Monday, July 6, 2015

Wuthering Heights and Victorian Mourning Customs

One of my many favorite scenes in Wuthering Heights is when Ellen Dean describes sitting in the drawing room guarding Catherine's body and she leaves the window open for Heathcliff to sneak in to visit Catherine's remains one last time. Although extremely disrespectful (but that's Heathcliff for you!), I couldn't help chuckling when Heathcliff removes the lock of her husband's hair from Catherine's locket, tosses it on the floor and replaces it with a lock of his own hair. Ellen only knows this happened when she finds Linton's hair on the floor and sees the drapery in disarray around Catherine's face. She retrieves Linton's hair, twists the two locks together and puts them both in the locket.

I thought the locket with a loved one's hair was a cool idea for a burial custom so I looked up Victorian mourning customs like the drapery Ellen describes. I know the story takes place in 1801 according to Lockwood's journal post, well before the Victorian era, but Emily Bronte was writing during the period, so perhaps she used some current elements in her writing. Some of the Victorian customs were probably used earlier as well. The lack of vaccines and other modern medicine made death more of an every day occurrence and not the almost taboo subject it is today.

Here are some 19th century English mourning customs I found on thefuneralsource:
  • Hair lockets and other hair jewelry were also worn by the survivors made from the deceased's hair.
  • Jet jewelry was made and worn just for mourning.
  • Women wore different mourning attire relevant to the particular stage of mourning and also relevant to their financial situation.

Some other things I found:

Post-mortem portraits and photographs taken as keepsakes. Some photos had the corpse in poses with family as though still alive. Creepy!

  • Just as Ellen and Edgar carry out in Wuthering Heights, a vigil was kept near the corpse during the days and nights leading up to the burial just in case the deceased wasn't really deceased. Where there's a corpse, there's hope. I would think the odor would be a good indicator as well.
  • Covering all mirrors in the house after a death to prevent the deceased's freed-up soul from getting trapped in the glass. There was also a belief that if you saw your reflection in a mirror in a dead person's house, you might be next. This brings a whole new perspective to the scene soon before her death where Catherine doesn't recognize her emaciated self in the mirror in her room and Ellen drapes a cover over it to sooth Catherine's fears. She really doesn't recognize it as a mirror or her room at the Grange. She's crazy for Heathcliff.
  • Families could hire mourners called Mutes to follow the funeral procession and/or hang around the house looking sad. Were meals included or did they have to provide their own lunch?
In recent times we have a quick wake, maybe; a funeral service, maybe; food and drinks to stuff down your grief so you can rush back to work to save yourself from being fired. My deepest condolences.

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