- Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture by Deborah Lutz
Deborah Lutz’s fascinating Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture explores how “the dead body’s materiality held a certain enchantment for Victorians, a charmed ability to originate narrative” (1). She notes that Victorians “[saw] death, and the body itself, as a starting place for stories rather than their annihilation” (127). In her introduction, Lutz examines the Victorian culture of mourning, the rituals and gestures to remember the dead, and especially Victorians’ penchant for imbuing relics, particularly corporeal remains, with significance.
Lutz’s book is important both to literary and cultural studies, as she explores representations of bodies in nineteenth-century literature such as Dickens’s novels and Tennyson’s In Memoriam that influenced Victorian death culture, as well as “the literariness of remains” (2–3)—how we close read relics. Drawing largely on material culture criticism, Lutz cleverly engages with the place of relics in “thing theory” (following Elaine Freedgood), treating relics as Victorian texts to be interpreted and, conversely, poems and novels as relics. She also applies Walter Benjamin’s “theory [End Page 135] of the aura” to how Victorians found a sense of meaningful closeness to lost loved ones through objects once touched by the departed. Lutz builds on the scholarship of many works on the place of the corpse in nineteenth-century studies, situating herself in conversation with Elisabeth Bronfen, Catherine Gallagher, Patricia Jalland, Samantha Matthews, Judith Pascoe, and Ruth Richardson, to name a few. Lutz emphasizes not just celebrity relics, but relics of ordinary people, and fulfills her claim that Relics of Death “function[s] as a book of death and an object bristling with material liveliness” (13).
In her discussion, Lutz distinguishes between primary relics (an actual part of the body) and secondary relics (something that has been in close contact with the body). With occasional references to the medieval cult of saints, the chapters are arranged chronologically from the Romantics to the beginning of the twentieth century, with the focus on midcentury when relic culture was most evident. She discusses such topics as the popularity of collecting and treasuring relics, the fashioning of hair jewelry, and the casting of death masks.
Lutz’s book is meticulously edited, and her notes and index are informative and exhaustive. Because of the subject matter, at times the book, though thought-provoking, is necessarily abstract: relics’ stories are difficult to read with any degree of certainty. One of the gems of the book is Lutz’s inclusion of wonderfully weird photographs such as P. B. Shelley’s skull fragments, a gold brooch with John Keats’s hair making up lyre strings, and Queen Victoria’s earrings made of the baby teeth of her daughter, Princess Beatrice.
Relics of Death is well-researched, scholarly yet approachable. Chapter 1 is about the Romantics’ need to preserve loss materially through primary relics and through poetry. Lutz includes stories such as Mary Shelley keeping her husband Percy’s heart in his copy of Adonais, and when discussing the cult of the celebrity-hero, mentions the preservation of Napoleon’s penis. Lutz spans stories and works by John Keats through Dante Gabriel Rossetti, speaking both about body parts and also the formal structure of poetry as a way of organizing death and achieving life after it. Chapter 2 is organized around the 1830s–1850s and discusses secondary relics—objects that were not part of the body but with which the body came into contact. She analyzes the place of the beyond in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, where in Catherine and Heathcliff’s postlife relationship the life force of the dead seems to saturate objects with presence. Lutz argues that this is an example of how Evangelicalism affected Victorians’ culture of death, citing ideas of the “good death” as giving a glimpse into the salvation of the just-dead.
Chapter 3, on death masks and Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, explores the novel’s blurred life and death boundaries and Dickens’s tragi-comic fascination...