Monday, December 03, 2007

Gothic Romances and Morbid Observations

I've been following the suggestions from British Women's Novels: A Reading List, 1775-1818 by Cathy Decker. Dr. Decker provides synopses and recommendations of many little-known novels. All these books are in the public domain, and many of them are available free on the Web as html, txt, or pdf files. Decker also provides a popular Regency Fashion Page. Gothic novels AND historical fashion--what could be more fun?

Another nineteenth century literary connection is Memento Mori: Death and Photography In Nineteenth Century America by Dan Meinwald. This is a long, interesting essay on nineteenth century representations of death. I don't know how other people spent their early adolescence, but in junior high school, I scoured the public library's collections of old, never-checked-out novels and anthologies. I got Dickens, Elliot, Doestoevsky, and Kipling this way, but I also got Helen Hunt Jackson, Alice and Phoebe Carey (The Sister Spirits of Poesy), some of Poe's less successful work, and the death of little Eva by Mrs. Stowe. My tastes have been called "morbid."

Here's Meinwald describing his essay's aim:

In the closely-knit social groups of the eighteenth century, the death of each person affected the life of every other. Death, like life, was a communal affair. By the nineteenth century, this was no longer the case. Feelings...were now concentrated within the immediate family....The decease of a family member was a barely tolerable event, the cause of an emotional dilemma. The grief of the survivors took novel and acute forms, both in public and in private. Outward manifestations of grief, like funeral and burial customs, reflected inward transformations. Other manifestations included a new imagery of death, both visual and literary....

The visual imagery of death created in the nineteenth century represents a diversity of attempts to come to terms with this kind of disruption and discontinuity....This impulse can be described as a romantic and sentimental desire to surmount the fact of separation. In the twentieth century, the prevailing method of dealing with permanent separation is to put it out of mind. In the nineteenth century, the tendency was to keep it in mind, to retain the presence of the deceased person in any way possible. Visual images, especially photographs, provided some of the most effective and emotionally satisfying means of doing so.

This essay could have used one more careful edit. (Memento mori images are graphic demonstrations of the fact that death was not only a more frequent, but a far more familiar occurrence in medieval Europe than it is today.--I'm pretty sure the frequency of death hasn't changed--it's always been 100%, statistically.) Nevertheless, Meinwald's text and illustrations are wide-ranging and fascinating.


Reya Mellicker said...

Probably he meant that it was more common to experience the deaths of others rather than just reading about it in the paper, but you're right of course. He could have used your sharp eye!

Don't know how you feel about reincarnation - maybe you had a Victorian lifetime. I never could relate to any of those authors, even Jane Austin. Everybody loves her books but I could never understand the appeal.

Do you have snow? We're supposed to get an inch or so tomorrow. Can't wait!!

Rebecca Clayton said...

It's been snowing since Sunday night--a soft, dry snow that's melted down low, although Droop Mountain is sugar-frosted.

It's interesting you mentioned reincarnation. The only hint I've ever had of that sort was my intense, early interest in these old books. I started reading these things when I was eight, and didn't understand half the text. It didn't matter--I was obsessed.

I like Jane Austen, but I'm not sure why so many people like her so much. Her characters lived such claustrophobic, limited lives, yet she packed in life-and-death drama. The broad appeal is surprising.