Panel 4: Death, Mourning & Commemoration

Landscape with Tomb, French School – Shipley Art Gallery.

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Chair: Professor Kirsten T. Saxton – Professor of English at Mills College, California

Daniel O’Brien

‘A flock of ravens’: The Intermedial Development of the Fictional Undertaker in Eighteenth Century England

Undertakers stalked the pages and stages of eighteenth-century England; solitary, predatory outsiders with grave plans for the living. Surprisingly, the undertaker was a comedy figure, although his appearances were often limited to a few scenes or a handful of pages, perhaps to save audiences from the ghoulish reminders of their own end. He was striking figure, with gaunt features, a distinctive black uniform and carrying the equipment of his trade for all to see. Beyond his appearance, the undertaker’s behaviour and macabre language were reminders that he viewed the world very differently to others. This paper will briefly outline these key characteristics before arguing that the stereotypical undertaker was an intermedial creation, shaped by the contributions of different texts during the long-eighteenth century.

The paper will show that depictions of undertakers referenced earlier texts that had influenced them, seeking either to elaborate on their themes or exploit them for a quick laugh. It will also show that that exaggerated undertaker of fiction drew from real undertakers’ attempts to publicise themselves through print media. The eighteenth century was an important period for the development of the undertaking trade in the towns and cities of England. Entrepreneurial retailers diversified into the supply of funerary goods and became an increasingly important part of respectable funerals. As the goods and services of the undertakers became more common in the urban environment, they correspondingly became a feature of the literary environment.

Jolene Zigarovich

Mourning Miniatures in the Eighteenth-Century Novel

Mourning miniatures haunt the eighteenth-century novel. Standing in for the dead body, they are caressed, kissed, and worn by the mourner who desires close proximity to a lost loved one. Samuel Richardson’s The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753) includes a sentimental scene that reflects the emotional engagement with a miniature. When Sir Charles’s mother dies, he is given a silver casket containing her jewelry. As he and his sisters look through it, Charles discovers a valuable miniature:

… what was more valuable to him than all the rest, the ladies said, was a miniature picture of his mother, set in gold; an admirable likeness, they told me; and they would get their brother to let me see it. Neglecting all the rest, he eagerly took it out of the shagreen case; gazed at it in silence; kissed it; a tear falling from his eye. He then put it to his heart; withdrew for a few moments; and re-turned with a cheerful aspect.

(Samuel Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (Oxford University Press, 1986). Quote from Volume II, letter XX, pp. 368-69)

Miniatures are valued for the quality of the portrait—an “admirable likeness” assures the recipient that it has emotional value and deserves to be, as Charles performs, cherished, kissed, and placed near the heart. If not worn or secreted in a pocket, miniatures are encoffined, placed in caskets and resurrected at special moments for the owner’s comfort. The growth of increasingly private, child- centered families made loss harder to bear and contributed to the miniature’s popularity as a token of mourning. Posthumous portrait miniatures, or tiny scenes of weeping mourners, were private tokens that emblematically kept the absent family member within the circle of the living.

As memorials begin to focus on the mourner, numerous miniatures depict figures in mourning. Maria, Duchess of Gloucester (when Lady Waldegrave) (c.1765) shows her wearing widow’s weeds (and is a copy of her full-size portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds). She is in mourning for her first husband, James Waldegrave, who died in 1763. The portrait exemplifies a common melancholic pose from the period: a sorrowful female with body turned to the left, eyes not facing the viewer but instead raised to Heaven. My talk will include discussions of several other mourning miniatures, such as The Lady Mary Fenwick (c.1737) and Cosway’s miniature Portrait of Margaret Cocks, mourning her sister’s remains (c.1787).

Not surprisingly, numerous mourning miniatures appear in fiction in the second half of the century, as the sentimental mode had taken hold of the culture. As seen in Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance and The Mysteries of Udolpho, numerous plots from the period are hinged on circulating miniatures. My talk will uncover the significance of this intersection between the visual and textual as I examine how miniatures often play critical roles in orphan plots, such as Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline, The Orphan of the Castle (1788). With actual and fictional examples, I wish to argue that the slippage between the pious and secular, relic and fashion, melancholy and pleasure is a common effect of devotional miniatures.

