15/10/2015

THE VICTORIAN CULT OF DEATH...

Recently, the VV gave a talk to the Dracula Society, discussing some aspects of her research into the Victorian Cult of Death. This is a transcript of that talk... 


I adore the gothic genre. Even when I was a little girl there was nothing I liked much better than to spend wet winter afternoons snuggled up on the sofa by a fire, with the curtains closed against the rain which was rattling against the window panes, while I watched all the flickering black and white films... like Fanny by Gaslight, or Wuthering Heights, not to mention the Hammer Horror films shown late on every Friday night. How they informed my teenage years!




And then, at university, I discovered Victorian Sensation novels such as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, or Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. All those twisting, turning, daring plots filled with such audacious themes – divorce or illegitimacy – doomed love affairs – lost inheritances – and very often harking back to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto which inspired a host of fevered tales, perhaps even Castle Dracula, where an isolated protagonist, usually female, usually young, is engaged in a mental and physical battle against monsters, madness, murder, disease, sex, and the supernatural; with visions induced by drugs or despair which may be real, or otherwise might be explained as little more than the fears of an irrational mind. And all with claustrophobic scenes, such as crumbling castles with dripping crypts. Even a rotting corpse or two.





I think these isolated ruins – painted by Sebastian Pether in the early nineteenth century – add so much to the Gothic atmosphere of what looks like an illustration to grace an adult fairytale. A story subversive and dark enough to disturb the most cynical of minds, and to cause a shiver of delight. Just as when small children thrill to hear those opening few words: ‘Once upon a time’... 

When it comes to my own novels, I try to distort that fairy tale theme, with the concept of good versus evil sometimes being confused with twilight realms where nightmares meld with reality. Sometimes even the spirit world. But, at the heart of all my books is a gritty and real Victorian backdrop, with the darkness of what is often now referred to as its Cult of Death – though I would say that everyone, whether in the past or the present day, holds such a fear inside their hearts. It’s just that today our modern lives are somehow much more sanitized, making it easier to forget. Unless we are directly involved in what we might call the funeral trade, we rarely see the ‘face of death’. The ill are contained in hospitals. Even those who die at home are very quickly whisked away to undertakers’ mortuaries. We busy ourselves with the rituals. The choice of a coffin, the fittings, the flowers – all of which almost distract us from what we’re really dealing with; which is the pain of grief and loss. 

During the Victorian era, it was much harder to forget.

Mortality rates were very high. There was no National Health Service. No inoculations protecting the young against fatal childhood diseases. No antibiotics to kill off infections, some of which we might consider as being trivial today. But a finger scratched on a rose thorn while gardening this afternoon might result in a case of blood poisoning that would see you off within the week; not to mention the complications faced by women during childbirth.

Death could strike at any time. Ruthless, swift, invisible, whatever your age or social class. And for those who strayed too far away from the path of moral righteousness there were other forms of death as well, so virulent and widely spread that they only enhanced the sense of dread. 

One of them was  syphilis – that infection being rampant in nineteenth-century England where beneath a moral social veneer many scandals were simmering below. The consequence of such ‘sins of the flesh’ became the time’s great leveller, not discriminating in the least between rich, or poor – or famous.


Today, the disease can be easily cured by a course of antibiotics. Then, there was no hope at all. It was true to say that sex could kill, and sex was on sale most everywhere, on any Victorian city street – with many so-called respectable men (the married and bachelors alike) seeking to satisfy those needs that we accept as natural now.




Hidden in veils of silence and shame, the disease spread through every social group. This photograph was taken of Isabella Beaton who I often used to imagine as a battle axe of the kitchen range. But, the domestic goddess of her age died when she was twenty-nine, and may well have been infected as a virgin on her wedding night – as were so many others then, quite unaware of any wrong until the symptoms took a hold. Although she died from childbirth fever, she was also said to be in a much weakened state from illnesses brought on by infection with syphilis.

