Nothing proves a better test of historical difference than what we all have in common. Like us, the Victorians thought the death of the young more terrible than that of the old; they found sudden loss more difficult to cope with than losses they had long anticipated; they relied on family and friends for comfort in times of bereavement; they took solace from memories of the dead, whom they were inclined, at least in the early stages of their grief, to idealise. Some of our received opinions about the Victorians' mortuary excesses owe as much to their own self-criticism as to their actual practice: contemporary reformers were quick to denounce the expensive funerals popular at the beginning of the period, for example, just as they later campaigned against the 'ghoul-like ghastliness' of extravagant mourning-dress for women. Then as now, there were many ways of dying and many modes of grieving for the dead. But a death in the Victorian family did differradically from one in our own - if only because 'in' the family was hardly a figure of speech. Until the First World War, the event almost invariably took place at home. And until the later decades of the century, Jalland argues, it typically took place in a climate of religious belief that made all the difference not only to the dying but to those left behind.
LRB 6 March 1997 | PDF Download