Leigh Wetherall Dickson

‘A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust’: Byron and the Visual Art of (Posthumous) Fame

This paper will consider the relationship between Byron’s sitting for a bust by Thorvaldsen in 1817 and Byron’s equivocal attitude towards his fame as exemplified in the first two cantos of Don Juan (1819). Taking my lead from Malcolm Baker’s suggestion that the marble portrait bust occupies a liminal space between the commemoration of the living and memorialisation of the dead, I will argue that the process of sitting for Thorvaldsen began in Byron the reflection upon his fame and his relationship with his readership as espoused in Don Juan. I also want to examine the relationship between the bust and the poem within the context of what has been characterised by recent scholarship as an age of doubt. For British Romantic period writers, rapidly changing circumstances at home and abroad heightened the urgency, and thus the awareness of the difficulty, of comprehending the historical dimensions of the present. Thomas Carlyle characterised the dominant mood of the extended Regency period as being ‘intensely self-conscious’ which prompted cultural introspection. One important aspect of the period is how seriously writers and readers considered the value their work might have. This often meant making an opposition between the value that might be found in the market and the value inherent in their work which prompted some troubling thoughts. How would their age look from the perspective of the future? Who would be remembered? The speculative nature of Don Juan is an invitation for Byron’s readers to offer an evaluative response as to his worth. Byron’s prohibition upon having laurels added to the bust on the basis that it ‘would be a most awkward assumption and anticipation of that which may never come to pass’ is indicative of his own uncertainty as to what that response might be in both the immediate present and the future.

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Thank you for engaging with the ‘Death, Mourning & Commemoration’ panel, we hope you have enjoyed the papers. If you have a question or comment please ‘Leave a Reply’ in the comment panel below. Please indicate if you are happy for your question to be addressed during the corresponding live session on Wed/Thurs (see Programme) and the chair will hope to call on you then.

12 thoughts on “Panel 4: Death, Mourning & Commemoration”

  1. Thank you for such a great panel! I have a question for all three speakers. (Happy for my questions to be asked in the q&a).

    Dan: I have two questions. Firstly, is there a reason why plays in particular featured the “comic” undertaker? Are there many representations in prose fiction? Secondly, you mentioned the “problematic nature of the relationship between medical professionals and undertakers”. Can you say more about this?

    Jolene: Do you find any differences in the ways in which miniatures/portraits are represented in Gothic fiction? I’m not only thinking of Udolpho but also The Italian (Ellena’s miniature of her father that Schedoni believes to be him). Of course the Gothic genre has links to sentimental fiction, I just wondered if you had any more thoughts on this!

    Leigh: In Don Juan, Byron refers to Keats who was “snuff’kd out by an Article”. Keats also said in one of his letters that he was living a “posthumous existence”. I suppose my question is how Romantic writers thought about posthumous identities in a general sense?

    Thanks again 🙂
    – Molly

    1. HI Molly, thanks for your very good question and the honest answer is, at this very early stage, I have no idea!!
      I thank you for reminding me about Keats’s very moving use of the phrase, albeit in a very different manner to Byron, whose not knowing how or even if he will be remembered unlocks the creative freedom of ‘Don Juan’, whereas for Keats I think he is describing the experience of being effaced whilst still alive: ‘If I should die I have left not immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d’. But how to read Keats’s very moving summation of himself as already having entered some kind of afterlife within the broader context of Romanticism I am not yet sure but you have opened a very positive line of enquiry for me – thank you!

    2. Hi Molly

      Thanks for the great questions – I will likely cover these in a bit more detail during the coffee house too.

      The stage undertaker seems like a useful stock figure – he is quite recognisable and his character is very simple (he wants to bury people and everything about him is a bit false – from his sorrow to his products). The stage undertaker is a villian, but we also know that he is going to lose – so no matter how nefariously he behaves we can enjoy the predictable defeat. In the narrative of the plays he also reminds the audience that the situation is not truly serious. So whilst other characters behave mournfully, the presence of the comic undertaker reminds us that this is not a tragedy.

      I haven’t encountered many prose undertakers within the period, although prose is an area I have explored in quite a bit less detail so far. The examples I can think of tend to be less comic in tone but we do see some satirical depictions of the undertaker published in newspapers of the period. These tend to criticise the products of the trade and remind people that undertakers gain from death.

      The relationship between undertakers and doctors is very interesting. In some instances the two figures represent the two possible fates of the dying individual – the doctor represents life and the undertaker is death (the sick person is caught in a struggle between the two – with both seeking payment as a result of their services). We get a hint of a this in Thomas Rowlandson’s ‘Giving up the Ghost’ where the undertaker advances on the sick man whilst the doctor sleeps and in scenes from the stage where undertakers talk about easing people to their deaths.

      There are however some really interesting examples where it is suggested that the doctors and undertakers are colluding with each other. Some undertakers will not ‘complain about the faculty’ and others talk of doctors (and also apothecaries) promising them custom.

    3. Hi Molly, thank you for your helpful question! It is one that in the larger chapter I am still considering. I would initially remark that the instances of Gothic miniatures and portraits often involve mistaken identity and misinterpretation. They are then later transformed into key pieces of identification (as in The Italian, as you mention). The sentimental novel does deploy the mourning miniature in a similar fashion, but not as frequently and not to the extent of the Gothic. This certainly leads into David’s broader question about the Gothic and modes of visuality. Perhaps we can chat about this in the live chats!

