- Dickens and the Business of Death by Claire Wood
We often think of Dickens as an author who had an unhealthy, if productive, obsession with death. Whenever he was in Paris, he says, he felt himself compelled by an “irresistible force” to visit the city’s dead house. Situated on the banks of the Seine, near Notre Dame, the morgue was a place where the public could look upon the bodies of the people taken out of the river. Officially, the aim was to identify those who had been “found drowned,” but the morgue became a major attraction. Dickens’s powerful depictions portray the ordinary men and women of Paris peering, voyeuristically, at the corpses on their days off during public holidays. If he was obsessed by death, he was far from being alone; death, as Claire Wood’s study demonstrates, was a big business in the nineteenth century – from exhibitions like the Paris morgue, to public executions, funeral enterprises, mourning clothing and grave plotting. Life’s final journey became, Wood argues, part of the new culture of commercial energy that defined the Victorian age. While booms in trade and manufacture ushered a capitalist spirit that pleased many, we know from the writings of Marx, Carlyle and Dickens himself, that the new ethos had its fair share of detractors. Death is, in many ways, a perfect example of the debates that emerged around commerce: on the one hand, it was associated with the sacred, the revered and the traditional; yet, as people moved to the cities, they became – on average – more affluent, and the cramped conditions of city living meant that urban death traders had a busy turnover. There was a seeming conflict, then, between traditional feelings associated with the dead, and the newer systems of earning a crust by selling death services wholesale. Dickens’s work, Wood suggests, sits right at the heart of this conflict. As an author who, in the words of John Carey, “never missed a human carcass if he could help it,” Dickens is ideally suited to offer some insight into this orgiastic world of the macabre, where the energies of capitalism exposed things about our attitudes to death, and death, in turn, told us a great deal about the limits and ambitions of business.
Dickens and the Business of Death begins with a chapter on the various ways in which death was seen to be profitable in the nineteenth century. Examples [End Page 244] of death trades are chosen to intersect with Dickens’s preoccupations and include, therefore, ornate state funerals, end-of-life care “professionals” (like Mrs. Gamp), mourning fashions, cemeteries, morgues, public executions, and body snatching. Dickens, it is argued, was critical of all of these in their more mercantile forms: “For Dickens, the Victorian funeral was a laughably monstrous creation” (19), in particular, and his portraits of the pomp and ceremony surrounding mutes, black feathers, empty carriages in train, solemn undertakers and dispassionate sextons were designed to cause delight and despair in equal measure. One recalls the funeral of Mrs. Joe in Great Expectations, where “two dismally absurd persons, each ostentatiously exhibiting a crutch done up in a black bandage – as if that instrument could possibly communicate any comfort to anybody – were posted at the front door” and “the six [coffin] bearers [were] stifled and blinded under a horrible black velvet housing with a white border, the whole looked like a blind monster with twelve human legs, shuffling and blundering along, under the guidance of two keepers – the postboy and his comrade” (ch. 35). As Wood points out, such spectacles demonstrate how Dickens was drawn to death – seeing in his culture’s fussy activity around it something irresistibly funny. Yet death’s commercialization also developed into a powerful showcase of the Inimitable’s ambivalent feelings about the love of the material.
It is very useful to have the contextual material that Wood supplies in chapter one and, indeed, throughout Dickens and the Business of Death. Death, as she notes in her introduction, has become itself a sort of...