A state of near national hysteria led to the passing of an act whereby any woman on the streets, whether a prostitute or not, could be apprehended and physically examined for showing signs of the disease. Those found to be infected were placed in isolation, in medical institutions such as the London Lock Hospital: a cross between a prison and a convalescent clinic where there was no hope of any cure. But at least their souls might yet be saved to die and enter heaven’s gates. Meanwhile, they suffered hellishly, kept out of sight and out of mind, while the highly infectious but physically well continued to spread the plague about. 

Illicit sex was a gamble. The risks were very high. ‘One night of love with Venus...a lifetime spent with Mercury.’ 

Ah, mercury – the so-called cure – the toxic effects of which could be as grim as the disease itself, with ulcers, hair loss, headaches, fatigue and gross disfigurement, paralysis, blindness, madness too. A nightmare! A real life horror tale – which may have been in Bram Stoker’s mind when he wrote his novel, Dracula.




I’m sure you may well be aware that the author was often rumoured as suffering from syphilis, even though the official cause of death was said to be physical exhaustion. This was a popular euphemism, very often used in Victorian times, but whatever the truth of the matter I often ponder on this fact, especially when considering the central theme of Dracula – seeing anew in its pages the descriptions of a vile and unrelenting corruption of the blood: a corruption passed on sexually, from a man to his wife, then through her blood to infect the child inside a womb. The fate of the Beatons yet again.

So, a sort of immortality. A scourge that did not always die, even when its victims had.




For those who were then left behind there was grief, but life still carried on. While observing the mourning rituals that very often took their leads from the widowed Queen Victoria, who – following her husband’s death at the age of only 42 (and not from syphilis, I stress), went on to turn her misery into a grand obsession, and something of an art form, with the man she had adored in life then worshipped as a god in death – with the Queen very often heard to say that wished that she could have died as well, to join him in Eternity.




But, while waiting for eternity, her mortal flesh still needed clothes – and, it was around about this time that the fashion for mourning dress became such a massive industry. Victorians really revelled in what we might describe today as a mawkish sentimentality, with items worn and placed in homes to signify remembrance; all the things that could be purchased from enormous mourning emporiums – either by going to the shops in a personal capacity, or else by ordering items via adverts placed in newspapers, magazines, or traders’ catalogues. The mail order business is nothing new!




Hats were an essential. But, a mourner might also like to choose some black-edged stationery to use, or black embroidered handkerchiefs, even black satin ribbons to thread through the lace of their undergarments.




And, oh, what fashions could be found - as displayed in 'Death Becomes Her' – an exhibition held last year at the New York Metropolitan - though, the strictest rules and traditions were applied to the colours of the dyes, with various shades being allowed, depending on the time elapsed since the beloved’s end was met – and also the griever’s relationship. So, after the blacks, there were greys and browns, purples and various shades of mauve, though some, such as Queen Victoria, the so-called Widow of Windsor, remained in black forevermore.





Jewellery was acceptable, but nothing too bright or colourful, which was why jet was so popular – a great boost for places like Whitby where the very finest was said to be found; with necklaces, brooches, bracelets, rings very often being customised with a loved one’s name or initials. Even the numbers to signify the date or age when death occurred. 

Hair was a treasured keepsake too – allied with the fact that a woman’s hair was her crowning glory when alive. And then, the rather creepy fact that it often grew, long after death, as exemplified in the story told about the artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who, when Lizzie Sidall, his muse and wife had died, wound a book of his poetry through her hair before her coffin was interred in a grave in Highgate cemetery. But then, seven years later, when he was in need of money, and in something of an artistic rut, he decided to reclaim that book, digging her up at the dead of night and then ...




... as shown in this lurid still from Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno – was shocked to see the way his wife’s lustrous red locks had grown so long, as if she never had been dead! As if she was a vampire. 
Poor Lizzie was no vampire – and who knows if she had syphilis. But she certainly was the victim of another great scourge of the era – and that was the use of opiates. 

No-one had look too far to find their chosen daily dose. Following the Empire’s expansion into other eastern lands, Victorian England was awash with the drug. It was sold in every pharmacy and no need for a prescription, after which it was ingested in the forms of powders or potions, which often led to overdose, with many children being lost while doped with supposedly innocent tinctures of cough medicine, or teething drops.




