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Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria.

In Bearing the Dead Esther Schor proposes that "mourning is a cultural rather than psychological phenomenon ... a force that constitutes communities and makes it possible to conceptualize history." (pp. 3, 4) Starting from this assumption Schor argues that mourning, as represented in Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" and the poetry of Wordsworth, was a crucial experience through which the British of the late eighteenth century learned how to share their grief, and through such a sympathetic exchange imagine themselves as a community. Although Schor relies on the literary canon for a great deal of her evidence, her work is valuable especially because she reads Gray, Wordsworth, and other poets alongside a rich variety of texts drawn from philosophy, politics, and social commentary. Taken together this evidence reveals how the British of the late eighteenth century conceived of "mourning as a process that generates, perpetuates, and moralizes social relations." (p. 4)

Schor develops her argument through a series of chapters that weave back and forth between poetry and other literary forms. Gray's famous elegy, for example, is analyzed at the conclusion of a first chapter which explores the search of the Earl of Shaftesbury, David Hume, and Adam Smith for a basis of morality that was not dependent on Christian eschatology. The crucial text for Schor in this sequence is Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in which sympathy for the dead is described as a kind of currency that circulates through society, establishing the basis of social harmony. Schor's close reading of Smith and Gray in her first chapter establishes her point that during the second half of the eighteenth century "the public, moral significance of individual mourning becomes widely recognized." (p. 21)

From Gray and the moral theorists Schor moves to a study of the "elegiac sentimentalism" found in literary criticism and the sonnet cycles of William Bowles and Charlotte Smith, whose "written wailings" were unable to imagine ways to move from the pathos of grief to a social ethic that was fruitful for the community. Such a connection was argued forcefully in the last decade of the eighteenth century; in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paine's response in The Rights of Man, and Wordsworth's ballads and prose of the 1790s Schor observes the politicization of sentiments associated with mourning, as these writers and others recruited such sympathy "alternately for the moral renovation or preservation of society." (p. 111) This move in turn led to further reflection on the relation between elegy and action in Wordsworth's Prelude and Excursion, which are analyzed at length. Schor rejects the standard judgment of the Excursion as nothing more than Tory polemic, and finds there instead a "sane liberalism" (p. 154) based on Wordsworth's search for a moral system grounded both in the experience of loss recollected and the tranquil contemplation of nature. The dialectical play between these two sources yields, in Schor's view, an ethically self-conscious individual empowered to act as well as grieve. In her final substantive chapter Schor turns, somewhat abruptly, to the polemic surrounding the death of Princess Charlotte in 1817, following the birth of her first child, a stillborn male who would have been third in line to the throne. Schor observes the grief on display in funeral orations, which "allowed the populace to reassert its identification with the Hanoverian monarchy," (p. 220) but also the political quarrels over the appropriateness of such expression. In an Epilogue Schor contrasts the Enlightenment view of death and mourning, in which grief results from an awareness of the abyss between life and death, with the Victorian era, "whose lyrics and narratives lay emphasis on all manner of interpenetration between the worlds of the living and the dead." (p. 234)

Schor has written a book that is insightful, abstruse, and at times frustrating. Her characterization of her argument as sometimes "wayward" (p. 6) is apt; careful attention to the summary she provides (pp. 6-12) is helpful, but I still found myself struggling to grasp the connections being made both within and between sections. I was frustrated as well by the exclusively textual approach to culture; the texts that Schor uses are fascinating evidence, but they are read constantly against each other, and never against the practices of people at deathbeds and churchyards. Schor does not cite Ralph Houlbrooke's collection of essays by British historians concerned with just such behavior (Death, Ritual, and Bereavement. New York: Routledge, 1989), and ignores the rich cross-cultural anthropological literature on death and mourning. Schor's choices result in something less that what the subtitle offers: "The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria." Despite these reservations, however, I found myself persuaded and at times moved by Schor's selection of texts and her analysis of them. Schor combines skepticism and sympathy in her reading of Smith, Gray, Burke, and Wordsworth, whom she shows struggling to imagine a community linked and consoled by its shared grief.

Thomas Kselman University of Notre Dame
COPYRIGHT 1996 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Kselman, Thomas
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Words:827
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