Having recently been studying Victorians and the culture of death, I have been reflecting on how many of the traditions and superstitions around death and burial have their roots in folklore. (If you’re interested in folklore do check out my post on gardening folklore).
Today we rarely come into contact with death, but in the not too distant past most people died at home. And because the death rate was previously a lot higher, most people would have encountered a dead body and likely been part of washing or laying out of family members. This meant that death was less of a taboo.
Numerous traditions have sprung up around the process of death, dealing with the body and burial — mostly to prevent bad luck and to ease the spirit’s passage to the afterlife. Below is collected some European folklore associated with death, funerals and graveyards:
When removing a dead body from a house make sure you always take them out feet first, otherwise they might turn and beckon someone from the house to follow them in death.
If you hear three knocks on your front door, but when you open it there is no one there, then it is death, warning you he is soon to come for you.
In Victorian times it was believed that lying on a pillow of feathers (sometimes specifically pigeon feathers) meant that the dying person could not pass peacefully away. This meant that feather pillows were used to ‘prolong’ the life of the dying so that family members could reach their bedside in time to bid them goodbye. On the flip side, if a person was thought to be lingering painfully, the pillow would be whipped away in the hope that it would end their earthly suffering.
Crows are believed to be messengers between this world and the next, so seeing a crow from your sick bed was believed to be an omen that death was near.
If lightning hits the house of a dying person then it reveals that the devil has come to claim them.
The last name to pass the lips of a dying person will be the next to die.
If you see a white owl in the day time it is said to portend death.
Never bring a peacock feather into the house, it is extremely unlucky and thought to be taunting death.
As soon as a person dies all mirrors in the house should be covered. Mirrors are thought to be gateways to the spirit world and it was thought to be bad luck to see a corpse in reflection. Some traditions believed that if this happened their spirit would be forever stuck in the mirror.
A bowl of salt should be placed on the corpse’s chest as soon as they have passed. This not only reduces bad smells and putrefaction but was also thought to keep bad spirits away.
Always leave the window open a crack after death, so that the soul of the departed can escape.
If the head of the household dies then the bees must be told. All family news of import must be relayed to the bees or they will desert the hive.
After death, all the clocks in the house should be stopped. This tradition releases the dead person’s spirit as it tells them that time is over for them.
To cure a relative of drunkenness, put a coin in the mouth of a corpse. Later remove the coin and drop it into the drink of the drunkard without them noticing.
In a tradition dating back to medieval times, if many people from the same family died of a sickness, a black ribbon would be tied around any living thing (even animals and plants) entering the house to protect them.
Touch the forehead of the dead to ensure they do not haunt your dreams.
Never put the clothes of a living person on a corpse. That person will die too as the body rots.
If rains falls into an open grave it is seen as a sign that another death will occur in the family within a year.
Never count the number of cars or carriages in a funeral procession, it is thought to foretell the number of days until your own death.
Do not point at a funeral procession or death will come for you next.
Once the body had passed over the threshold of the house then a nail would be driven into the doorway to prevent them ever returning as a spirit.
It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on, if you do then you must touch a button on your clothes in order to stay ‘connected’ to life.
If a black cat crosses the path of a funeral procession then it is thought that another family member will soon die.
People are said to traditionally wear black to a funeral as it makes them blend in. Death, therefore, will not notice you and take you next.
A funeral procession should not return home the same way it came or the spirit of the dead will follow and return to the house.
Many believed that you should hold your breath as your pass a graveyard or you will breathe in evil spirits.
If the body lies unburied over a Sunday then there will be another death in the family before the week is out.
Pall bearers traditionally wear gloves as it was believed that the spirit of the deceased might enter into them if they touched the coffin with bare hands.
Thunder after a funeral indicates that the person’s soul has gone to heaven.
Never wear new shoes to a funeral, it is thought that you are taunting the devil.
Whichever foot the horse drawing the funeral carriage sets off on indicates the sex of the next person to die. The left foot leading indicates that a women will be next to expire, the right, a man.
If you fall over three times in the same day at a graveyard then it was believed you would be dead within a year.
Bodies are traditionally faced with their feet to the east and their heads to the west so that when the sun rises they will greet it.
