Victorian womanhood seemed to spend a goodly amount of its time being on the brink of dying. To be honest, it’s a miracle anything got done because snuffing out seemed to take up such a large portion of their time. Take, for example, this sad image…
|Sarah Bernhardt, 1860|
Heavens, what a sad scene, a young talented performer plucked from her audience while still in her first flush of beauty. Thing is, Sarah B didn’t actually die until 1923. Mind you, she was an old lady by then, and who’d want to see that? No, far more sensible, and not even vaguely mental, to have your ‘lying in state’ while you’re still nubile. In fact, I’m surprised more people don’t do it. It could catch on, you’d only need a big name to do it, say Cheryl Cole, and they’d all be at it. This however may be taking things a little far…
|Nobody look at Sarah, she's just attention seeking.|
Yes, well it’s no great surprise that Victorians loved a bit of ‘doomed heroine’. Look at the proliferation of Ophelias and Ladies of Shalott, you’d be forgiven dying by water was the main pastime of Victorian lasses, after needlework.
|I made this quilt myself, you know....|
Miss Bernhardt’s corpse fetish aside, although there are many well-known paintings of doomed literary starlets, the number of women dying in far more familiar surroundings is enormous, and makes you wonder about the life expectancy of the average Victorian lady.
|Death the Bride (1894-95) Thomas Cooper Gotch|
Thomas Cooper Gotch brings us a morbid wedding picture. She is Death the Bride, the Late Wife, wreathed in lilies in a sea of blood red poppies. She is young and beautiful, smiling as she raises a hand in recognition. Far from shouting ‘coo-ee!’ at us across the sinister meadow, she seems to be just drawing our attention to her existence. Are we her bridegroom? She does seem to know us and to be honest you could do worse. Yes, she’s dead, but then I never shut cupboard doors which drives Mr Walker insane, so no-one’s perfect.
She’s still a bit of a personification, not a real person, not a real Death Bride…
|The Bride in Death (1839) Thomas Barker|
Oh, that’s better, in a manner of speaking. Off she pops, with a pretty decent amount of boob on show. She is very pale in comparison to her grieving husband, who appears to be a bit over-dressed. Oh hang on, we've gone all Stuart... In fact you could almost couple this picture with The Wounded Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton.
|'Even though you're dying, you're still much sexier than my Puritan boyfriend...'|
Possibly it’s something about the opulence and splendour of the period - even amongst the luscious brocade and lace, a young wealthy woman is dying. She still wears her pearls and there is a sense that nothing will save you, death is the equaliser. All your riches are not going to prevent your imminent demise. Note the gold embossed Bible by the side if the bed. Very nice, but looks a bit lame in comparison to this…
|The Comforter (1897) Byam Shaw|
Nothing beats a PA by JC. Women are such flaky creatures, one minute here, the next minute pegging out from some stupid girl disease. As the painting says ‘I cannot live without the man Christ Jesus, but as my wife is so damn unreliable, I’ll be fine without her’ (They could only fit the first bit on the frame, obviously).
|The Crisis (1891) Frank Dicksee|
Is it just me or is this a really comfy bed? Sorry, I had an operation last year which involved me not being able to lay flat for about a month and I wish I had had her pillows behind me, they look very fluffy indeed. No, I didn’t sit there teetering on the brink of the abyss with only a shawl binding me to this mortal coil, before you ask. I don’t own a shawl.
|This is for Remebrance Frank Dicksee|
Oh, good, as long as my terrible wasting death isn’t keeping you from your work, dear. In fact, shall I fetch you a cup of tea and a biscuit before I breathe my last?
Is it just me or does the husband look a bit dodgy? I think he did her in, just so he could finish his picture, no doubt entitled ‘My Dead Wife’. Bloody husbands…,
|The Death of Amy Robsart 1560 (1879) William Frederic Yeames|
Oh now, come on, she obviously tripped and fell accidentally, you know what women are like. I bet she was thinking about dresses or kittens or whatever it is that girls think about, and oops, down the stairs she fell, snapping her neck. How very tragic - or convenient - I always get those two mixed up. Mind you, she's a Tudor wife, hence the fact she's out of bed. If she was a Victorian, she wouldn't have fallen downstairs. You see, it's much safer to be bedridden. Well, sort of.
So there we go, Victorian wives, about as durable as a rice paper rain mac. One little cough or sneeze and they’re on the last train to croaksville. T’uh, women...