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Peer Reviewed

Literary Remains

Denise Fulbrook, University of Kentucky

Mary Elizabeth Hotz. Literary Remains: Representations of Death and Burial in Victorian England. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. x+217pp. $70 (c), $24.95 (p).

Rev. by Denise Fulbrook
While not quite approaching the fashionable popularity of the presence of black clothing at an academic conference, since the early 1980s death has been slowly booming across the disciplines. In the wake of historians’ David Cannadine’s identification of the “puddles of ignorance” about the cultural history of death and mourning in Britain, and Philippe Ariès monumental, oft cited and contested research into European death practices,@ a wealth of texts has animated and illuminated this once shadowy area of scholarship. Unsurprisingly a fair share of this morbid and fascinating scholarly preoccupation has centered on nineteenth century Britain, often memorialized for its spectacular fascination with the corpse and its afterlife–a fascination as clear in the photography and mourning rituals of the period as it is in a literature more filled with corpses than the laboratories of today’s CSI. Hotz examines this literature and its relationship to debates about burial, cemetery, and cremation reform from the 1830s to 1890s to argue broadly that representations of death mark and determine social and literary relations and, specifically, that authors of nineteenth century fiction such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy “resist social reformers’ interference into death practices” by their “tenacious attention to corporeality,” rejection of “the centralizing process by which a body is isolated from its social and political contexts,” and repositioning of the corpse as a “locus of collective action” (7).
While Hotz analyzes novels by Gaskell, Dickens, and Hardy, her study begins with an interesting reading of Edwin Chadwick’s A Supplementary Report on the results of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns (1843). In some ways this turn to an examination of Chadwick’s role in social reform and the recasting of social relations and bodies is nothing new. Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) is central to a variety of recent critical works;@ and, indeed, many of the conceptual findings of Hotz’s readings are familiar: Chadwick’s centralizing bureaucratic approach to social problems, stress on the regulation and surveillance of the working class, statistical and spectacular framing of the poor for middle class consumption, idealization of middle class domesticity, fear of working class gathering spaces, and investment in a miasmic model of disease (physical and moral) are all arguments made in this previous work. That said, Hotz usefully extends our understanding of Chadwick’s influence by this turn to the Supplementary Report and with it to the importance of, specifically, dead bodies of the poor and working class to politics and reform movements of the 1840s and early 1850s. Her careful reading of this report is thoughtful, insightful, and richly contextualized.
Here as elsewhere, Hotz illustrates the impressive breadth of her historical knowledge and employs a wide range of primary sources (parliamentary debates; newspaper editorials; sanitary reform texts; mortality statistics; funeral, burial, and creation handbooks; burial, cemetery, and creation reform legislation) to enrich our understanding of significant flashpoints in the history of the corpse during this period. Successive chapters on Gaskell, Dickens, Hardy (versions of the first two were previously published) combine a reading of literary texts with a roughly chronological account of changes in these debates. Beginning with Gaskell, Hotz reads Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854-5) as actively resisting the moral claims and centralizing, deindividualizing tendencies evident in reports such as Chadwick’s by showing the importance of local communities and working class responses to death to the rehabilitation of society. Her next chapter focuses on Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1864-5), reading it as speaking to debates about Burial Acts of the 1850s and a series of Times’ articles (1855-1864) which attacked the Church for reducing a parishioner’s value to a question of monetary compensation for burial services. Identifying a fundamental change in the burial reform debate in the late 1850s and 1860s, which shifted the focus on the corpse from that of an object of waste to that of a commodity, Hotz argues that Dickens critiques the centralization of burial practices, self-help philosophy and the commodification of the body in market capitalism and works to rehabilitate society and achieve a rightful continuity between life and death through the restoration of sympathy for the poor, the patriarchal family, patronage, and inheritance. Finally, she reads Hardy’s novels against the meaning burial and cemetery debates and legislation in the 1870s and 1880s held for Dissenters and Anglicans, who framed access to burial spaces as differing ways of understanding the relationship between time, history, and nation. While Hardy’s novels insist on an anthropology of death as a means to appreciate the past by devotion to ancestral heritage, his late novels also warn against a nostalgic longing for the past in the face of an encroaching modernism. A conclusion, which reads Dracula (1897) in light of late century debates about cremation, and an epilogue, which even more briefly and oddly discusses the traffic in bodies in contemporary America, follow.