If the dead person lived a good life then flowers will bloom on their grave. If they led a bad life then only weeds will grow.
Some cemeteries have mazes planted at the entrance because it was thought ghosts could only travel in straight lines and so would not be able to leave the graveyard.
Never whistle is a cemetery or you will summon the devil.
Moss picked from off a grave stone was said to cure headaches.
William Makepeace Thackeray was one of Charlotte Brontë’s literary heroes. In 1848 she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to him, after much admiring the recently released Vanity Fair (1848).
She wrote in the preface to that edition that Thackeray was ‘the first social regenerator of the day’, adding, ‘His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer- cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb.’
In a letter of thanks in reply to Brontë’s publisher, Thackeray wrote that the dedication was ‘the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life.’ Unfortunately however, it was also a source of embarrassment and gossip. Unbeknown to Brontë, Thackeray, in an echo of Mr Rochester, had a mentally-ill wife who had been locked away in an institution and who Thackeray was unable to divorce. Rumours abounded after the dedication that Currer Bell had been a governess in Thackeray’s household and had written the fiction inspired by real life.
Despite this uneasy undertone Brontë was still keen to meet the much-admired Thackeray and when she visited London in December 1849 was happy to have an introduction afforded by her publisher, George Smith. This first meeting was at a dinner and Brontë had expected so much from Thackeray she was a little unnerved to find he was just an ordinary gentleman.
At dinner, Miss Bronte was placed opposite him. ‘And,’ said Thackeray, ‘I had the miserable humiliation of seeing her ideal of me disappearing, as everything went into my mouth, and nothing came out of it, until, at last, as I took my fifth potato, she leaned across, with clasped hands and tearful eyes, and breathed imploringly, ‘Oh, Mr. Thackeray! Don’t!’
Whether or not this is a true reflection of the meeting is hard to know, but I can’t help hoping it’s true as the awkwardness depicted by the mindless potato-over-eating Thackeray is quite an image to enjoy.
The pair’s second meeting was no less unsuccessful. Thackeray invited Brontë to a dinner party for lady writers at his house in June 1850. Again Brontë was crippled by shyness and barely spoke, the other guests were reportedly disdainful of her brooding, quiet manner and her outmoded dress. Thackeray’s daughter Anne, said of the dinner ‘It was a gloomy and silent evening. Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation, which never began at all.’
At one point one of the ladies attempted to brighten things up by addressing Brontë directly, asking her how she liked London. An interminable pause followed before Brontë uttered ‘Yes; and no,’ and the conversation ended.
Brontë ended up leaving the gathering early and Thackeray, embarrassed by the abject failure of the evening, quietly sloped off to his club, leaving his other guests to entertain themselves.
And so it seems the adage is true, never meet your heroes. Both Brontë and Thackeray, so sparkling and alive on the page, struggled to live up to the pressures of performing in society. Perhaps this can give all us mere mortals some succour that talent can exist behind even the most unlikely exterior.
On 14 July 1789, in what would become a defining moment of the French Revolution, Parisians stormed the Bastille prison – a symbol of the ancien regime’s authority and despotism. Within days a local builder, Pierre-François Palloy, and his team of masons began to dismantle the old prison, taking away the stones, chains and debris, and leaving nothing but a space where this once imposing building stood.
Palloy described himself as a patriot, self-identifying by signing his name ‘patriot Palloy’, and he chose to use the debris from the hated to prison to create a series of revolutionary relics. He used the stones to inscribe portraits of the king, revolutionary figures and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. He melted down the chains and cast medals of freedom. He even used the stones from the windowsill of the Bastille governor’s office to make a set of dominoes which he presented to the dauphin. Palloy used these stones as symbols of the revolution – transforming a once despotic symbol into one of freedom.
The Bastille as a Symbol of Revolution
On 15 July 1789, the day after the storming, the newspaper Révolutions de Paris stated that the prison would be ‘entirely annihilated and, in its place, a monument to august Liberty will be raised’. This indicates that the public immediately felt a need to memorialise and transform the space inhabited by the Bastille. The storming of the Bastille signified a moment when individuals came together against tyranny and were victorious – it signalled a huge shift in power.
