“There was a general perception that Queen Victoria’s mourning was neither normal nor acceptable”

    How did the level of infant mortality impact society?

    For many years there was a theory among historians that because children died so frequently and so young, their parents didn’t care about them – it wasn’t worth investing emotion into small lives that might soon be lost. However, if you read the scraps of evidence we have regarding the working classes and their responses to children’s deaths, this simply isn’t true.

    For instance, we see parents naming their newborns after older siblings who had died. This was previously interpreted as proof of not caring, but it seems to me so obvious that for the most impoverished in society – particularly in the early part of the 19th century, when permanent gravestones were not common – this was the only way that they could memorialise their lost children. Because people do love their babies. We don’t have to be terribly smart to know that.

    Your book takes readers through the rites and rituals connected to funerals and mourning, but the story begins with the sickbed. What would it have been like to be sick in Victorian Britain?

    One of the things we’ve forgotten due to the huge medical advances of the 20th century is that people could be in the process of dying for a very long time – for years, potentially. For example, I read the diary of a teenager who died at around the age of 19, having spent the previous three years suffering from tuberculosis. Initially, she found that she couldn’t go out for walks, before getting so weak that she couldn’t make it down the stairs or even sit up in bed. Unlike today, when we often think of death in three stages that pass relatively quickly – you’re well, you’re ill, you’re dead – dying could be this long, tragic process.

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    You describe the 19th century as a century of epidemics, with deadly diseases such as cholera sweeping through the general population. How did these threats shape people’s attitudes towards their lives?

    Cholera was the first big epidemic of the 19th century. It arose in south-east Asia and gradually came to Europe via Russia, finally arriving in Britain in 1831 and gathering force the following year. Terrifyingly, most people died of dehydration less than 24 hours after experiencing the first symptoms.

    One of the most fascinating things about the first cholera epidemic, however, was that some people denied it was happening. They said it wasn’t that bad, and that others were overreacting. Intelligent people said this, too: the philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote endless letters saying that cholera didn’t exist, before, in the next paragraph, mentioning that he was going to an awful lot of funerals.

    It doesn’t break down very easily into one thing. Around the start of the period the funeral was an orgy of display, reaching a climax in the middle of the 19th century.

    This was typified by the funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852, which was, without argument, the height of extraordinary over-elaboration. There were more than 10,000 people in the procession, and the funeral car was so large and heavy that an entire regiment of soldiers was required to march behind it, with ropes tied around their waists; whenever the car travelled downhill, they effectively served as its brakes. It was totally crazy, and it revolted a lot of people. From that 1852 moment there was a diminuendo into what was called burial reform, or funeral reform, and things became much less elaborate.

    Was there a moral aspect to these changes?

    Both types of funerals had a moral dimension; in fact, elaborate displays were initially considered a sign of respect for the person who had died. But very originally, in the extravagant heraldic funerals of the aristocracy, the primary function was to commemorate not the character of the deceased, but their position within society. This was emphasised by the fact that the person’s heir – not their wife or daughter – often served as the chief mourner, demonstrating that the status quo was being preserved.

    It wasn’t until the 19th century that funerals gradually started to become more about the person themselves. Fascinatingly, Charles Dickens once chose not to go to the funeral of a close relative because he did not know them well. He said that he would only pay his respects to somebody he knew and loved.

    Were there any elements of the Victorian funeral that became conventions and consistent over time?

    There were a number of characters – people provided by the undertaker – who were, in effect, performers. An example were the funeral mutes, who silently stood at the door of the house from which the coffin was leaving to go to the funeral. They were swathed in black crape – a dull, matte fabric, used only for mourning or funeral wear – and would stand outside, holding crape-covered sticks known as wands.

    There would also be a person called the featherman, who would carry a tray of black ostrich plumes: a symbol of grief. The hors- es pulling the hearse would be decorated with black plumes, too.

    The more prosperous people within society had a particularly odd custom: while the family members and mourners would follow the hearse, the many acquaintances not going to the funeral would send their carriages instead. You would therefore end up with a line of empty carriages following the procession, with the total number indicating the social status of the deceased.

    Those were the ideals people were aiming for, but there are many other heartbreaking descriptions from the period. The author of one source describes seeing a couple and their small child walking down the street, with the man carrying another child’s coffin on his shoulder. So not only were they unable to afford plumes and a horse, but they weren’t even able to afford a hand cart in which to place the coffin. In a prosperous funeral, the coffin would typically be covered with a black and white velvet cloth, but in this instance, the coffin was wrapped in the woman’s shawl. This was a token of belonging to a community where niceties were observed. They did what they could.

    Were there many rules and customs about etiquette and how one should mourn?

    Oh goodness, yes. There were long lists of mourning clothes, with details of what one should wear following the death of a parent, brother-in-law, niece or nephew, for example. But if your husband died, the guidelines were particularly strict: you were supposed to wear full black mourning wear for a year, after which you could adopt what was known as ‘half mourning’, which included colours like grey and lavender. After that, you could gradually move into brighter colours if you so chose.