While the book strives to show that “the power to organize the dead is the power to constitute the political and social world that survives, making it valuable territory (34) to our understanding of history and literature, its contribution to the historical record is its greatest strength. For although Hotz seeks to integrate historical and literary readings to redress what she sees as the methodological shortfalls of literary scholars of death whom she considers ahistorical or “reticent to explore the materiality of the corpse, choosing instead to focus on elegiac texts and what they reveal about sentimentalism among the living,” the payoff for her research in terms of teaching us to look at nineteenth-century fiction differently is disappointingly limited. To argue for example that Gaskell’s novels individualize the poor or celebrate communal relations and solutions to social problems, or that Dickens wants us to feel sympathy for the poor in his death scenes and offers the patriarchal family as a romantic solution to the problems of an increasingly individualistic, bureaucratic capitalist society, or even that Hardy is invested in valuing a disappearing past while anticipating modernism is to return us, in each case, to very familiar scholarly ground. The arguments could have been presented as being on a continuum with this previous work, if only to highlight more of Hotz’s sense of where her conclusions differ significantly, but they aren’t, and the absence of engagement with scholarship on sentimentalism is particularly noteworthy. Although Hotz implies that this omission is a result of her focus on the “materiality of the corpse,” it results in a distorted sense of the novelty of the literary claims being made. In fact, too often I found myself longing for more sensitivity not only to this history but to “literary” issues (genre, mode, form, etc.) more generally– Gaskell is working with different generic conventions and goals than Chadwick, which makes her attention to individual characters’ communities and subjectivities less “remarkable” than Hotz suggest; can Hardy’s prolific output of elegies simply be ignored in the name of “the materiality of the corpse” (whatever this means exactly)?
Perhaps as a result of a desire to make the historical research more than suggestively related to the literary texts – Hotz posits causal relations which aren’t always convincing -- the readings can also seem overreaching. This is most true in her conclusion. Unlike Jani Scadura’s recent analysis of Dracula’s relationship to the role of the undertaker in the nineteenth-century,@ which clearly shows how the material history of death and burial can illuminate this novel in new and powerful ways, the relation here seems forced and overstated. Other readings suffer from similar issues. While Hotz’s claim that the corpse was transformed from an emblem of waste to a commodity in the mid-century is suggestive, one is left wondering about the stability, breadth, or even clarity of this demarcation in the face of the overlap and persistence of both strains of discourse both prior to and following the 1860s. The reading of Mary Barton results in several distortions. For example, while Gaskell does indeed critique the grand burial pageants associated with the middle and upper class in a few short sentences about the Ogdens, Hotz turns that into support for this more far reaching claim: “For the Ogdens and the Carsons – estranged from feeling, shunning contact with the physical reality of death by the commodified pomp of the funeral, exploiting the body to revengeful purpose, and especially cut off from supportive communities – death is not a transformative and social healing experience”(46). Putting aside the factory owners’ complex relation to their communities, one pauses over the fact that Harry Carson’s body is intimately and achingly mourned by his mother as he lays dead in his bed and Gaskell complete lack of interest in representing Harry Carson’s burial rites. Hotz actually makes the latter point herself in a fashion by arguing that his family “never buries Harry during the narrative course of the novel” – simultaneously undercutting the assumption of funereal pomp@ and quietly revealing the sometimes distorting pressure of the framework. Harry is actually buried in the novel, even if Gaskell isn’t invested in the least in the specifics of the burial scene; describing Harry’s father’s recognition of his own false investment in riches and social distinction, Gaskell simply writes: “[these] false substances fade away into the shadows they truly are and one by one disappear into the grave of his son”(380). Gaskell’s relative lack of investment in illustrating such scenes compared to her clear one in showing the culture and suffering unto death of the working class does not automatically mean that she is making an extended commentary on the former. She may simply not see a sustained study of middle or upper class death practices as of primary concern to her project. Other questionable readings of authorial investment and intentionality appear throughout this chapter: for example, the stress on the profundity of the transformational impact death has on Mary@ or the occlusion of Gaskell’s extensive use of popular poems and songs about death in her epigraphs.
That said, these examples emblematize Hotz’s ability as a close reader less than the sometimes undue pressure put on the novels to show a direct relation with a material history which they more suggestively and occasionally echo than seem to take as a central concern. Overall, one wishes for a much more fruitful integration of the literature and history than one finds. This ambitious undertaking may inspire future scholars to do precisely that. They will gain from Hotz’s research both a richer understanding of the history of death and burial in this period and a keen sense of the need to continue to extend our understanding of the difference class makes in literary representations of the same.
Denise Fulbrook teaches in the English Department of the of and the . She has published on Dickens, Jane Austen and Clueless, and with Eve K. Sedgwick, gender and sexuality. She is coeditor of Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music and Culture (2002).