Yet, very few people, in terms of the whole population of France, were actually present at the storming of the Bastille. Palloy recognised this, and saw the importance of the Bastille as a symbol of the Revolution and the opportunity it presented to amplify and spread the revolutionary message across France. By using the stones from the Bastille itself to create models of the prison, Palloy was forming portable material objects memorialising this momentous event. These models were then sent to every department in France, allowing people from all over the nation to feel part of this revolutionary moment.
The physical bulk of the prison had loomed large over Paris, and its destruction left a gap, both actually and metaphorically, that needed to be filled. Prior to the Revolution the monarchy had used a series of symbols, such as the fleur-de-lys, to lend themselves legitimacy, authority and allude to tradition. As the Revolution exploded into life, new symbols were required. These symbols came in many shapes – clothing, such as the revolutionary bonnet; monuments, such as liberty trees; and art, such as paintings of revolutionary figures. But where do Palloy’s objects fit? In his many speeches and pamphlets, Palloy defined his objects in a number of ways, embracing their multi-faceted meaning. He named them ‘reliques patriotiques’, which conjures images of sacred objects, and yet also plays on the idea that they are items from the past of historic value. He also referred to them as ex-votos (an offering to a saint or divinity) which again sacralises the stones. Additionally, Palloy called the stones ‘relics of freedom’, a name which recognised their new form and meaning.
The Revolution created a new political culture which saw groups of people who had not previously engaged with politics emerge, this meant that Revolutionary propaganda became essential, not only to commemorate the key events of the Revolution but also to unite people and spread revolutionary ideals. Palloy did just that by creating smaller, multiple models of the Bastille. He demonstrated his agency and mastery over the despotic prison by defeating this once huge building and recasting it, in smaller form, anew. At the same time, Palloy was treating these transformed stones with reverence, ordering that they be celebrated as symbols of freedom, and therefore using them to unite people in common purpose.
The Making of the Models
Palloy’s Bastille stones were not only direct relics from the Bastille, and therefore were witness to years of oppression, but they were also then transformed by the hands of revolutionaries themselves. Palloy’s models were collectively created in his workshop by masons who had actually taken part in the demolition of the prison. These men who had torn down the stones were now remaking them in a new image which embodied both the despotic past, and the idealistic revolutionary actions of the present, at the same time. This fact lent the stones a whole new level of meaning, a meaning which could only be communicated if people knew of the context of their creation. Palloy ensured the provenance of the stones were announced at each models’ unveiling. In a speech given to mark the arrival of one of Palloy’s Bastille stones in the department of the Cote d’Or, the president of the administrative assembly, Navier, alluded to their power of evocation: ‘At the appearance of this monument, they believe they see the sombre dungeons; the noise of chains strikes their ear; the long wails of the victims resound in their hearts: a salutary horror will keep away tyrants everywhere.’
As the Revolution continued, and competing factions vied for ascendancy, there was a need to narrate and define the transformation of power. Not only this but an end point was required at which revolution would stop and the new society could emerge and move forwards. Palloy himself was clear that his intention with his revolutionary relics was to use them as symbols of liberty even as the dominant ideology shifted around him, in a speech to the Constituent Assembly in October 1791 he said: ‘I have immortalized every epoch of the Revolution with trophies that I have dedicated to freedom.’ A simple model of the prison would serve only as a reminder of the old order. Palloy’s models were the Bastille crushed and remade, their meaning transformed by the hands of the demolishers themselves.
