Jolene Zigarovitch, Death and the Body in the Eighteenth-Century Novel

Jolene Zigarovitch, Death and the Body in the Eighteenth-Century Novel (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023), 280 pp. $64.95 Hb. $64.95 E-book. ISBN 9781512823776 (hardcover), ISBN 9781512823783 (Ebook)

This is an entertaining read, a book that considers the various ways in which death is represented in eighteenth-century novels. Its style is informal, even chatty at times, which can be a bit off-putting on occasion but it does make it very readable. It sets its store out well:

While this book isn’t a study of deathbed scenes, it seeks to excavate the import of death and the body in fiction and, in particular, to demonstrate the power of fleshly artifacts and secular memorials previous to and often quite distinct from a Victorian cult of mourning. (1).

Each chapter is opened with a section from Clarissa and it is a testament to the capaciousness of that novel that this is even possible. There are lots of images included in the book too, which are great to see.

The author, Jolene Zigarovitch, argues that

as science sought to expose the mysteries of the body in the Enlightenment, the corpse became an emotionally valuable, cherished relic in fiction. And as anatomists dissected, undertakers preserved, jewellers encased, and artists figured the corpse, so too the novelist portrayed bodily artifacts. (1).

She suggests a relationship between the scientists’ work and the novelists’ work which could be further explained. Are these activities happening simultaneously? Or is there a further link to be made? There is a propensity towards pun, which is enjoyable. For example, ‘Why are these morbid forms of materiality entombed in the novel?’ (2). It is surprising that a dedicated volume on the history of death in the eighteenth century does not already exist, but this book fills that gap.

Zigarovitch wishes to emphasise the cultural paradigms (rather than Freudian pathologizing) that underlie eighteenth-century literary accounts of death. It is to be commended that the list of books and authors that have been useful to this author is given in the text (rather than in footnotes), but it can become a bit list-like at times. The author does not limit herself to literary sources, also using primary historical sources, including ‘wills, undertaking histories, medical treatises and textbooks, anatomical studies, philosophical treatises, and religious tracts and sermons’ (4). But she recognises that novels have a particular role and capacity for representing death as a sign of culture, arguing that ‘notions of self center on theories of the tactile and material’ such that ‘hair; tokens; preserved hearts; viscera urns; jewellery; miniatures; wax reliefs; small, tangible, wearable replicas; and relics of the dead signify the materiality of Enlightenment death’ (10).

The book covers a good deal of ground. The first chapter discusses the ‘beautiful death’; the second, ‘preserving the dead body’; the third, the role of wax ‘in the history of memento mori and in eighteenth- century medical practices’ (14); chapter four is titled ‘Circulating Bodies: Secular Mementos, Jewelry, and Hairwork’, and the final chapter, ‘Osseous Matter: Bones, Relics, and Mourning Miniatures’. As for the whole book, the author tells us: ‘In a broader frame-work, it narrates a fascinating and unique history of the novel that speaks to the cultural formation of modern individualism’ (17).

While the author admits that the Victorians have a monopoly on the cult of death and mourning, it becomes clear in this book that eighteenth-century people had a burgeoning fascination with the commodification of death:

The list of mourning and funerary accoutrements for especially the middling and upper classes is extensive: scarves, brooches, rings, miniatures, wax reliefs, armbands, hatbands, gloves, dresses, crape hats, buttons, shoe and knee buckles, toothpick cases, snuffboxes, stationery, funeral invitations and tickets, effigies, death masks, urns, and monuments. (19).

This was an age when the clergy was being replaced at the death bedside by the physician.  Death was a moment when rank could be displayed with extravagant mourning coaches and richly decorated accoutrements. Undertakers took on the role of providing these goods and services. Zigarovitch writes that novels help us to understand mourning customs and practices, referring to both canonical and less well-known works, such as those written by Samuel Richardson, Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Smith, Frances Sheridan, Sarah Fielding, and the pages are often illustrated with lovely images. This book offers a useful collation of those deathbed and funeral moments in these novels.

The fascination with death and its accompaniments spilled over into other aspects of life. Political satire on the financial crash of the South Sea Company used the style of a funeral ticket to make its point. Zigarovitch writes that ‘Mourning clearly became more commodified, its sensibilities spilling over into public performance and social practice’ (30). In general, the book offers a useful and informed account of how death was treated in the period. For example, changes to funeral sermons are used to evidence a move towards the secularisation of death, the idea of a ‘pleasing death’ and accounts of how it was possible to die well (41).  

If I had one criticism it would be that science can be referred to in a rather vague and general way. For example, the rather generalised idea that as scientific knowledge grew religious sentiment decreased is given. Specificity is also in evidence elsewhere though: Zigarovitch tells us that Edmund Burke ‘mentions the word “touch” thirty-three times’ in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (45). The book is interesting on the importance of touch to a number of thinkers, such as Locke, Hume, Condillac, and Rousseau. Zigarovitch writes that sensibility ‘is one of the many contributing factors to a growing sentimentality in mourning practices that cherished and physically reliquized the lost love one’ (54).

Thinking about Clarissa, Zigarovitch carves out a new position for her argument, that ‘Lovelace’s wish to preserve, display, and touch the dead body is not grounded in the remnants of Catholic reliquary tradition’. In her reading, these moments reflect a ‘growing sentimentalism’ toward what she calls ‘secular relics’ (56). I was intrigued to find out that embalming was not an ‘uncommon’ practice in eighteenth-century Britain and that it

helped shift the overseeing of death from the church to the individual and family, led to the rise of the undertaking trade, was often a mark of social class, and witnessed innovations that revolutionized anatomical study and surgical practices. (58).

There is interesting material in the book on how embalming methods were improved by surgeons like John Hunter, Benjamin Bell and Matthew Baillie. Presumably ‘Dr. John Blumenbach’ is Johann Friedrich Blumenbach; his name has been anglicised by the Philosophical Transactions (58). Zigarovitch reveals that he wrote about the unrolling of mummies in private homes: ‘Blumenbach’s account is one of many; together they attest to the significant market for mummies by private collectors and public museums, as well as the circulation of preserved remains for medical and entertainment purposes’ (88). I knew about the case of Hannah Beswick’s mummy which was finally buried in an unmarked grave in the 1960s after having stood at the entrance to the Manchester Natural History Museum but assumed this was a rare case: it seems not.    

This book was a joy to read, with much information that was new to me. I am sure that it is a useful addition to the field.

Sharon Ruston, Lancaster University