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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Esther Schor tells us about the persistence of the dead, about why they still matter long after we emerge from grief and accept our loss. Mourning as a cultural phenomenon has become opaque to us in the twentieth century, Schor argues. This book is an effort to recover the culture of mourning that thrived in English society from the Enlightenment through the Romantic Age, and to recapture its meaning. Mourning appears here as the social diffusion of grief through sympathy, as a force that constitutes communities and helps us to conceptualize history.

In the textual and social practices of the British Enlightenment and its early nineteenth-century heirs, Schor uncovers the ways in which mourning mediated between received ideas of virtue, both classical and Christian, and a burgeoning, property-based commercial society. The circulation of sympathies maps the means by which both valued things and values themselves are distributed within a culture. Delving into philosophy, politics, economics, and social history as well as literary texts, Schor traces a shift in the British discourse of mourning in the wake of the French Revolution: Wha

Excerpt

This chapter interprets the cultural meanings of mourning in the Enlightenment. Since my analysis will invoke disciplines as diverse as literature, philosophy, politics, and economics, it seems a good idea to start by saying what I am not attempting here. First, although “the elegy” is my point of departure, I do not offer a comprehensive literary history of elegy per se; to show why such a history would miss both the point and the purview of mourning during the Enlightenment is one of the burdens of my argument. Second, while this chapter describes a shift in the representation of mourning during the first half of the eighteenth century, it necessarily anticipates developments more easily discerned in texts written during the latter half of the century. While such anticipations may seem to risk compromising what is historical about this account of the British Enlightenment, they also register the perils of narrating as developments what are more truly glimpsed as latencies and tendencies. Finally, a caveat about the eponymous personification of Elegia in this chapter's title. While my argument does not focus sustainedly on the vexed relations between gender and genre, it repeatedly demonstrates (and at moments, lingers over) the implication of gender in ostensibly formal generic categories. the Enlightenment shift toward the masculine gendering of mourning—a shift described in the change from Steele's “wife of a tradesman” to Gray's “rude forefathers of the hamlet”—accompanies a strengthening conviction in the public significance of mourning. Such masculinization of mourning was not reversed until the Victorian period; that the Victorians should at once have domesticated and refeminized mourning is not, as I shall argue at the end of this study, as retrograde a symmetry as it might seem. While I want to render the contours of this symmetry boldly, I have tried also . . .

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