Palloy: The Barnum of the Bastille
The speed with which Palloy swooped in and took control of the demolition of the Bastille and appointed himself as custodian of its rubble has led some to claim Palloy was hoping to commodify and profit from the fall of the Bastille. Tom Stammers even referred to him as the ‘Barnum of the Bastille’, and it is true there was something of
the ringmaster in the way Palloy managed the Bastille models and dictated their celebration and display. However, Palloy was not actually reimbursed by the government for the demolition of the Bastille until 1791/2, and between 1789 and 1799 Palloy published over 100 pamphlets and tracts of speeches, posters and designs for monuments he wanted to erect on the site of the Bastille, all at his own expense. In his 1794 autobiography Palloy wrote that the demolition of the Bastille, the distribution of the relics and the publication of his writings had left him financially ruined – which all attest to his life-long commitment to his vision of spreading the revolutionary message through his relics of the Bastille. When Palloy was mistakenly arrested and imprisoned by the Commune over alleged embezzlement, he clearly thought he might become a victim of the guillotine and, revealing his passion for the Bastille relics, he asked that he be buried under a Bastille stone inscribed ‘Here lies Palloy, who in his youth laid siege to the Bastille, destroyed it, and scattered the limbs of this infernal monster over the face of the Earth.’
Today a number of Palloy’s Bastille models survive, some in museums, others built into the fabric of public buildings – their significance lessened by the passing of time, their curious provenance reduced to a historical footnote. Yet during the Revolution itself, thanks to the monumental efforts and vision of one man, these very same objects served to embody multi-faceted meaning. Palloy ensured through his speeches, pamphlets, festivities and parades that these multiple, miniature models of the Bastille could cast their Revolutionary message across France, to all levels of society. Their ability to represent past, present and future combined with Palloy’s talent for propaganda allowed these very simple objects to tangibly represent a victory over despotism.
Révolutions de Paris, (Paris, 15 July 1789) quoted in Richard Clay, Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs, (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012), p. 26.
 Claude-Bernard Navier, Procés-verbal de ce qui s’est passé a la séance du 13 Novembre 1790, (1790).
 Pierre-François Palloy, speech to the Constituent Assembly (October 1791)
 Tom Stammers, ‘The bric-a-brac of the old regime: Collecting and cultural history in post-revolutionary France’, French History, vol 22, Issue 3, (2008), pp. 295–315.
Between 1 November and 10 November 2018 I undertook a blog tour for The Real McCoy sharing a fresh extract from the book on every stop of the tour.
A huge thanks must go to all the amazing bloggers who hosted me and my book, it makes such a difference to be able to reach a new audience. Below I have collected links to each day of the tour so you can follow it in its entirety:
Writing often seems like a tortuous process, we tend to picture novelists hopped up on coffee, hunched over their laptops staring into space while their creative muse torments and then deserts them. However some writers subvert that image by churning out a book in the time it takes most people to get round to writing their shopping list.
Whether entering a drug-fuelled fugue state to get the words down, or simply creating a really, really long piece of paper on which to type, the following 10 writers have written a bestselling book in super quick time:
1. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming: 2 months
Ian Fleming was on holiday in Jamaica in January 1952 and, growing bored of spear-fishing and over-thinking his impending marriage, he decided he needed something to occupy his idle hands. Fleming sat down at the typewriter and began to write, dashing off 2,000 words every morning, until by 18 March the manuscript was finished. Fleming had no faith in his ‘adolescent tripe’ but fortunately for Bond fans everywhere, publishers thought differently and Casino Royale was published in April 1953, introducing the public to James Bond and marking the start a 14-book series.
Fleming stuck to his writing routine and most of his later Bond books were also written in under two months. When Birdsong writer, Sebastian Faulks took on Fleming’s mantle to pen Bond continuation novel Devil May Care in 2008 he too decided to adopt the speed-writing technique. Faulks’ previous book Human Traces had taken him 5 years to complete, so copying Fleming’s strict 2,000 word a day method was quite a departure.
2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 6 weeks
William Faulkner wrote his fifth novel As I Lay Dying over the course of six weeks while he worked the night shift at a power plant. Faulkner would start writing at midnight and finish as 4 a.m. the words tumbling neatly into place. So confident was he in his writing technique that he claimed he never changed one word from his first draft, despite the fact that the 59 chapters are narrated by 15 different characters.
3. King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard: 6 weeks
Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’ Mines in just 6 weeks after his brother bet him he could not write a book as good as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Haggard proved his brother wrong as his novel became an instant bestseller and inspired many others to pen books in the new ‘lost world’ genre. Despite the speed at which it was written, King Solomon’s Mines retains an aura of reality as Haggard had lived and travelled in Africa for many years and as a consequence had ample source material in his memory banks.
