Claire’s interest in the materials of mourning springs from a broader concern with the tensions between the Victorian ‘celebration of death’ and a burgeoning consumer culture, particularly in the works of Charles Dickens. Here she focuses upon Dickens’s relationship with the objects and spaces associated with his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, following her tragic death in 1837.
Dickens often satirised tangible forms of mourning, such as crape dresses and hatbands. In Great Expectations, the clerk Wemmick emphasises the financial value of his collection of ostentatious mourning jewellery by designating it ‘portable property’. Yet Dickens was more ambivalent about personal mementos. When Mary Hogarth died in his arms, aged just seventeen, the author was traumatised. In grieving for Mary he was comforted by wearing a ring he took from her dead hand and a locket she had given to him. At the same time he sought to detach himself from this reliance on materiality. In a heartfelt letter of condolence to William Bradbury on the death of his child, Dickens described how:
“I have never connected her idea with the grave in which she lies. I look upon it as I sometimes do upon the clothes she used to wear. They will moulder away in their secret places, as her earthly form will in the ground, but I have long since learnt to separate her from all this litter of dust and ashes, and to picture her to myself with every well-remembered grace and beauty heightened by the light of Heaven and the power of that Merciful Being who would never try our earthly affections so severely but to make their objects happy, and lead our thoughts to follow them.”
- 3 March 1839
Here the memory of Mary is separated from her remains, both material and physical. Dickens suggests that the most satisfying form of remembrance is to combine the memory of an individual’s appearance and attributes with an imaginative projection of their enhancement in the afterlife. While the associations evoked by material relics allow the mourner to look backwards, the only true comfort is a fusion of memory and imagination that opens a future perspective. Yet the continuing presence of the dead girl’s dresses within Dickens’s home suggests that an attachment to the materiality of relics is not as easily overcome in practice as it is in writing. Why is the tangibility of mourning so important, even when it seems irrational to the bereaved? Do things have a power of consolation that speech and language lack?