Mrs Winslow had much to answer for, with respectable and assuring ads that offered -

“ADVICE TO MOTHERS!—Are you broken in your rest by a sick child? Go at once to a chemist and get a bottle of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP. It is perfectly harmless and pleasant to taste, it produces natural quiet sleep so that the little cherub awakes “as bright as a button.” It soothes the child, it softens the gums, allays all pain, regulates the bowels, and is the best known remedy for dysentery and diarrhea. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is sold by Medicine dealers everywhere at 1s. 11⁄2d. per bottle. Manufactured in New York and at 498, Oxford- street, London.” 




But perhaps the most popular potion to sit in Victorian medicine chests, or to lie close at hand on bedside stands, were the ladylike bottles of laudanum, which even Queen Victoria used for her headaches and menstrual cramps. A potent narcotic it was as well, containing all opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine.




Lizzie Siddal was addicted, and this hopeless situation is thought to have been the inspiration behind a poem her husband’s sister wrote. Christina Rosetti’s, Goblin Market - illustrated here by Arthur Rackam – is a subversive, so-called fairy tale, which is full of longing for sex, and drugs, and in which another Lizzie is seduced by the juice that the goblins sell: ‘Their fruits like honey to the throat, But as a poison to the blood.’ 

That poison may have been the cause of the stillbirth of Lizzie’s daughter too. The next child conceived was never born, when its mother slipped into a coma, following an overdose - after which Rossetti painted his famous Beata Beatrix, where a woman holds a poppy flower. The source of the drug that killed his wife.





I wonder if, when he dug her up, Rossetti saved poor Lizzie’s hair to place inside a locket – which was how so many Victorians remembered loved ones lost to them. 





Or he might have had those longer lengths woven into the ‘lace’ of a mourning wreath – though it does seem rather creepy now; this ritual of remembrance by ‘hair’. 

Today we are more likely to remember those who’ve passed away by looking at photographs we keep. And, of course, we have videos – voicemails too. But, in the Victorian era, photography was very new. Even when studios opened up in which personal portraits could be made, this was something of a luxury; an expense that many poorer folk could very ill afford to bear – which is why some people at this time only had their pictures taken once, and often only when they’d died – when a family member would rush out to call in the photographer while the body would be washed and dressed and then posed as if still living – sometimes alone, and sometimes in the midst of the rest of the family, thus creating a personal memory to treasure in years to come. 

Such Post Mortem photographs are easily found online if you want to do a Google search. But I warn you, they can be disturbing, which is why tonight I’ve only loaded two for you to view on screen.




The first one is this photograph of beloved family pet.




The second, is this...where two children are standing beside the bed in which their younger sister seems to sleep, where, due to the long exposure time the living children look like ghosts, because they are blurred, because they moved, whereas the little girl who died is very clear for us to see. But then, of course, she was quite still. A beautiful, sad photograph. 

Such accidental blurring soon became a deliberate method used by Victorian charlatans who claimed to take photographs of ghosts as they hovered about in the background while their living loved ones posed in front. I’m actually writing about this now in a novel about the film industry – which was another miracle that began in late Victorian times, when stage magicians often turned to the trade of directing films, using their smoke and mirror tricks as the forerunners of the special effects that we often take for granted now.




But, back to spirit photography. It was double exposure, nothing more. Still, it is astonishing to think how people were convinced. But then, we see what we want to see. We often believe what we want to believe, particularly in times of grief.




How Victoria grieved for Albert, seen here upon his death bed when the soul had clearly fled the flesh. But his wife often tried to call it back, at the forefront of another part of the Victorian cult of death when she met with spirit mediums.




This ardent belief in the spirit world was thought to have gained momentum in America with the Fox sisters, and during and after the Civil War, when so many young men had lost their lives and survivors were desperate to contact them. And again, there were lots of tricks involved. Many mediums were fine magicians. 

But clairvoyance was also strongly linked with the early suffrage movement – with women not allowed to speak so controversially ‘themselves’ – but they could utter all sorts of views through the voice of any spirit guide!