King Solomon’s Mines was a huge success (although not as much as his next book She (1887) which went on to sell over 83 million copies) and part of its popularity can perhaps be traced back to the astoundingly good early reviews. Some 20 gushing reviews of the book were published anonymously in the press on publication in 1885 and it was only many years later that it emerged that they had all been written by Haggard’s good friend, Andrew Lang.
4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 6 weeks
Charles Dickens was a prolific writer and he was used to keeping to tight deadlines because his books were published weekly in serial form in Victorian magazines, however he excelled himself with A Christmas Carol, completing the work in about 6 weeks. Dickens started writing the story in October and worked intensely, occasionally taking breaks at night for a stroll through the streets of London, before finishing it at the end of November. The book was an immediate festive success and has since spawned numerous stage plays, movies and musicals, proving the enduring popularity of Mr Scrooge.
5. On the Road by Jack Kerouac: 3 weeks
Although Kerouac spent a number of years formulating the ideas for On the Road, both in his head and in his journals, the complete draft was typed out in a manic three weeks. Kerouac liked to type fast and hated to be interrupted to change the paper in his typewriter, so before he started typing out his work he taped together numerous sheets of paper to create a continuous roll 120-feet long. This original manuscript is today preserved at the University of Indiana.
6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 3 weeks
Anthony Burgess’s brilliantly dark dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange was written in 1962. Burgess liked to claim he wrote it in just three weeks, motivated only by money. The novel was hugely influential, a fact which was magnified by Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. Burgess himself did not approve of Kubrick’s film (he was especially annoyed that Kubrick ignored his final chapter) and referred to it dismissively as ‘Clockwork Marmalade’.
Although Burgess was best known for A Clockwork Orange he wrote a great number of other works over his career, ranging from nonfiction to plays, essays, poems and biographies. Burgess came to writing late in life after originally working as a teacher. At the age of 40 Burgess was given just one year to live after being diagnosed with a brain tumour so he began writing to try and leave some money for his wife. The diagnosis turned out to be wrong and Burgess continued to live and write until a different cancer (this time of the lung) really did finish him off aged 76.
7. The Maigret series by Georges Simenon: 11 days
Belgian writer Georges Simenon was extremely prolific, penning over 500 novels during his career, but he was best-known for his beloved detective Maigret. Simenon was an incredibly fast writer and could produce 6 to 8,000 words in one day and on average he would complete a novel in just 11 days. To continue to be so prolific Simenon stuck to a strict writing schedule, fuelled by pots of coffee, numerous tobacco pipes and wearing the same shirt for the entire period it took to compose the latest book.
Simenon became so famous for his speedy writing technique that when Alfred Hitchcock phoned him for a chat only to be rebuffed by his assistant as he was in the middle of writing a novel, Hitchcock was said to have quipped ‘Let him finish. I’ll hang on.’
8. Rasselas by Samuel Johnson: 1 week
After the death of his mother, lexicographer Samuel Johnson needed to pay for funeral expenses, and in order to do so he did what every good writer would do – he wrote a book. Johnson sat and wrote every night for a week (no doubt taking the odd break to weep over his lost mother) until he had a completed novel. The resulting book Rasselas was Johnson’s only novel but proved to be successful enough to pay for his mother’s funeral.
Johnson’s life’s work was the compilation of A Dictionary of the English Language which listed some 40,000 words and took a rather more lengthy 8 years to complete. Although a great work for some puzzling reason Johnson’s dictionary contained no words beginning with the letter ‘X’. Under ‘X’ Johnson wrote: ‘X is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.’ He had a point as X-rays weren’t discovered until 1895 and Xanadu wasn’t released until 1980 …
9. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 3 days
Stevenson had long had the idea of writing a story based on the idea of a split personality but had been unable to find the right setting. Legend has it that Stevenson, desperately ill with tuberculosis and drugged out of his mind on medicinal cocaine fell into a drug-addled sleep in which the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came to him. On waking he sat at his desk and in 3 feverish days wrote out the first draft. His wife, Fanny, on reading the completed manuscript thought it was drivel and threw it into the fire, causing poor Stevenson to spend another feverish 3 days re-writing the manuscript once again. Thankfully this version was kept from the flames and went on to be a great success, finally allowing Stevenson to pay off his debts.
