Review: The Victorian Book of the Dead March 6, 2015Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
In the last thirty years historians have found a new way to pattern their vast bibliographies. Rather than just include twenty pages in alphabetical order – too easy for the scholarly mind – many have decided, instead, to split the bibliography in two. The first bibliography will be primary sources and the second bibliography will be made up of secondary sources: so a medievalist puts all the reminiscences of fat abbots in the first part; and all his friends and enemies in the second. This is an unnecessary ‘improvement’, but in one respect it proves useful, because you can see how much historians actually read about the past and how much they spend their time head-butting or caressing their colleagues. It is NOT a good sign if you find a book where the second bibliography is longer than the first, particularly in a period for which lots of written sources survive. Yet it is common, even, typical in some parts of the ‘science’ of history; and in some particularly rarefied regions (the upper and oxygen-starved slopes of ‘cultural history’) indispensable. However, every so often an author has the nerve to insist on primary sources over secondary sources: this is pure history, crack cocaine with no bath salts mixed in. Take a new source-rich favourite the Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, which has been haunting Beach’s dreams for a couple of months now. Yes, BotD has a final bibliography with lots of secondary sources, but that is just because the book is wall-to-wall primary. In fact, the BotD is what academic publishing houses would describe as a ‘reader’ and it is just under 350 pages long.
Now CW has been offering the world ‘readers’ on various unusual, typically anomalous subjects, for a decade, including a series on Ohio ghosts. They have been readers sui generis, though, as the author not only finds obscure sources, she then illustrates these obscure sources with other obscure sources and the whole is told with her edged sense of humour. These sources are sewn together into chapters with similar sources and CW offers general conclusions or has the supreme good taste to let the sources do so themselves. She calls her method ‘selecting and editing’ and this is a better description than ‘reader’, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story either: the truth is that CW has taken a despised genre, the source manual, and made it into an artform; she found the reader brick and left it marble. Not only… Her last books have a vexatious ambition and each one has sucked in more territory. BotD is by far the most ambitious (though God knows what she’ll come up with next) as CW has hammered her claim into ‘Tanatos, 19 cent, English-speaking World’ here. Now if we had a Professor Death from, say, the University of Rhode Island doing the same thing, he would have straightforward chapters in his death book: there would be the death bed, (inevitably) gender and death, the coffin, the funeral, the religious rites (with some reflections on the death of God), mourning and just possibly an interesting preface… However, CW is not Professor Death, though she once, according to a chance aside in BotD, ran a vintage clothes store. Some of the chapter headings are included here because they open a crack of light into her disturbing mind: ‘Crape: Its Uses and Abuses’, ‘The Corpse Sat Up: Wakes and Watches Gone Wrong’, ‘Died of Lizards: Strange Deaths’… Professor Death from RI will raise his eyebrows at this partial list: he will probably find it ‘infantile’ and will be astounded when his word search for Nietzsche turns up nothing. But you and I have only the money to buy and read one book. So who will you go with? CW and the lizards (15.94 USD) or Professor Death and his footnotes on Foucault (79.99 USD)?
Make no mistake death is a difficult subject and BotD is not a page turner: the stories, however, stay with you like head-lice; there is, for example, one description of a newborn’s death that you will never be able to forget… Beach, in fact, has read this book on and off slowly over three months for the simple reason that he doesn’t much like the idea of his own demise: and he kept skipping the page with the dead baby photograph (p. 161), but accidentally and repeatedly opened the book there…. Another nightmare to reckon with. He came out learning, though, more than he ever would had he gone with Professor Death’s Death and Dying, 1850-1903 (Rhode Island UP), the one that retails for just under 80 dollars hardback and 78 dollars on Kindle (the bastards). It is true that there are lots of ‘infantile’ details in CW’s work: the child who was buried after twisting up his insides by somersaulting or the children who perished from skipping, Struwwelpeter in black; the woman who had to be shaved on her deathbed, as unknown to the world, she had facial hair; the spiritualist who killed herself to make a prediction work (we’ve all been there); the mother who drank poison and threw herself into her child’s open grave; the unknown lady who turned up at random funerals to wail; the man who survived being butchered by the doctors who had grave-robbed him; the woman who collected ten thousand locks of hair for a wreath; the letters from the dead (the 19C equivalent of phonecalls from the dead?); the graveyard in which amputated fingers and legs of railwaymen were buried…
So a raspberry to Professor Death and yah-book-sucks* to Rhode of Island University Press. The truth is that we come much closer to the essence of the experience of nineteenth-century death through CW’s ‘infantile’ examples than we would, say, in an essay by Ruskin, carefully annotated by Prof Death or one of his bored graduate students. And what do we learn from her ‘infantile’ details. Well, what Ruskin or some other illuminatus could have told us, but we learn the lessons more vividly. Remember the old adage, a historian must read until they can hear the dead speaking? Well, when you finish this they’ll be shouting and what they say is not very nice… Death was central and it was naked in Victorian society, so much more than in ours: and if anything we seem to be becoming more not less embarrassed by death as the years pass (here CW might disagree). In the 1800s death was tyrannical and all consuming. There were tombstone censors, there were patents on ways of preserving ashes, and coffins, of course; there were the dead clothed ‘as if [they] were dressed to seduce Death Himself’; there were photographers who specialized in corpses; there was white ink for mourning paper (Beach’s single favourite detail); and there were professional mourners, who briefly turned mainstreet America into downtown Naples. CW dedicates the book to ‘[t]hose who are not lost but gone before’. Beach would have borrowed the sentence of a desperate Irish lover who refused her unsuitable fiance because her mother had died: ‘She could have fought the living… She could not fight the dead.’
The ritual criticism: Beach would have had 375 pages and a chapter on gravestones.
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*This pun began as a spelling mistake but I’m really proud of it