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‘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.
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.
‘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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