Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lady of Ashes

 O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?~ 1 Corinthians 15:55
 I enjoy the work of fellow Maryland author Christine Trent, who writes historical fiction about women in trade. Christine's meticulously researched books about bourgeois life remind us that women have always worked, especially in the busy shops of cities and towns, where they often mastered the various crafts practiced by their husbands, fathers or brothers, and even ran shops of their own. Christine's fourth and latest novel, Lady of Ashes, has as its heroine a Victorian undertaker, Violet Morgan. Although Violet marries into the profession she becomes quickly adept at running the family business. While her husband Graham becomes involved in a shady enterprise involving blockade running for the Confederacy, Violet assumes full control of operations at Morgan Undertaking. Graham complains that she is neglecting the house, even though he does not leave her with many options, since he is unwilling to devote himself to the care of corpses. Violet, however, sees her role not just as work but as a vocation, burying the dead being a work of mercy. She approaches the dead with respect and the survivors with sympathy and comfort. With the appearances of a mysterious orphan, a Confederate gentleman, and a member of the royal family, Violet's life begins to change course, never suspecting the dangers that await her.

What I appreciate most about this novel is the fascinating information on Victorian mourning customs. People in mourning, especially widows, were allowed to withdraw into seclusion. Everyone understood the requirements of the grieving process, at least where the middle and upper classes were concerned. Outward expressions of sorrow were not only commonplace but expected. In our eyes the accoutrements of mourning may seem exaggerated, since now many do not have burial services but "celebrations of life." In Victorian times, a period of mourning was part of the healing process, although as in Queen Victoria's case, it could be a bit morbid. Here are some interesting facts from the author's website:
Coffin vs. Casket, what’s the difference?  A coffin is a burial container in which it widens at the shoulders to accommodate a person’s shoulders.  Think old Dracula movies and anything produced for Halloween.  A casket, however, is the modern burial container Americans generally use today, made of steel or wood, that is designed as an even rectangle with a rounded top.

Did you know that Victorians did not embalm their dead?   In fact, the practice only took off in the United States during the Civil War, in order to cope with preserving dead soldiers—on both sides—while being sent home on trains.

Do you know why the Victorians didn’t embalm their dead?  They thought it an unseemly—and un-Christian—practice to fill a body with chemicals before placing it in the ground.  

Guess why lilies are traditionally associated with funerals?  Their scent is so intense that they masked the odor of decomposing bodies.  While Prince Albert’s coffin stood inside Windsor Chapel in 1861, the profusion of lilies was so overpowering that the guards had to be switched out every hour to prevent them from fainting.

First class or coach?  The Victorians were still a class-conscious society, even if some of those barriers were breaking down.  In planning your funeral, the undertaker—wearing a top hat swathed in black crape—would offer your family options appropriate to your social status.  For example, if you were of high enough rank, you might have a funeral car with glass sides, interior curtains, and plumes adoring the top.  Were you just middle class?  Well, a smaller carriage then, no curtains and no plumes.  For those of little means, your funeral carriage was more like a long, black open cart.

What’s a professional mourner?   Depending on your social status, your undertaker might hire professional mourners to walk alongside your funeral car.  Dressed in black, the number of them helped demonstrate how important or wealthy you were.  The same is true for the number of horses pulling your funeral car, the number of ostrich plumes adorning the horses’ heads and your funeral car, and in what part of the cemetery you were buried.

Parade routes aren’t just for floats.  In America, the hearse (or, in Victorian parlance, funeral carriage) drives from the funeral home to the church to the cemetery.  In Victorian England, the funeral carriage went from the home of the deceased to the cemetery’s chapel. Except, it didn’t always go directly there.  For society people, the funeral procession would frequently detour through busy or fashionable streets, so that everyone could get a glimpse of what important person had died.
 Violet's marital difficulties are those of a woman who is compelled by circumstances to work outside the home, all the while receiving censure for failing to be the perfect housewife. As her marriage becomes more unhappy, Violet turns to the undertaking business as an emotional refuge, finding it easier to deal with families in mourning than her domestic misery, although as events unfold her occupation leads her to  unexpected adventures. Many actual historical incidents and personages are woven into the story, some little known, as the reader is given various views of London, from the gritty to the gracious. While written for an adult audience, this is one novel which I would not hesitate to recommend to teenagers who enjoy historical fiction.

(*NOTE: This novel was sent to me by the author in exchange for my honest opinion.)


No comments: