by Mary Gryctko
Dead children like Charles Dickens’s Little Nell (picture above on her deathbed) were a staple of sentimental Victorian fiction, to the point that even contemporaries apparently found it a tired enough trope to mock (see Oscar Wilde’s famous, if maybe apocryphal, quip that one “would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”). Many Victorians enjoyed these texts unironically, however, which is attested to by the eagerness of parents to apply sentimental scripts to their own children’s deaths. Postmortem photographs and texts written by bereaved parents show the ways in which sentimental scripts influenced parents’ perception and performance of “correct” mourning, but they also show how sentimental fiction reflected the actual changing value of the child in the Victorian era.
“Comfort books,” texts written by and for bereaved parents in nineteenth-century Great Britain and the US, offer a unique insight into the ways in which bereaved parents interacted with and adopted sentimental scripts in their own mourning processes. What struck me most about these texts when I first encountered them was how impersonal they tend to be: how much the parents/authors who wrote them relied on scripts laid out by sentimental fiction, rather than on memories of a real person who died. Most comfort book subjects are not newborns, yet parents’ apparent memories of their child almost invariably focus on (sometimes difficult to believe) accounts of the child’s goodness, and on the beauty of the child’s body, stressing racialized markers of beauty like blond hair and blue eyes. Echoing Dickens’s description of the dead Nell, many comfort book authors insist that their dead children are more beautiful in death than they were in life—the unnamed author of “The Dead Child ” (included in Walter Aimwell’s 1870 collection Our Little Ones in Heaven) puts it bluntly: “Few things appear so beautiful as a young child in its shroud” (107).
Rather than mourning a lost loved one, these texts often seem to celebrate the fact that the child will never grow up, and will instead be frozen forever in an idealized, passive form. Comfort books echo sentimental fiction in depicting dead children as ideal children. The child subjects of these texts are described as precious in a way that their siblings who grow up—and grow out of their parents’ control—cannot be. Authors frame child death not as losing a family member, but as gaining an eternal infant. Belief that this preservation was often literal—many comfort books authors (and Victorian protestants in general) believed that they would meet their children again, at the age at which the died, in heaven. These authors imagined a heaven in which power structures between parents and children that were temporary in real life were made permanent: a paradise for parents that relied upon the eternal subjugation of their children.
This notion of the dead child as an ideal child reflects the tension between the new figure of the innocent, unproductive child, and the realities of Victorian childhood. The Victorian cult of the child framed children as emotionally precious luxury items (as they are typically seen today), rather than as people who could provide physical help around the house/farm, financially, or in old age. Comfort books show parents grappling with how their own children, and their relationships with their children, can be made to fit into this new, bourgeois notion of childhood. The dead child fit neatly into this figuration in a way that no living child could.
For more see Mary Gryctko, “”The Sweetest Little Thing That Ever Died:” Nineteenth-Century Comfort Books and the Creation of the Immortal Child.” Victorian Review, vol. 48 no. 2, 2022, p. 293-308. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2022.a900628.