-55, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South takes an unflinching look at the fault lines in British society in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Weaving contemporary social issues into an elegant coming-of-age story, Gaskell takes a frank yet even-handed view of the cultural differences between the industrial North and agrarian South, and the emergence of labor unions. She portrays religious intolerance, the injustice of courts martial, and the entrapment of women. She takes on all of these issues and more with a combination of clarity, nuance and sophistication that is rare among social critics of any century.

North and South is a veritable treasure trove of historical detail and nuance of the sort beloved by social historians and period writers alike. Here the cultural norms that form the background of more conventional works are brought into the forefront, contrasted across regional and class lines, made the topics of passionate debate, and—best of all—transgressed. It is also a good story. One of its most poignant features consists in its portrayal of ritual mourning and compassion toward dying as wellsprings of social cohesion.

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The Lost Art of Sentimental Hairwork

4 February 2012

Mrs. Hamlin's Family History Wreath

Mrs. Hamlin of Omaha, Nebraska left a rather curious heirloom to her descendants—an intricately woven bouquet composed entirely of human hair. Buried deep inside, each of its flowers is numbered with a tiny label corresponding one of fifteen names written on a separate index card; those of herself and her loved ones. More than a century ago, each of these people offered up their locks of brown or gray—literally, pieces of themselves—to provide the material for what would become a lasting symbol family unity. 

The weaver need not have been the eccentric that one might suppose. On the contrary, she was likely to have been a conventional middle class lady going about her fancywork. She may have included a lock of her own in the wreath, but quite possibly she did not, preferring instead to be present as the sum of its parts; the invisible weaver of family ties. As a good 19th century woman, the domestic harmony she fostered was an expression of herself; her self-portrait in sacrifice. 

As Helen Sheumaker describes in Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America, hairwork in its myriad forms had not only established itself as longstanding tradition by the latter half of the 19th century, but had become an active fashion. Husbands went to work wearing watch fobs fashioned of their wives hair. Locks from the dearly departed were mounted into rings and brooches. Ladies filled their autograph books with snippets from their friends. At a time of rising commercialism, sentimental hairwork became a way both to signal one’s sincerity and, paradoxically, to stay in style. 

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The Lighter Side of Victorian Spiritualism

3 September 2011

The Spirit Katie King in the Seance Room

The Spirit Katie King in the Seance Room

“One important and often overlooked aspect of Victorian mediumship is that it could be enormous fun,” says Alex Owen in The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. This is the picture that emerges when one looks particularly at the “star mediums” of the 1870’s, who were known for performing theatrical, full-body materializations for eager audiences.

In a dim seance room, the medium would enter a closed cabinet wherein she would tap the mysterious psychical forces that would allow her to manifest one of her spirit familiars. This familiar would then emerge to from behind the curtain to entertain the assembled sitters. Each medium had her own repertoire of otherworldly entitles at her command, each with his or her own distinct personality, speech patterns, favored tricks and antics. They could be gallant, flirtatious, aggressive, or playful, as suited them.  

Florence Cook’s child spirit Pocha “stole money and trinkets from the sitters, climbed on the laps of gentlemen, stroked their whiskers, and allowed herself to be kissed and cuddled.” Annie Fairlamb’s male familiar Sam repeatedly boxed a sitter on the side of the head until the man guessed his name right. Elizabeth d’Esperance manifested Yolande, a sensual, oriental girl who kissed and caressed her sitters, and made gifts of exotic flowers that she materialized into the room. 

These encounters often took on highly sexual overtones. Clad in loose-fitting garments, liberated from extraneous corsets and underwear, spirits sometimes invited sitters to explore their corporeal forms and prove to themselves just how very real they were. Florence Cook was famously purported to have carried on an affair with one of her investigators, whom she allowed to enter the materialization cabinet with her. The seance room was a liminal space where participants were afford greater license to transgress the ordinary norms of Victorian society.

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The Enigmatic Lachrymatory, or Tear Bottle

23 July 2011

Lachrymatory, or Tear-Catcher Bottles

Behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping, and began to wash His feet with tears, . . . and anointed them with the ointment. [Luke 7:37-38]

Does this passage describe a sinner woman deliberately anointing Jesus’s feet with a bottle of her own tears, or was she merely crying as she applied an ointment? The historical reality of the lachrymatory, or “tear bottle” is something of a controversy. Small glass or ceramic bottles found in ancient tombs have long been supposed, by some, to have once held mourner’s tears, but are more likely to have contained oils or perfumes. During the Victorian era, it is said that widows used narrow glass bottles like the ones pictured above to carry their tears. Depending on whom you ask, the custom was either to sprinkle the contents of the bottle on the grave to signify the end of the first year or mourning, or to mourn until the tears evaporated. 

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“An Interval of Tranquility:” The Rural Cemetery Movement in the United States

4 June 2011

Mount Auburn Cemetery, c1840s

In 1780 Paris’s Cimitière des Innocents had become so overcrowded that decomposing corpses overflowed into the basements of nearby apartment buildings, poisoning residents with mephitic gas. In the early 1800’s, New Yorkers looked with horror upon Trinity churchyard, which had become so densely packed with bodies that its burial mounds rose several yards above street level; the “deadly miasmas” it produced were blamed for the yellow fever epidemics of 1819-1822. At the dawn of the Victorian era, cities were literally overflowing with their dead.

In Part One of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History, David Charles Sloane describes how chronic overcrowding in urban churchyards and vaults gave rise to the rural cemetery movement in the United States, and produced some of the most beautiful landscaped environments of the nineteenth century. Rural cemeteries were more than just a change of venue; they represented a radical transformation in how Americans memorialized their dead. An idyllic new alternative to the churned-over churchyards that had been affording city dwellers with little more than temporary storage, rural cemeteries were conceived of as veritable “gardens of graves;” permanent resting places that the general public would visit in a spirit of solemn contemplation.

Founded in 1831, Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery was the first of its kind in the United States. Inspired by Paris’s Père Lachaise, which opened in 1804, it was designed to afford city dwellers with easy access to naturalistic landscapes, picturesque settings, and a space for tranquil reflection. “The cemetery,” writes Sloane,

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