I’ve written a lot about this in another article on this  blog - in the form of Victoria Woodhall; an amazing American woman who was also a newspaper publisher, a woman’s suffrage activist – and the very first female broker on Wall Street. She even went so far as to stand against Grant for the US presidency, back in 1872. What a woman! And there’s so much more about her exciting and scandalous life, She was not at all a retiring rose who fainted away at the slightest threat of any inconvenience. And she realised that power lay in the cult that was known as Spiritualism, followed as a religion by so many in Victorian times, with a lucrative ‘entertainment’ trade growing up around it. 

It’s not really as odd as it might seem – that so many people could be duped – if, in fact, we think they were. Victorians often had strong faith, with a fervent belief in an afterlife. And with scientific discoveries, such as the harnessing of electricity, or X Rays to see beneath the flesh, or voices heard through the ether as they travelled along a telegraph wire – why should it not be possible to discover another invisible force, and to tap into the energies of the spirit dead who still lived on: only waiting for us on the other side of the ever present veil of death? 

I’ve actually covered some aspects of this cult in The Goddess and the Thief, in which we see Queen Victoria meeting with spiritualist mediums. In fact, though the mediums in my book are entirely fictional, Victoria really did consult with famous clairvoyants of the time; and those meetings began even before the time of her husband’s tragic end. On one occasion when the royal couple were holidaying on the Isle of Wight, they met a Miss Georgina Eagle, who impressed the Queen so much that Victoria gave her a golden watch, on the back of which she had engraved – ‘For Meritorious and Extraordinary Clairvoyance. Produced at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, July 17th, 1846’.




Perhaps Miss Eagle was also there when a table began to levitate, leaving Prince Albert so horrified that he ordered the object be destroyed, and then demanded that his wife never dabble in such things again. 

But, she did – when he could not stop her – perhaps mindful of some words that he once wrote to her in happy times: ‘We don’t know in what state we shall meet again, but we shall recognise each other and be together in eternity I am perfectly certain.’ 

Another man who fervently believed in the afterlife to come was Robert Lees, the medium who wrote a letter to the Queen when he was just 13 years old, detailing certain private things about her life with Albert that he could not possibly have known; all of which so impressed Victoria that later on she invited him to join the court in London as its resident Spirit Medium. Lees, however declined that role, and suggested the situation would be better filled by another man. Many have surmised he had a certain Mr Brown in mind; the gamekeeper turned confidente, who claimed to have a psychic gift, and who, it was said, became the channel by which Prince Albert’s soul could visit with his wife again! If only Victoria’s diaries had not been edited when she died. What entries might have been destroyed. 

Whatever she wrote of them while alive, both men – in one way or another – were to share her final resting place, and perhaps in her eternity, when her body was laid besides Albert’s at the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore.




In death Victoria took along mementoes of those she’d loved in life. So, she lies with Albert’s dressing gown, one of his cloaks, and a plaster cast that was made of one of her husband’s hands. She also has her wedding veil, some shawls, some family photographs, and various items of jewellery – but according to many intimates, including her physician, the royal tomb also contains some private mementos of John Brown. A lock of his hair, a photograph, several of his letters, and a ring that belonged to his mother.




The Queen – like many Victorians, went to her grave a Christian. But she was also influenced by the eastern religions and ideas encountered through the Empire’s reach; with those myths and supernatural themes also inspiring Stoker - with the fear of something alien arriving on our English shores, as well as the sense of attraction for the sensual and darkly exotic. 

The Empire built in India also inspired The Moonstone, a novel by Wilkie Collins’, which is filled with drugs, and which also involved the theft of an infamous diamond. He based it on the Koh-i-noor, which caused quite a sensation when claimed by the British Army at the end of the second Anglo Sikh war, after which it was brought to England and displayed in the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851.




