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Dark Themes in Victorian Literature & Culture
Transcript of Dark Themes in Victorian Literature & Culture
The Victorian Age: Queen Victoria
What do you already know about the Victorian Age? In which century did it take place? For whom was it named?
Victorian Death Culture
Poverty, Filth, Disease, & Crime
Contrary to Popular Opinion, Victorian Literature Isn't Boring; It's Actually Pretty Freaking Awesome
The Victorian Era took place in the 19th century (the 1800s). It was named for Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and encompassed her sixty-four year reign of the British Empire, from 1837 to 1901.
Until recently, Queen Victoria's reign held the record for longest in British history, as well as being the longest reign of a female monarch in world history. The United Kingdom's current queen, Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II, recently exceeded Victoria's record of sixty-four years, 217 days on September 12, 2015!
At birth, Victoria was fifth in line to the throne and was not expected to become queen. However, after the deaths of her grandfather, father, and two uncles, she was crowned at the young age of eighteen.
A Self-Portrait by Princess Victoria, three years before she became queen (1835).
Prince Albert's death in 1861 ended the twenty-one-year-long marriage. The death of her husband sent Queen Victoria into a depression and mourning period that would last until her own death in 1901.
In 1840, at the age of twenty-one, Victoria proposed to and married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Germany. During this time, marrying a cousin was not considered taboo -- especially for European royals, whose marriages were an important aspect of international relations.
Yet Victoria and Albert's marriage was more than a wise political maneuver; the couple truly adored one another, and their marriage produced nine children.
The darkened mental state of their Queen combined with the circumstances of their times inspired an array of morbid fascinations in the Victorians.
Until very recently, death was a visible element of everday life, even in "advanced" societies such as 19th century Britain. Dr. Carol Christ, an English professor and specialist in Victorian culture, is quoted in the Berkleyan: "These days, nearly 80 percent of deaths happen in hospitals, not in the home, so we are removed from this process. In London, in 1830, the average life span for middle to upper-class males was 44 years, 25 for tradesman and 22 for laborers. Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working class families were dead by five years of age."
According to the "Friends of Oak Grove Cemetary" website:
Curtains would be drawn and clocks would be stopped at the time of death.
Mirrors were covered with crape or veiling to prevent the deceased’s spirit from getting trapped in the looking glass.
The body was watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of “waking.” The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who was not dead, but in a coma. Most wakes [...] lasted 3-4 days to allow relatives to arrive from far away. The use of flowers and candles helped to mask unpleasant odors in the room before embalming became common.
In 19th century Europe and America, the dead were carried out of the house feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him. Family photographs were also sometimes turned face-down to prevent any of the close relatives and friends of the deceased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead.
Victorian mourning customs were very specific. Formal mourning periods varied according to the relation of the mourner to the deceased. According to a Victorian issue of Harper's Bazaar:
Widows and widowers were expected to be in mourning for at least eighteen months, although this was often extended to last many years (as with Queen Victoria).
Mourning for a parent, step-parent, grandparent, or sibling was expected to last a year.
After the death of an aunt, uncle, or cousin, family members were to remain in mourning for three months.
Today, it is very difficult to tell if someone has recently lost a loved one by their mere appearance. They may seem depressed or distraught, but the way they dress does not usually change, and when it comes to day-to-day activities and errands, most individuals attempt to get back to "life as usual" as soon as possible. However, in Victorian times, mourners followed a strict code of dress and conduct. It was easy to distinguish mourners by their clothing and social absence.
Momento Mori: Reminders of Death
"A London fog is brown, reddish-yellow, or greenish, darkens more than a white fog, has a smoky, or sulphurous smell, is often somewhat dryer than a country fog, and produces, when thick, a choking sensation. Instead of diminishing while the sun rises higher, it often increases in density, and some of the most lowering London fogs occur about midday or late in the afternoon. Sometimes the brown masses rise and interpose a thick curtain at a considerable elevation between earth and sky. A white cloth spread out on the ground rapidly turns dirty, and particles of soot attach themselves to every exposed object."
- R Russell, London Fogs (London: 1880), p. 6.
Culture's Direct Influence on Literature
"How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips."
The Bronte Sisters
Victorian Fascination with the Supernatural, Psychological, & Unusual
Green Hill Cemetery
Edgar Allan Poe
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Robert Louis Stevenson