In the prologue to In Memoriam, Lord Alfred Tennyson begs God to forgive his “grief for one removed” multiple times. In reading these lines, I found myself wondering why Tennyson would beg forgiveness for his profound sense of loss and eventually Dr. Martin’s words regarding the Victorian fascination with death and dying came back to me. Perhaps, I thought, Tennyson’s seventeen years of writing his elegy to Arthur Henry Hallam was in direct opposition to the mourning rituals of the Victorians. I looked into it and oddly enough, it turns out I was right.
In the book Endings: A Sociology of Death and Dying, I discovered that during “the early Victorian period, a twelve-month mourning period was prescribed for those suffering the death of a parent or spouse, nine months in the case of a grandparent’s death, six months for a sibling, and three months for an aunt or uncle” (60 italics mine). Prescribed. Periods of mourning, it turns out, were not the only things prescribed to the widows and family members of the deceased. At the time, one needed only to consult household manuals and journals such as The Queen and Cassell’s for instructions regarding post-mortem photography, appropriate modes of dress, lavish funeral processions, rules surrounding social outings, &c. based on one’s relationship with the dearly departed. And it is mourning periods and attire, specifically in relation to widows, that I will be focusing on as Tennyson compares himself to a widow throughout In Memoriam.
Widows, depending on the manual, were to remain in mourning for anywhere from one to four years. At this point it should be noted that widowers were merely expected to wear dark suits with black accessories (cravats, gloves, hats, &c.) for the duration of their mourning periods – the duration of which were significantly more flexible than those for widows. During the typical prescribed period of mourning for widows, women shifted from a period of first, or full, mourning of one year and one day to a period of second mourning, lasting nine months, and finally half-mourning, a period lasting anywhere from three to six months. During full-mourning a widow’s attire was exceptionally austere – only dull black clothing made from crepe, a scratchy silk fabric, was permissible. A black mourning veil, also fashioned from crepe, was allowed, as were high, stiff collars and 9” long cuffs (referred to as “weepers” as one could wipe their nose with them during a particularly teary moment). For accessories, only the blackest possible kidskin gloves and mourning handkerchiefs made from cambric were permitted. No jewelry or ornaments, save for jet, were permissible in full mourning. Evening wear could be constructed out of silk but only if it was trimmed and heavily lined with crepe. As a widow moved from the deepest stages of mourning to half-mourning, the scratchy crepe was replaced with more comfortable, and colorful, fabrics. Pitch black dresses representing spiritual darkness gave way to greys, purples, even burgundy. And the simple necklaces and bracelets fashioned from jet in full-mourning were replaced with rings, bracelets, earrings, brooches, necklaces and hair pins made with gold, silver, pinchbeck, and gutta-percha. Once the prescribed period of mourning was completed it was necessary to get rid of the mourning attire as it was considered bad luck to keep it within the house. Because of this, and because mourners generally required their attire rather quickly, many businesses catered specifically to this demographic.
Tennyson, it turns out, was not part of that demographic. At least not in the context of Hallam’s death. As noted above, it was the relationship to the deceased that determined the appropriate length of mourning. In my search for prescribed periods of mourning, I could not find any prescriptions for friends of the deceased. Only spouses and family members up to first cousins (six weeks, by the way) are given instructions for periods of mourning and the appropriate dress within those time frames. Because family members were presumed to suffer less, their periods of mourning were drastically shorter than those of widows, which brings me back to why Tennyson may have felt the need to beg forgiveness. In comparing himself to a widow, Tennyson implied that his suffering was greater than that of Hallam’s family. And by staying within his period of mourning for seventeen years, Tennyson went far beyond any socially acceptable period of mourning for a widow, which implied that his loss was greater than any ever experienced before. Perhaps Tennyson realised this, for it is in the prologue, one of the last sections that he wrote, that he begs God for forgiveness.
*If you are interested in seeing some examples of Victorian mourning attire, visit the MET Museum online gallery for the Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire exhibition.