Rites of Passage: Death and Mourning in Victorian Britain by Judith Flanders - review by Rosemary Ashton

Rosemary Ashton

Crape Expectations

Rites of Passage: Death and Mourning in Victorian Britain


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Judith Flanders has undertaken a mammoth task. The Victorian period is widely known for its excessive, sometimes scarcely believable interest in death and everything that surrounds it. There are so many set pieces involving death in the fiction of the era, particularly the scenes of children dying in Dickens’s writings. The demise of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop notoriously caused grown men to weep on both sides of the Atlantic when the book was serialised in 1840–41. The protracted dying of poor Jo the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House (1852–3) shows Dickens putting sentiment surrounding the death of a child to good use in the cause of political and social criticism. The narrator sums up the terrible life and death of this destitute child, one of so many ‘dying thus around us every day’. And who is being addressed here? ‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order.’ Thus far, a modern reader is likely to be wholly on Dickens’s side as he lambasts those in authority for doing nothing for the poor. But, as Flanders points out in one of many sharp literary critical insights in her book, the

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