  2. Dear Jolene,

    Thanks for such an interesting paper. My question is perhaps just a different version of what Molly has already asked. How do miniatures relate to the modes and materials of visuality more broadly in gothic fiction? I’m thinking especially of the wax effigy in The Mysteries of Udolpho, but there’s also Radcliffe’s signature descriptions of landscapes in terms of the picturesque or sublime.


    1. Hi David, your question, along with Hannah’s, speaks to the broader issues surrounding the visual in the gothic, considerations that I am still navigating in my larger project! My book includes a chapter on wax, and closely attends to Udolpho’s wax effigy. Yet your question has made me realize that I could be maker better connections between the visual and the haptic across my chapters. So thank you! Miniatures certainly can produce a sublime response, but my larger claim is staked on the corporeal and tactile features of the diminutive object. Likewise, Emily’s traumatic response is centered on the corporeal, flesh-like qualities of the wax effigy (a “mode” of the visual). Since my project discusses the conjuring of the corporeal through the haptic, material experience, I think I would have to think more about how landscape fits into this (perhaps through the viewer’s somatic response?). Please may I steal your conception of “materials of visuality”?? Many thanks, David!!

  3. Greetings from India!

    To begin with, I would like to congratulate Dr. Caludine van Hensbergen for organising such an interesting conference, albeit virtually, in such difficult circumstances. Many congratulations for your much thoughtful bringing together of researchers across regions.

    All the papers in the panel are fabulous, depicting different forms of English cultural expressions with respect to death in the intermedial 18th c. The paper presented by Jolene Zigarovich made me think of parallels (if any) here. Though there exist no such parallels in India during the concerned time-period, my research (‘Community, Identity & Women: A Study of Mahajans in 18th Century Marwar’, Ph.D. Thesis, JNU, New Delhi; wherein I have looked at the archival petition records under the regional rulers during the transitory phase between the Mughal and Colonial regimes) reveals that members of an economically thriving community held the last rites closer to their heart as expressions of mourning. These rites were themselves sites of intra-community conflicts and there was much more to them. At times, even performing their own last rites while alive since these customs arrived with a lot of social esteem and prestige.

    Your papers have opened a very insightful line of enquiry I would want to pursue in my future research (looking for portrayals of mourning in the Rajput paintings).

    Stay Safe. Thank-you.

    1. Your work sounds fascinating, Divya! And thank you for your comment and explanation of the last rites rituals (and the performance of one’s own last rites). Yes, it sounds as if the commodification of death and mourning is relevant in your research as well. I would be very interested to see the Rajput paintings you describe–please do keep in touch!

  4. Dear Leigh
    A fascinating paper! I liked the way in which you linked Byron’s thoughts about fame and portraiture with a specific point in his biography, raising the question as to when a poet thinks about fame and posthumous reputation. I was also interested in your remark about Byron being aware of portraiture through his time at Trinity. Most of the busts now in the Wren Library were at that time distributed elsewhere in the college, along with the painted portraits also commissioned by the Master, Robert Smith. This suggests what to me is a telling distinction. Smith’s commissioning campaign involved portraits that together were to serve as a celebration of the college’s history and so institutional, rather than individual, achievements. Byron’s portraits, on the other hand, were very much about individual rather than collective identity. While Thorvalden’s statue of Byron might be seen as belatedly contributing to this visual history of the college, it only did so having been rejected as inappropriate for another collective setting – Westminster Abbey. (I hope I have got this right – I’m writing this from memory) Looking at Byron’s portraits together prompts thoughts about the ways in which portraiture, like biography, work between individual and collective identities.
    Thank you again for such a rich paper!

    1. Thank you Malcolm – a paper very much inspired by your work, and thank you for the clarification on the Wren library and the position of the busts.
      I think you are right about the statue belatedly contributing to the achievement of the college, after being rejected by Westminster Abbey, and Thorvaldsen used the head form the bust, but the bust itself was a private commission. I am still pondering the collective vs individual in relation so thank you for your thought on that.
      And I have just ordered ‘The Marble Index’!
      Thanks again

  5. Thank you all for a great panel.

    My question is for Jolene and follows on from David’s about the wax effigy in Udolpho. I’ve been doing some work on this effigy as a liminal object that straddles the boundaries between religion/science, natural/supernatural etc. and so your description of a similar slippage in the meaning of miniatures struck me. I wondered if you’d thought about miniatures as small scale secular devotional objects given that the life-size effigy fails as a moralizing relic when Emily misinterprets what she has seen?


    1. Your question is much appreciated, Hannah. YES!! I absolutley agree with your liminal, dichotomous description of the the wax effigy. I devote an entire chapter to wax in my book, so your question, coupled with David’s, has given me more to work with in terms of connecting the varied material objects my project discusses. We should definitely chat about our wax interests, Hannah. Thank you!!

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