- Dickens and the Business of Death by Claire Wood
Charles Dickens was a relic collector of the first order, notwithstanding his fulminations against Catholicism. Steeped in a secular practice that many of his contemporaries also observed, he had a strong feeling for the way objects connected to the dead radiated meaning because of—not in spite of—their linkage to an immaterial world: their very materiality annealed them to the spiritual. He saved a curl from the head of Mary Hogarth, his beloved sister-in-law who died at the age of seventeen, and he took a ring from her dead finger and slipped it onto his own living one. Some of her garments he not only saved, but also periodically caressed. Fervently wishing to be buried with her, he felt her look down on him from some spacious place. Claire Wood’s absorbing monograph, Dickens and the Business of Death, doesn’t much discuss these sorts of death-related objects, but rather focuses on things, narratives, and spaces that commodify death, “whereby death becomes an occasion for profit” (3).
This is fertile ground—Dickens’s writing is full of fraught death bed scenes, near deaths, deathly people, mordant places, funerals, contested cemeteries, lost wills, disinherited goods, murders, suicides, body snatching, corpse rifling, and so much more—well-tilled by such brilliant scholars as Catherine Gallagher. Yet, Wood takes this into account and provides a carefully historicized and well-researched set of chapters that, at least in many passages, provide new insights. One particularly engaging section involves the “consuming gaze.” Wood contrasts the averted eyes and bowed head conventional at funerals with an unrestricted looking at “anonymous, notorious or celebrity” corpses (11). Glass can act like shop windows when it separates the dead from the living, such as at the Paris morgue, bringing distance, magnification, and objectification. Wood surveys spaces of death and their promotion of consumerism, and some of her most compelling ideas flourish around and within places like Jay’s Mourning Warehouse and displays of waxwork—anatomical and commercial. Rather than glass acting as a mediating substance, wax brings uncanny facsimile. Wood tells the story of the Anatomical Venus, a dissected, wax corpse seen by many as gorgeous, with the wax somehow more real than flesh. She ranges over so-called dying waxworks, like Horatio Nelson’s; Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal effects, and the sale of the relics of condemned criminals, at or after public executions. Dickens on occasion falls by the wayside in some of these sections, especially [End Page 159] her interpretation of Montmartre Cemetery as a place of entertainment, although she connects these acts and spaces to a cogent reading of A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and the business of execution and corpse selling.
Wood’s reading of Bleak House (1852–53), which focuses on the “inherent death-liness of material property,” leads her to pause and draw out such evocative statements as this one: “Decease figures both as an imprisonment and a seizure of property; in the latter case, life becomes a possession borrowed without payment, and the soul a tangible property that Death returns to God” (106). Her play with the varied meanings of terms like “possession,” “inheritance,” and “property” brings out the vulnerability of objects and flesh in the world of the novel—those unburied, fragmented bodies, but also the houses interchangeable with the corpses contained in them. The slant rhyme of “home” and “tomb” takes us to the heart of Dickens’s need to question the ownership of space. The section in Wood’s chapter on Our Mutual Friend (1865), which provides the freshest ideas for those who have read many a chapter or essay on death and this particular novel, juxtaposes it with Dickens’s article “A Paper-Mill” (1850). Wood explores the possibility that death, as with waste rags, might be regenerated into something productive like a clean, white sheet of paper, waiting for a narrative to unfold on its surface—a kind of resurrection (or recycling) figured in...