    Widows were also supposed to remain at home for 12 months, except to attend church. We know this was not possible for the bulk of the population: people had to work and leave the house for all sorts of reasons. So did it really happen? No. Like most things in life, there’s what you’re supposed to do and then there’s what we know everybody really does.

    So how different was the ideal from the reality overall?

    I was very interested in reading letters and diaries about mourning clothes, as these were the most obvious expression of loss – particularly for women. Men, on the whole, got away with a lot more. They wore a black armband for a few weeks and that was it, whereas widows were in black crape for a year.

    When you read the letters, however, you discover that many people didn’t get new clothes each time they suffered a bereavement, but instead had their old ones dyed because that was all they could afford. Even people of high social status would refrain from getting a new cloak if it proved too expensive.

    Instead, they would say things like, “I’ll put some black braid on this one, it’ll be fine”, or they would wear their normal clothes at home and put on their one black dress if they had to go out. Further down the social scale, people would make gestures toward what they could not afford, like buying a black ribbon for their hat. It was an indication that they understood the norms of society and still wanted to belong.

    Could you tell us about the importance of mourning jewellery and hair jewellery? They both seem fascinating…

    And more than a little creepy! Hair jewellery was a big deal: people would cut off locks of their hair and give them to their beloved, their siblings, or their children (this wasn’t only a death thing). However, the trouble with hair is that, after a while, it becomes a little difficult to identify. As a result, people would often incorporate it into pieces of jewellery: often a locket, or the back of a bracelet or ring. There were even specialist hair jewellers, who would plait, twist or tie the hair in some way, so that it made a textured display object.

    These were very common. So if your father died then you would have a ring with his hair, or if your mother died you would get a locket etc. People had many of these things and a whole industry developed. Some people might also wear a mourning ring, made from black enamel. It would have the initials of the person who died, and perhaps the date of their death.

    And how did gravestones fit into the picture?

    One of the most astonishing things to me was realising that until about the 17th century, gravestones and coffins were not the norm. People were often buried directly in the ground without coffins or permanent memorial markers, and subsequently moved when more space was required in the churchyard. Gravestones were mostly in churches for the aristocracy, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that they were desired by the bulk of society.

    Yet often, in the working classes, the family’s savings would be spent during times of illness, so people did not have the money to pay for a grave, much less a gravestone. Sometimes, people who could not afford their own graves were buried in a communal area, at the expense of the parish. Later, when the necessary funds had been raised, the family would go back to the council or parish and say something to the effect of, “We now have the money to buy a grave, so could we please have Cousin Genevieve back?”, and the deceased would be exhumed and reburied.

    We can’t talk about the Victorian era without discussing its royal figurehead, Queen Victoria. In 1861, when she was 42, her husband, Albert, died. How did she mourn him?

    Ostentatiously. Many people today think that Victoria’s mourning was the norm and that the rest of society approved, but neither of those things are true. I spoke to a specialist in grief and mourning, and I think it’s beyond doubt that Victoria suffered from what is today called disordered grief; she was psychologically destroyed by Albert’s death. If you go through today’s modern psychiatric manual for the condition, she ticks every single box.

    For the first couple of years, her doctors were seriously worried about her. They didn’t quite say they thought she was insane, but she was awfully close to it. And because of her social position, she was able to impose her own requirements on everyone around her. I found an anonymously written book by one of the ladies of her household, published about 30 years after Albert’s death, in which she claims that the queen did not allow the women around her to wear lavender, because she thought the colour was too close to pink, and pink was too cheerful.

    There’s also an interesting letter by Mrs Oliphant, a famous novelist of the period. Her husband died young and all her children would die over the course of her lifetime. She says that Victoria has a happy, loving family, and doesn’t have to work, whereas she has to write novels in order to keep her surviving children fed. Basically, she’s saying: “What’s Victoria got to be so fussed about? She’s lucky.”

    Overall, there was a general perception that Victoria’s mourning was neither normal nor acceptable. And certainly, there was a view within the government and the royal household that she used her grief as an excuse for doing what she wanted to do. She’d never liked carrying out state duties and so she thought, okay, I’m not going to.

    And in private, her behaviour was unusual. Your book also reveals how she had everything in their home photographed and catalogued so that it would be frozen in time.

    Victoria had this very strange fixation with ‘stuff’. Over the years, after Albert’s death, anything that he had touched could not be moved. If he had overseen the décor of a room, it was photographed and catalogued. Everything had to be kept exactly the way it was. When curtains, carpets and upholstery faded and wore, duplicates were made. She was the same about her own things: when she died, she still had the dishes she had eaten off as a baby.

    Victoria died in 1901, at the age of 81. What was the public reaction at that point?

    Victoria had been on the throne as long as anyone could remember. At the same time, however, there was a feeling that change was needed. When Victoria died, it had been more than 62 years since her coronation, and the people involved in planning the ceremony had long since died. When it came to the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, everything had to be made up.

    Judith Flanders is a historian, author and journalist who specialises in writing about the Victorian period. Her previous books include The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London (Atlantic Books, 2012) and A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order (Picador, 2020)

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