I’ve also woven this diamond – which was said to be both blessed and cursed, with supernatural magic powers, into my latest mystery, the story of Alice Willoughby, who was born and raised in India with her father, an army doctor – until at the age of eight, she is sent away to England, where she lives with her Aunt Mercy, and finds herself reluctantly involved in Mercy’s business as a fraudulent spirit medium. But, Alice in fact is not a fraud, often seeing things she’d rather not – and while still a young defenceless child she is often forced to play a ghost during Mercy’s séances; as described in this extract from the book - 

And that is how I was reborn: to walk the path of Mercy’s ghost, to act in Mercy’s Mysteries. I became an apprentice in the trade for which she placed advertisements: discreet invitations in magazines for “Tea and Table Moving” - though my aunt did not spread local lures, not wishing to cause more offence to the vicar, not wanting to encounter those who might recognise her spirit guide as being so like the orphaned niece who had recently come to live with her. However for the first few months, there was less risk of being known – when I spied from behind the sitting room door where I could eavesdrop on those ‘guests’ who sat in the hall and waited, until my aunt walked down the stairs, as resplendent in her finery as any actress on a stage. 

I would listen to those visitors, (nearly always women, nearly always old) exchanging confidential woes, and thus revealing vital clues. And later, when they had been called to sit beside the parlour fire, when the front door bell would chance to ring, requiring that Mercy be called out on a matter of some urgency – that subterfuge was all it took for me to show my aunt the page on which I’d scribbled down the facts that I had learned while hiding: those names and sorrowful events that might then drip from Mercy’s lips. 


When guests returned as regulars, when no more secrets need be learned, I wore the garments of the ghost, the hushing silks, the sheer black veils, the darkness of which obscured the face on which my aunt brushed silver paste, with ashes smudged around my eyes, to make me look half skull, half corpse. At other times a mask transformed my face into that of an infant child’s, whose tiny rosebud mouth would cry, ‘Mama - dear Mama. I am here!’ 


In daylight, it was pitiful to see those crude deceptions. I felt ashamed to play a part, to cause yet more unhappiness. But in the parlour’s darkness, the power of those wicked acts! Truly it was astonishing when, at Mercy’s given signal – a pre-arranged word, a certain look – her spirit guide materialised from behind ‘The Filmy Veil of Death’, which was generally the Chinese screen or the drapes in the room’s dimmest corner. From there I would float across the room, leaving a trail of apports behind – the rosebuds, or other fragrant blooms that might be construed as Spirit-sent: as were the kisses that I gave – the touch of veiled lips on tear-damp cheeks – the diversion of which then gave my aunt the chance to fling some sprays of dust from her pocket down into the hearth – where those chemicals would cause the flames to crackle purple, orange and red, exuding a dense grey pall through which I opened the door and left the room, during which my aunt would stand and chant: 

Through the mists that hide the Light of God, 
I see a shapeless form of Death. 
Death comes and beckons me today to glimpse the sacred Summerland. 
And with commingled joy and dread, I hear the far-off whispers . . . 



My heroine’s own Indian past is often whispering to her, in the characters, myths and legends that stem from her lost childhood, with stories of souls being born again, of deposed maharajah’s, and vampires - such as Vikram and the Vampire, translated by Sir Richard Burton: a story you can find online in the Gutenberg digital library. 




She is also very taken with the exploits of Varney the Vampire in the penny dreadful magazines that she finds beneath her grandmother’s bed – and in these lurid tales (which I’m sure Bram Stoker would have known) while she’s under the influence of opiates, having taken a dose of cough medicine, she falls asleep having reached the part in which she reads of Varney's dramatic death, when – in a fit of dark despair – he flings himself into the flames rising up from Mount Vesuvius. My heroine then has nightmares, thinking of Varney’s charred black skull – and that image is revived again in the form of an extreme Hindu sect: another sort of cult of death.




The Aghori in my Victorian tale are real, and they still exist today. They worship the god Shiva – who dances and beats his drum to conjure life into the world, but also to beat the dance of death. Shiva is said to represent both the good and the bad held in the world, and only by immersing themselves in equal measures of both things do the Aghori faithful hope to find Nirvana. Meanwhile, they inhabit burial grounds, immersed in death and vile decay, drunk on drugs and alcohol and eating human excrement. It is also a custom, or trial of sorts, for each new member of the sect to find himself a human skull from which he must drink human blood; finding this in the decomposing flesh of the dead who are left in the burning ghats – cremated before their ashes are scattered in sacred rivers.