Original manuscripts by authors are usually highly-prized and are often gifted to national libraries or universities associated with the novelist, however unfortunately over half of Stevenson’s manuscripts have been lost. Descendants of Stevenson in need of some cash after World War I, sold most of his manuscripts including Treasure Island and The Black Arrow which have sadly never resurfaced.
10. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne: 2.5 days
When John Boyne came up with the idea of his holocaust-based story The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas he was so inspired he sat down and wrote it out, barely stopping for food, drink or sleep. At the end of two and a half days Boyne was done. The Irish novelist had already written a number of other books but took a rather more sedate four weeks to complete those first drafts, however he said that with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas the story just poured out of him. The book has since been made into a multi-award winning film.
In the time before DNA testing, dusting for fingerprints and blood-spatter analysis proving guilt or innocence was a rather less scientific matter. Folklore, superstition and religion ruled.
The high German epic poem Nibelungenlied, written in about 1200, features a scene in which the dragon-slayer Siegfried has been murdered and his body laid out. When his murderer, Hagen approaches, Siegfried’s wounds begin to bleed afresh, indicating Hagen’s guilt. This phenomena was known as cruentation, whereby a victim’s body would react should the murderer approach, and before forensic science developed in the early nineteenth century, this was one of the many methods used across Europe for proving guilt .
The word cruentation comes from the Latin cruentatus, which means to ‘make bloody’. The method likely originated in ancient Germanic practices and from about 1100 spread across Europe. To carry out cruentation, the body of the victim would be laid out on a bier in the courtroom (hence the practice’s alternate names: bier-right or ordeal of the bier) in the belief that it retained some sentience after death. The suspect was then required to approach the body, perhaps circling it a number of times, or placing their hand upon it. If the suspect was guilty, the body would supposedly signal this by frothing at the mouth, bleeding from the nose or oozing from existing wounds.
In an indication of the pervasive nature of this belief, Shakespeare’s play Richard III (in Act I, Scene II) includes a scene of cruentation when Lady Anne confronts the murderer of King Henry VI, saying:
O! gentlemen; see, see! dead Henry’s wounds
Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
In reality modern science has shown that from about six hours after death all the blood in a dead body would have congealed. The fluid which may have leaked from these dead bodies (let’s face it its likely they would have been jiggled about a fair bit when getting them into the courtroom) was probably what’s delightfully known as ‘purge fluid’ which is created in the early stages of decomposition.
Another method to uncover guilt was trial by ordeal. This was founded on the belief that God would protect the innocent from being falsely accused or intervene to show a sign of their guilt.
Trial by fire was used across the world in a number of different guises. The Indian epic poem Ramayana depicts Sita going through a trial by fire when Rama doubts her purity. Her innocence is proven after she stands in a circle of flames and remains entirely unscathed. Similarly in Europe the accused was often asked to plunge their hand into a fire to retrieve an object, or to hold a red-hot iron. Their innocence was proven as long as the wound appeared to be healing, rather than festering, within three days of the trial.
The most famous trials by water were seen in seventeenth-century Salem during the infamous witch trials. Here the accused were bound in the fetal position and thrown into a body of water. Those who sunk were deemed innocent and hauled out, those who floated were branded as guilty of witchcraft.
Witch-finding was a hotbed of superstition and a number of extremely dubious methods to extract ‘confessions’ or proof of guilt were utilised. This included: making the accused read aloud the Lord’s Prayer — any stumbling or mistakes and guilt was proven; bringing their bewitched victims before them and making the accused touch them, no reaction proved innocence whereas any ‘waking’ proved they had been under a spell; and ‘pricking’ supposed witches’ marks on the body of the accused, if they showed no pain, they were guilty.
In 1215 Pope Innocent III banned priests from cooperating with any trials by fire or water, a ruling which helped the practice to become less frequent in Europe, but witch trials during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the practice revive and it did not truly die out until after the American witch trials of the seventeenth century — indicating the extent to which folk belief pervaded all levels of society.
