In June 1806, Melesina Trench (1768–1827), an Anglo-Irish poet1 detained in Orléans, France, as an "enemy national" by Napoleon, began to write in a new journal: "Frederick Trench expired at a quarter before eight O clock in the evening, June the seventh, 1806 aged two years, eight months and five days" (see figure 1).2 Over the next two years, Trench used her "Mourning Journal" to record her memories of her son, and to cope with her feelings of guilt and sorrow at his loss. Upon reading this diary for the first time in July 2002, I was struck by its sheer power as an artifact of the past. Although I had read many accounts of the deaths of children in early modern times, none were as raw and as emotionally engaging as Trench's little [End Page 153]
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brown book. This journal holds special significance for literary scholars and social historians because it was written at a crucial time in the evolution of modern Western attitudes towards grief and the family.
Historian Richard Houlbrooke has stated definitively that, with regard to mourning, there is "no major contrast between the sensibility of the late seventeenth century and that of the late twentieth century."3 Still, there is little doubt that this period—the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—saw a significant shift in the ways in which society allowed grief to be expressed. Born in 1768 and orphaned at age four, Melesina Trench was raised by her paternal grandfather, Richard Chenevix (1696–1799), the elderly Archbishop of Waterford, from whom she absorbed the eighteenth-century beliefs that the suppression of grief was "good breeding" and that refined women "respected those able to control and master their emotions, and looked down on those who could not."4 Thus, it is not surprising that she retained some of this earlier period's view that grief was a "snare of impiety," and, specifically, that a mourning mother should not "let her thoughts dwell too long on her loss, to the prejudice of her body and soul."5 In many ways, Trench resembles other eighteenth-century parents who, according to historian Linda A. Pollock, "found that their religious beliefs and parental emotions did come in conflict—although they firmly believed they should submit to God's will, they found it very difficult, if not impossible to do so."6 Trench's responses were also influenced by the lateeighteenth century cult of sensibility, which made "the almost wild expression of grief at the loss of a member of the family ... appropriate and laudable,"7 and the advent of the Romantic era, [End Page 155] which "brought a new sensibility to death ... a new impassioned, self-indulgent grief."8
Although Trench's attitudes were formed in the eighteenth century, her "Mourning Journal" was written in the opening years of the nineteenth century, a time that Philippe Ariès characterized as "The Age of the Beautiful Death," when profound mourning for the departed loved one was consistent with the belief in a future reunion after death, and death was depicted as an awe-filled and intrinsically beautiful event.9 Dwelling on the details of a loved one's death became more acceptable, and people increasingly came to view the deathbed as "an opportunity to witness a spectacle that is both comforting and exalting."10 By the Victorian era, mourners were supposed to find "consolation in writing lengthy family memorials on the life and death of the deceased, as a precious recollection for the family and as a therapy for the writer."11 Whereas women of Trench's generation had been taught to suppress their emotions, a Victorian woman's mourning was "virtually a form of legal tender for 'respectability.'"12 Victorian mothers who wrote (and published) accounts of their children's sufferings were celebrated for their exemplary faith and their selfless generosity. By 1861, when Mary Caroline Trench (Melesina Trench's daughter-in-law) published...