Writing Death and Absence in the Victorian Novel: Engraved Narratives

May 11, 2014 | Reviews

In February 1841, when the doll-like and innocent Nell diedat the end ofThe Old Curiosity Shop, the Victorians were in a state of shock, some of Dickens’s readers even going into mourning. So were they when smallpox took away Jo in Bleak House in 1853. These examples may be enough to illustrate the Victorian novel’s interest in death as well as the Victorians’ relationship with the Grim Reaper. The theme lay, indeed, at the heart of Victorian culture, at a time when epidemic diseases spread throughout the country and numerous unburied corpses were found in cities threatening to contaminate the healthy bourgeois. Death haunted the Victorian period, and the Victorians were as much aficionados of ghost stories as experts in supernatural phenomena. Jolene Zigarovich’s Writing Death and Absence deals with the Victorian novel’s relationship with death, its focus on missing bodies and its general rhetoric of absence. Deathbed or funeral scenes and epigraphic texts abound in Victorian novels, as Zigarovich’s work illustrates. But death is often left unexplained, in particular when absent figures never return, when corpses remain missing and mourning is thus endlessly suspended. Far from examining representations of the corpse, Zigarovich’s work looks at the absent body and its position in Victorian narratives and compares the narrative act to “a series of textual murders and resurrections” (p. 2). The way in which the texts shape themselves around an absent body or a blank space is therefore the subject of Zigarovich’s study, which reads the Victorian novel as the product of a period fascinated with death.

The development of mourning rituals throughout the Victorian era and the general “cult of death” were linked with the decline in faith typical of the second half of the nineteenth century and the belief in the afterlife, especially visible in the numerous attempts at materialising spirits. This is why Zigarovich sees Victorian novels as attempts at both unfolding the mysteries of death and showing death’s insoluble mysteries. Through their plays with literal or rhetorical death and resurrection/preservation (through taxidermy or embalming), their missing corpses, and incomplete burials, Victorian novelists create “textual trauma and narrative hysterics”, to quote Zigarovich’s terms (6). Zigarovich turns towards famous Victorian novels and writers, choosing to probe the Victorians’ relation to death through examining novels as different as Charlotte Brontë’s Villette,Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, andWilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.

The first chapter, on Brontë’s Villette (1853), focuses on the relationship between autobiography and death. For Zigarovich, death may be seen as an impulse for autobiography. As she shows, the novel’s obsession with death is manifest in the shipwrecks, storms, cemeteries, graves, ghosts, resurrections, and exhumations which punctuate the narrative. The motifs create a “haunted text” (p. 25) which, Zigarovich contends, evidences Lucy Stowe’s traumatic experiences with loss. Moreover, trauma and loss march hand-in-hand with memory, leading Zigarovich to analyse the events in the novel which the narrator cannot realistically reveal to the reader. For Lucy’s autobiography is “symptomatic of her inability to articulate and therefore grieve her original loss” (her parents’ deaths), creating an endless mourning. Thus, absence and death (of Lucy’s parents or of Mr Paul) are left “ambiguous, allusive, and allegorical” (p. 31). The lack of realistic descriptions of death, just like the bodies that cannot be buried, are symptoms of trauma, and are contrasted with other characters’ more successful articulations of death. Lucy’s trauma explains therefore the “mortuary irresolution” (p. 55) of Villette, Zigarovich contends, and the many ghosts and parodies of burial rites which are found throughout the novel.

Chapter 2, on Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), reveals Dickens’s heroine’s “postmortem” position, since Esther has never seen her mother’s grave and her father’s corpse ends up anonymous. The erasure of bodies (such as Krook’s spontaneous combustion) and identities throughout the novel, the empty graves, work in tandem with textual resuscitations, as when characters are compared to mummies or stuffed specimens. Their rhetorical deaths and resurrections metaphorise the heroine’s own inability to claim an identity.

Zigarovich then examines Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) and Collins’s fascination with buried texts and deceitful epitaphs. Zigarovich wrongly asserts that the serialization of the novel overlapped publication with Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), and simply lists in passing a few of Collins’s novels playing on the theme of the presumed dead returning to life, failing, for instance, to indicate that Jezebel’s Daughter is a rewriting of The Red Vial. If false graves became a marker of sensation novels, the fad for dead-yet-not-dead characters was particularly exemplified in Collins’s works, as many critics of the sensation novel have long noted. Zigarovich proposes another analysis of the opening scene of The Woman in White and Walter Hartright’s first encounter with Anne Catherick, seeing the latter as “an exhumed object” (p. 94). The point Zigarovich tries to make is that Collins exposes the “problems of narrating death” (p. 107) through numerous graveyard scenes and lying tombstones, although Collins’s novels, unlike Brontë’s, ultimately work towards truth. Zigarovich also studies Collins’s typographical directions for epitaphs, from that of The Dead Secret to Collins’s own epitaph.

In Chapter 4, on Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865), Zigarovich recalls Dickens’s recurrent uses of the theme of preservation and his frequent comparison of corpses with effigies or even wax figures. Dickens’s visits to the Paris Morgue, related in “Some Recollections of Mortality”, in The Uncommercial Traveller, typified his fascination with displayed corpses. Zigarovich argues that in Dickens’s novels, “the rhetorical modes of embalming, absence and epitaph” reveal Dickens’s “desire for personal and fictional preservation and endlessness” (p. 121). Miss Havisham, in Great Expectations, “in a preserved state of decomposition” (p. 121), Jenny Wren, the doll maker in Our Mutual Friend, who makes miniature effigies as an embalmer would, or the taxidermist Mr Venus, who keeps foetuses in bottles of spirit, are significant examples of Dickens’s obsession with conservation. Moreover, Dickens’s characters often experience disembodiment when turned into effigies, and many of his characters speak from a dead-alive position, like John Harmon staring at his own corpse, for example. The fifth and final chapter, on The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) aligns Dickens’s unfinished novel and Dickens’s own death (since Dickens had written half of the instalments when he died and three instalments were published posthumously). It examines as well Dickens’s directions of the Sapsea epitaph.

The main point that Writing Death and Absence ultimately seeks to make is that “the desire for return, for resurrection, is embedded in Victorian fiction” (p. 139). Whether the selected texts are representative enough of Victorian fiction as a whole to offer such a generalization is arguable, however, even if the Victorians’ preoccupation with and interest in death is undeniable. What led the author to bring together these texts, moreover, remains unanswered, and readers may wonder whether Charlotte Brontë may be analysed alongside sensational writers like Collins and books by Dickens, even if the novels under study were roughly published between the 1850s and 1870. Thus, even if there is no questioning the rationale behind the book and if the close analyses of the chosen texts are often valuable, the study may ultimately disappoint readers for its failure to state the principles on which its author has selected her primary sources as well as for its lack of originality and its use of sometimes (too?) famous examples from Victorian fiction. A clarification of how Zigarovich departs from earlier scholarship on Brontë, Dickens, or Collins would also have been welcomed so as to support the author’s criticism. Lastly, further developments on the Victorians’ cult of death and relationship with death may have strengthened Zigarovich’s argument and provided readers with an adequate contextualisation to fully fathom Brontë’s, Dickens’s, or Collins’s relationship with death.