Literature is littered with orphans. The classic plot trope of the poor parentless child has appeared in numerous books across the eras, untethering our fictional heroes and allowing them to muster their resilience and overcome their tragic start.
For a bit of fun I thought I would collate some literary orphans of note here and record the dismal fate of their parents:
in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Walter and Bertha Shirley died when Anne was just three months old after contracting typhoid fever. Verdict: Disease
in Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling (1997–2007)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Harry’s parents Lily and James Potter were murdered by the evil dark wizard Voldemort using the Avada Kedavra curse when Harry was just a baby. Verdict: Murder
in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Mary’s parents died in India from cholera when Mary was 10 but as they were generally too busy to pay much attention to her she was brought up by her maid and did not miss them. Verdict: Disease.
in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Oliver’s mother died in childbirth at the workhouse and his father died in Rome before he was born, leaving his mother destitute. Verdict: Childbirth/disease.
in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Becky’s mother was an actress and opera singer who died (of unknown causes) when Becky was very young. Her father was an abusive alcoholic artist who died from delirium tremens (sudden alcohol withdrawal) when Becky was a teenager. Verdict: Unknown/alcoholism
in Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Jane’s father Lieutenant Fairfax dies ‘in action abroad’ and her mother from consumption when Jane is just three years old. Verdict: War and disease.
in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Jane’s parents died from typhus which her father caught while helping the poor. Verdict: Disease.
in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: Mowgli’s parents were killed (and quite possibly eaten) by a tiger. Verdict: Misadventure.
in James Bond series by Ian Fleming (1953–1966)
Circumstance of parent’s demise: James’s parents died when he was 11 years old in a mountaineering accident in Chamonix. Verdict: Misadventure.
When researching this piece I came across numerous other literary orphans (such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Pip in Great Expectations, Pauline, Posey and Petrova in Ballet Shoes to name but a few) where the circumstance of their parent’s death was glossed over to such a degree it was impossible to decipher their cause of death. Indeed even in the books I included most of the parental deaths were alluded to in passing, only really in Harry Potter does the whole tragic scene (which is so central to the story) eventually get played out.
The device of making the main character an orphan immediately creates adversity and sympathy for them, often providing a motivation for their actions. Being an orphan also excludes a child from the usual family responsibilities, giving them the excuse to set off on exciting adventures and to live outside the norm.
My entirely unscientific analysis of fictional orphans leads me to conclude that the most common cause of death for literary parents is disease, a rather simple (and historically all too common) way of quickly dispatching superfluous parents.
Do you have a favourite literary orphan? If so please tell me about them below.
The Muses in classical mythology were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Their very being inspired the creativity of artists, writers, poets and dramatists alike. However in more modern times being a muse was a less than blessed existence, with many finding themselves cast aside, their own ambitions thwarted by their association with a more successful (invariably male) artist. Below are 5 artists’ muses and their tragic tales:
Camille Claudel (1863–1943)
Camille Claudel was a sculptor in her own right but in 1885 she went to work as studio assistant to Auguste Rodin. This relationship was initially fruitful as Claudel was able to
work closely with the artist – getting access to nude models which during that period was often difficult for female artists, modelling elements of Rodin’s larger work (for example she created the hands and feet for Rodin’ Burghers of Calais) and acting as a model herself. By 1893 Rodin had achieved great fame and Claudel was struggling to emerge from his shadow so she left him in order to retreat to her studio to concentrate on her art.
Unfortunately Claudel’s mental health suffered and she became paranoid that Rodin was trying to spy on her and steal her ideas, causing her to destroy her own artworks. In 1913 Claudel’s mother had her committed to an asylum, where she remained until her death in 1943 despite regular pleas by her doctors that she no longer need be incarcerated. She was buried in a mass grave with no funeral. Today scholars have recognised the importance of her sensual sculpting style and in 2017 a museum showcasing her work opened in Nogent-sur-Seine. Ironically she now also has a room dedicated to her works at the Rodin Museum in Paris – providing recognition of a sort that still binds her inextricably with the man who over-shadowed her talent in life.