Fire as a means of final death – for humans, or for vampires – is something my book also explores through the ancient practice of Suti, when Indian widows were burned alive with the bodies of dead husbands, although this was something outlawed by the British when they ruled there.




Cremation was also illegal in England until 1885, after in 1884 an 84 year old Welsh druid, a Dr William Price, cremated the corpse of his baby son. The old man was arrested, but released when no crime was found to be proven – and soon the law was also changed, and as early as the following year the first formal cremation was performed on a Mrs J Pickersville, taking place in the town of Woking – a setting less exotic than some in The Goddess and the Thief.

And now, in this final extract now, I’ll read a part of a letter that occurs at the novel’s opening, when a pregnant English woman (actually this is Alice’s mother) who has married an army officer and come to live in India, goes on a night time visit to a temple in Benares – as inspired by this painting by the artist, Albert Goodwin.




There was a temple that looked like a palace. It gleamed like silver against black skies where a bright full moon was shining down upon the domes and balconies, and the ornate marble arches, and in every arch a deity, and every deity shimmering in the flare of the torches set below. A pair of golden fretwork doors drew back to show a golden god... hailed by a thousand beating drums, the crashing of cymbals, the blaring of conches. I could not drag my eyes away, even though the god’s were closed. I kept thinking, ‘He cannot see me’. And yet, I knew he could, as if he could look into my soul through the gleaming ruby in his brow, or the ruby eyes of the cobra that coiled around his throat. That put me in mind of the devil in Hell, as did the trident in one of his hands. But then, the way he raised one palm – that seemed a benediction – and when a gust of air rose up, it was the strangest thing, because, I thought, “A gift, a blessing. A kiss from the lips of Shiva.” 

Such sacrilegious thoughts I had. I forced myself to turn away, to run on down the steep stone steps that led me to the river’s shore. How wide it is, that river? I could barely see to the other side where the flames of fires were burning and such strange shadows dancing. It must be one of the funeral ‘ghats’, where the Hindoos go to cremate their dead. But if only I’d not noticed ... that sudden stench of burning flesh...and then, the hand upon my wrist. A hand with fingers more like claws, with nails filthy, cracked and long. And there the horror did not end. In the other hand he held a staff, a drum, and what looked like a human skull. He wore nothing more than a loincloth. His flesh was black and wrinkled. And the toothless face that leered above... I could only watch when he dropped my wrist, unable to speak when his fingers spread and lowered to my belly. And just at that moment my baby kicked and that motion so sudden and violent that I gasped at the very shock of it. But it did bring me back to my senses again. I screamed. I pushed that wretch away. And he made no attempt to prevent me, only smiled as his hand was lifted, the palm extended forward, just like the golden god’s before. And then, he said the queerest thing... 



‘Do not fear thine death. Death is the blessed sacrifice with which to glorify The Lord. The Lord will claim thy womb’s new fruit, the goddess thus to be reborn.’ 





Poor woman! To hear such a prophecy: a prophecy that will come true, to curse her, and the child in her womb – a child who then grows up to see Hindu gods, and ghosts, and skulls – and to face the madness of a man who has lived among the Aghori, who then follows her to England, hoping to employ her skills in deceits far worse than any to be found in Mercy's parlour games.




And on that note, I’d like to end the talk I’d given you tonight with a thought about the only certainty that we all share in life - which is so perfectly described in the Latin Memento Mori - which means,  Remember You Must Die. 

4 comments:

  1. A fascinating article. I also write a blog where I post about the Victorian era from time to time and I just prepared a blog post (for next week) where I talk about the issue of frequent death in childbirth for women.

    Tam

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  2. That sounds very interesting, Tam.

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  3. I have been looking for something like this for a while now. So glad I have found your blog.

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    1. Thank you. Hope you enjoy it. All inspired by research for my novels.

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