"Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real."

Cormac McCarthy

Last updated 4 October  2019  © Julia Edwards

  • Facebook Classic

Death would have been much more familiar to children living in Victorian England than it is to you. If you had lived back then, it's very likely that you'd have been part of a large family, and that at least one of your brothers or sisters would have died.

In Lucy's time, the most dangerous part of your life was the first five years after you were born. Think about your class at school. Let's say there are about thirty children in your class. In Victorian times, about one in five children died before they were a year old. So you can cross off six children from your class who would have died before they were out of nappies.

 

If you survived the first year, you still had more than one in ten chance of dying between the age of one and five. So cross off another four children from your class of thirty who didn't get as far as starting school.

A Victorian woman in mourning. It is possible the child on her lap is dead.

That's ten children out of thirty who would have died before their fifth birthday. That's in 1867, after a new law came in to improve sanitation. Before that, the number of deaths was noticeably higher, and just as bad in the country as in the city. And because families were large, with lots of children, the chances are, at least one of these ten children would be one of your brothers or sisters.

In The Shimmer on the Glass, Lucy's sister Anne has died, as well as one of her brothers. When her little brother dies in the course of the book, Joe notices various things that the family do during this time which were typical of the way Victorians dealt with death.

Clocks and mirrors

Even a poor household like Lucy's would have had at least one clock and one mirror. The Victorians would stop the clocks at the time someone in the household died, to mark the time of death. They would also cover the mirrors to stop the dead person's soul from becoming trapped in a mirror as it left the body. 

A coffin in the house

It was usual in Victorian times for the dead to be kept at home, in the heart of their family, until their funeral and burial. The coffin would be kept open, and visitors to the house could pay their respects. Post mortem photographs (taken after a person's death) often show a lot of flowers around the dead person, sometimes in the coffin itself.

Post mortem photograph of a child with her living brother and sister.

Post Mortem Portraits

It might seem a bit grisly to you, but as photography became more widespread, people began to have photographs taken of their loved ones after they had died. In some cases, a family might not be able to easily afford to pay a photographer to take their portrait, but the death of a family member was enough of an event to justify the expense, especially since it provided a way of remembering the dead person.

 

There are LOTS of examples of Victorian post mortem photographs, also called memento mori photographs, on the internet, but beware - quite a lot of them are fake. The two on this page are almost certainly genuine. In the first, the child might be asleep on its mother's lap although both mother and child are wearing clothes that clearly indicate someone in the family has died (see below). It's probably the child in the picture, though it might be another member of the family. The second picture, with the boy and girl in the foreground and the dead child behind them, demonstrates a particular feature of post mortem photography: the dead child is completely in focus and sharp, as are all the objects in the room. The two standing children, however, are blurred. This is because the exposure would have had to be so long that they have moved slightly while the picture was being taken. The dead child, by contrast, hasn't moved at all.

Clothes

The biggest expression of mourning in Victorian times, adopted from Queen Victoria's own mourning for Albert, was clothes. Lucy's family is too poor to afford proper mourning clothes, so each person just wears a black armband over the sleeve of their other clothes. For middle and upper class families, however, 'full mourning' was important.

For men, it was easy. They wore their usual black suit with a black cravat and gloves, and a black band on their hat for one year after the death of their wives, children or parents, six months for grandparents or siblings, and shorter periods for more distant relatives.

Children didn't have to wear mourning, but if they did, it would be white, with a black armband or ribbon. A dead child would also wear white, and be placed in a white coffin, .

For women, it was much more complicated. Whilst the length of time they had to wear mourning was the same as men for the death of their children, parents, siblings, etc., widows were expected to dress in mourning for two and a half years after their husband had died.

The first year and a day was 'full mourning' - everything black, made of a kind of silk that didn't reflect light (so that it looked really dark), covered with crape - a hard scratchy silk that didn't go with anything else.

Next came 'secondary mourning' when they could take the crape off. But everything still had to be black and plain. After nine months of this, they could start to introduce fancier fabrics like velvet, but still black.

The final six months were 'half mourning': now they could start to mix their black clothes with things that were grey, purple, violet, mauve, cream, and white.

Mourning like this was expensive for a woman in polite society because the rest of her clothes would have gone out of fashion by the time she could wear them again - especially if one period of mourning overlapped with another. It was also considered to be bad luck to keep mourning clothes for next time they were needed, so when someone else died, a woman would have to go out and buy everything again. I can't help thinking this superstition was spread by suppliers of mourning clothes such as Jay's in London, which was a kind of warehouse where everyone went to buy what they needed. How convenient, to sell full mourning outfits over and over again to the same person!