Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dracula: A Working Class Mourning Custom

Some Victorian mourning customs are shown in Wuthering Heights after Catherine Earnshaw Linton's death as I listed in a previous post, but I was intrigued by one mourning custom used in Dracula after Mrs. Westenra's death.

In Dr. Seward's diary post describing his consultation with Dr. Van Helsing after finding Mrs. Westenra dead and Lucy Westenra on the brink of death, he mentions the darkness of the dining room, where they closed themselves in for a private conversation:

"The shutters had been opened but the blinds were already down, with that obedience to the etiquette of death which the British woman of the lower classes always rigidly observes."(Bram Stoker)

I wondered about the significance of that custom since I leave my blinds down 24/7. It's just a privacy thing with me, but in the mid-nineteenth century it had real meaning. I looked it up and found in Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1970-1914, by Julie-Marie Strange, that people in the working class would draw the blinds after a death in the house to notify the neighbors or anyone passing by of the death. This way anyone coming to the house would know before visiting that the household was in mourning. Some neighbors would also draw their blinds out of respect until the funeral. During the funeral every house on the street would draw their blinds. After the funeral, all blinds went back up.

I suppose this custom came about because it didn't cost anything, since the working class was pretty poor. They certainly couldn't afford the jet jewelry and decorations with the black drapery around the house that the upper classes could. 

Drawing the blinds is a logical, useful custom that communicates an important message to everyone in the neighborhood. I was kind of hoping it would have some superstitious significance, though, like they draw the blinds to keep evil spirits from getting in and taking another life, or something like that.

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