Victorine Meurent (1844–1927)
Victorine Meurent was a young working-class girl who posed for many of Manet’s most scandalous and famous paintings including The Street Singer (1862), Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863).
Meurent had ambitions to be an artist herself and went on to study with portrait painter Etienne Leroy. Manet disapproved of her more traditional painting style and they drifted apart, however she found some success showing at the Salon a number of times and was inducted into the Société des Artistes Français in 1904. However making a living from art was not easy and she later fell on hard times. After Manet’s death in 1883 she wrote to his widow politely asking for some of the profits made from Manet’s paintings of her that the artist had promised her. But Madame Manet declined to reply. Only one of Meurent’s paintings survive today, Palm Sunday, displayed at a small provincial museum in Colombes.
Alice Prin (1901–1953)
Known as Kiki de Montparnasse, Alice Prin was a muse to many of the foremost artists, photographers and film-makers of 1920s Paris including Chaïm Soutine and Man Ray (who was also her lover).
Prin was beautiful and bawdy, she sang cabaret in Le Jockey Bar in Montparnasse where artists, eccentrics and creators thronged. Here she caught the eye of Moïse Kisling who recreated her in Jeune Femme au Decollette (1922) and surrealist Óscar Dominguez, but it was photographer Man Ray who really forged a connection. For six years they were lovers and Man Ray would dress and make her up each day, creating an ever-changing look. But Prin was revered and reviled in equal measure for embodying the debauched and decadent world of 1920s Paris and her feisty character at times became too much – after an especially vicious bar fight for which she was arrested, Man Ray ended their relationship. As the roaring twenties drew to an end Prin struggled to find modelling work, returning to cabaret singing to fund her cocaine and alcohol habit. She remained a fixture of Montparnasse until her sudden death aged 52 in 1953 by then famous simply as a relic of a once vibrant scene.
Gala Diakonova (1894–1982)
Gala Diakonova met and fell in love with French poet and one of the founders of the surrealist movement, Paul Eluard, when they were both just 17. She went on to have an affair with the artist Max Ernst who painted her a number of times, and ultimately she remained in a relationship with both men (and many others) for some years. In 1929 she met Salvador Dali who was ten years her junior, they became lovers and were married in 1934. Diakonova became Dali’s leading muse so much so that he frequently signed his paintings with both their names in recognition of her part in inspiring his creativity. Due to her domineering personality and extremely promiscuous sex life Gala has not been kindly reflected in the history books and one historian quipped ‘to know her, was to loathe her’. However as Gala never spoke publicly we can only view her unconventional life through the judgemental prism of other’s impressions of her.
Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938)
Suzanne Valadon was indeed a muse and model to many celebrated artists including Renoir, Degas and Toulouse Lautrec but she also had her own successful career as an artist. Inevitably for a trail-blazing female artist hers was a bumpy road taking in affairs, an illegitimate son, broken marriages and scandal. Valadon moved to Montmatres in Paris when she was just a teenager and her bright blue eyes and small athletic figure meant she quickly became in demand as a model. Most famously Valadon modelled for Renoir, appearing in Dance at Bougival (1883) and Dance in the City (1883). She was a firm fixture of the riotous bohemian café culture of Montmatres, something that Toulouse Lautrec captured in his painting of her entitled The Hangover (1888). By the 1890s Valadon had met and befriended Degas, who became a champion of her work, encouraging her to pursue her own artistic ambitions. Through modelling and selling her own artworks Valadon managed to support her son Maurice Utrillo (himself a troubled but talented artist) and her mother, and in 1895 she married a stockbroker and was able to paint full-time. Ultimately respectability did not suit Valadon and she yearned to return to Montmatres and her Bohemian lifestyle.
When she was 44 she embarked on an affair with her son’s 23-year-old artist friend Andre Utter, this volatile relationship was both fruitful (Utter modelled for Valadon’s well-regarded painting Casting the Net (1914)) and damaging (they fought frequently). As with many artists although Valadon achieved some recognition in her lifetime (she was the first female painter to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts) it was only after her death that her importance as an artist was truly recognised.
If you enjoyed reading about these tragic muses do check out my post of the exhumation of Lizzie Siddal (muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti).