- Literary Remains: Representations of Death and Burial in Victorian England by Mary Elizabeth Hotz
Death, Mary Elizabeth Hotz discovers, lies at the heart of the Victorian novel and, indeed, much of Victorian life. Hotz contrasts a state-centred discourse that defined death as a problem with fictional representations that presented death as an opportunity. As Hotz observes, in the nineteenth century, the corpse was depicted by public health reformers as a problem: filthy bodies in insanitary and congested cities paralleled the corpses crammed into stinking and overcrowded churchyards. Death, in such circumstances, was viewed by the state as a source of contagion. Popular resistance to the Anatomy Act of 1832 and the standard pauper burial further underscored the extent to which death was problematic across classes. Elite criticism of consumer-driven funeral culture; the dominance of the Anglican Church over burial grounds, especially in rural areas; and cremationists’ anxieties about the wasteful and unhygienic practice of burial further reveal death as a site of contestation.
Acknowledging that recent historical studies of death have “disinterred” historical practices and narratives (6), Hotz complains that the politics of death remain understudied. Analyzing selected novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Bram Stoker, Hotz argues that the authors in question foreground the politics of death and deathways to oppose social reformers’ interference with and elite criticism of popular practices. Rather, the novels locate the corpse as a site for positive collective action—first, to assert the importance of the local community over the nation-state, and second, to insist upon the relationship between dead bodies and the social order.
Hotz places readings of Edwin Chadwick’s seminal report on interment in urban spaces, John Claudius Loudon’s garden cemetery designs, cremation propaganda, and numerous Burial Acts alongside fictional renderings of the “problems” to offer refreshing insights into familiar issues. Hence, Gaskell’s Mary Barton (and, to a lesser extent, North and South) challenges the dominant narrative of Chadwick: that urban death was a source of moral and environmental malaise in need of political and social reform. Hotz suggests that Gaskell celebrates death as a means of social bonding that reaffirms the value of community ties and domesticity in working-class life, aspects entirely absent in Chadwick. Similarly, while Dickens was undoubtedly a social reformer who interrogated perceived popular practices, Hotz redeems him from her critique of earlier reformers. His criticisms of market capitalism were grounded in a conception of death akin to Gaskell’s: death created opportunities for social regeneration. Hotz’s inclusion of Hardy is significant; death in rural communities is woefully underrepresented in death studies of the nineteenth century, and her focus on Hardy’s anxieties about the incursion of modernity on rural lives (and deaths) facilitates a contrast between the differing politics of death and diverse deathways. Concluding with a reading of Stoker’s Dracula, Hotz brings [End Page 232] the nineteenth century’s preoccupation with death to a fitting close as Mina and Jonathan Harker struggle to negotiate a world that would banish altogether death and the dead from the living.
Hotz resists the temptation to read the many death scenes in these novels as sentimental (in the maudlin sense), positioning them instead in relation to an eighteenth-century understanding of sentiment as a source of moral compassion. Indeed, her sensitive rendering of the death of Little Nell and of the harrowing demises in Hardy’s fiction, for example, demonstrates these authors’ engagement in socio-political debates on death, class, and community and underscores the importance of marrying the fictional and cultural with the social and political. Despite Hotz’s criticism, however, current death studies do not fail to deal with local resistance to social reformers’ narratives of death as much as she would have us believe. Many of the historical works she cites as deepening our understanding of the socio-political and religious matrices of death engage with such matters, and it is hardly representative to trot out the familiar critiques of Phillipe...