While reading Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier, I was struck by Lavinia Waterhouse’s “The Complete Guide to Mourning Etiquette” found on page 102. Never had I heard of such strict, elaborate steps that people at this point in history followed while mourning. I myself haven’t had to grieve anyone since I was five years old; all I remember is everyone wearing a lot of black and going to church for a while. After completing the novel I decided to do a little research on the Victorian mourning process and found two articles:
The first I found on Chevalier’s website and it more or less summarized the information she provides through the characters in her novel. Chevalier writes that “the rules for who wore what and for how long were complicated, and were outlined in popular journals or household manuals such as The Queen and Cassell’s – both very popular among Victorian housewives” and later notes that “men had it easy.” Returning to the text, we see this present in Lavinia’s “Complete Guide” where there is a page and a half dedicated to how women have to mourn and three lines about how gentlemen are expected to mourn. Now, Chevalier starts the online article by writing that ““mourning clothes were a family’s outward display of their inner feelings,” and I argue that due to the fact that women were expected to go out and buy what sounds like an extensive amount of new, “appropriate” clothing to wear for up to two years (depending on the person she is mourning) and mourn for the longest amount of time, this social practice is perpetuating gender stereotypes.
Since the women wear mourning clothes for longer periods of time and the clothes signify one’s inner grieving, that leads to the idea that women are more emotional and weakened by mourning more than men are. Not only that, but because the information about mourning was provided through magazines mainly read by women (the top of this post features a lovely ad for Jay’s Mourning Warehouse, found in a popular women’s magazine at the time), women were expected to discipline their physical bodies in order to be accepted by society. The theme of body discipline and deviance is mentioned another time throughout the novel, when Kitty Coleman wears an outfit that exposes her legs during the women’s protest. Simon comments that Kitty “wears a short green tunic belted in the middle…She’s got bare legs, from her ankles up to—well, up high…everyone’s staring at Kitty Coleman’s legs” (244). Again, the society is condemning a woman for not disciplining her body to fit into society’s idea of appropriate conduct for a woman.
Keeping in mind that Chevalier is a contemporary author, the significance of focusing on the mourning throughout the novel is quite intriguing. After her sister Ivy’s death, a passage in the novel has Lavinia reflecting on her purchases for the mourning process; in order to properly mourn Ivy, the women purchase two black dresses, one cotton petticoat, two pairs of bloomers, one black hat with a veil, two pairs of gloves, seven handkerchiefs, two hundred sheets of stationery, and one hundred remembrance cards. The second piece I found on the mourning process comments on how “by the middle of the century, funerals had become such big business.” Chevalier brings to light how ridiculous the grieving process was through Lavinia’s obsession with it, but more importantly comments on how something as personal and sensitive as the mourning process was heavily regulated for businesses to make money. The absurdity of capitalism in London, both during the Victorian Era and today, is evident throughout the novel. Tying it all back to the theme of women writing London and mapping Englishness, Chevalier, through Kitty and the mourning process, sheds light on the discipline society places on women’s bodies. This type of regulation, especially enforced through the fashion industry and advertising, still targets women’s bodies and masks it behind the idea that it’s for the betterment and health of the society.