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Thomas Lovell Beddoes and the Death-Fetish for Dying Brides

Thomas Lovell Beddoes and the Death-Fetish for Corpse Brides
© Photograph by Jennifer Lind

One cannot read the poetry or dramas of British poet, dramatist and physician Thomas Lovell Beddoes for very long without the sense of sinking, of being immersed in a murky underground landscape, a netherworld where the living mingle comfortably with the dead, a place, in short, in love with death. Thomas Lovell Beddoes was not, of course, alone in his fixation on the question of death or, to be more precise, on the eroticization of Thanatos. Like other gothicists and late romanticists, Thomas Lovell Beddoes mediated a myriad of social, political, cultural, and religious anxieties through his poetry and dramas, depicting a realm that enacted on a microcosmic scale the larger ideological issues of his era.

Clearly, Thomas Lovell Beddoes was imaginatively drawn to the possibilities of creating something of an alternative locus in his works, a city of the dead, a place where the dead would continue to exist in a world not radically unlike the one they were accustomed to inhabiting while living. And so, in some ways his poetry and two major dramas circle that city of the dead, imagining it and fantasizing about various ways to inhabit it and to live there with or (preferably) without women. I would contend that Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ city of the dead appears, in some of its manifestations at least, as a world of men, a utopia beyond the realities of the flesh while its existence stands as a rabid denunciation of female fertility. In order to support this claim, this article will explore some of the overlooked sources for Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ death-fetish, focusing on his presentation of dead cities, dead women, and finally dead religious beliefs.

It is necessary to begin, then, by noting that it is no coincidence that scenes of burial and literal graveyards are lovingly described throughout Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ poetry and dramas. And although such an obsession may seem macabre to us, it is important to remember that from the 1780s and continuing through the 1830s, throughout the parishes of Paris, France, dead bodies began floating to the surface of the graveyards that encircled a number of city churches. In the marshy grounds along the Seine, bodies of the poor, who had been buried without coffins, simply appeared in spring as if in full bloom, like perennials that no one remembered having planted. In London, United Kingdom, along with the River Thames, a similar problem occurred;1 and it is the meaning of these dead but suddenly resurrected bodies, emerging and competing for space in the major urban capitals of Europe, that I think provides us with the first clue to Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ concern with “dead cities.” In particular, I want to interrogate what appears to be a strangely persistent leitmotif of dying brides or women clutching dead babies, or forms of blasted fertility in all their horrific manifestations, in selected works by Thomas Lovell Beddoes.

First of all, it is necessary to observe that the representation of the dead and living co-existing on one and the same plane, so to speak, was deeply disconcerting to the cultural and religious imagination of the late eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century European population. As you will recall, the Western religious imagination had constructed a “great chain of being,” and all of us had a particular place on this chain and where to stay in our assigned spaces. The reappearance of the dead, as if they were living, as if they had the power to will their reappearance on the surface of the earth, was unacceptable to the European mind, whether Protestant or Catholic. And so literature steps in, as it is would not do, and mediates this phenomenon by depicting the nauseating mixture of the living and the dead and then resolving the crisis by consigning each to its proper sphere by the conclusion of the text.

Critics have been puzzling over the meaning of the death-fetish in Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ works ever since he first entrusted his work for review to the ever-so-critical Bryan Waller Procter. Contemporary critical studies have addressed the theme by resorting to biographical, psychological, and literary source analyses, all of which I think are valuable and which I will employ where relevant. Clearly, however, there are also what I would designate as buried and gothic levels of political and religious anxiety that have not been addressed or even recognized in reading Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ works. Consider, for instance, one of the more famous, or perhaps more infamous, scenes in the Gothic canon. Agnes, the fallen and pregnant nun in Matthew Gregory Lewis’ ‘The Monk: A Romance,’ gives birth alone in her underground cell, and the premature baby soon dies because the new mother is unable to feed him. Agnes is later found and rescued, but she is clasping her dead baby in her arms, desperately trying to awaken and feed the hideously rotting child.

The scene reads like a grisly and perverted parody of a Raphaelesque “Madonna and Child,” absolute beauty transformed into absolute ugliness. This scene, horrific and compelling as it is, also spoke to the increasingly anxious mixture of the living and the dead that was occurring throughout London and Paris. The dead, who should by all rights stay below ground, were instead dragging the living down below ground with them. Or, even worse, the dead were refusing to stay underground; hence the appearance of vampires or white worms in all their sickening permutations on the streets of London and Paris or the even British countryside.

But consider now another scene from ‘The Monk: A Romance,’ the famous meditation of Ambrosio in front of a portrait of the “Virgin Mother,” recently sent to him by an admirer who shows up shortly as a young man, woman, and demon with the name of Rosario, the rose, the Virgin Mary’s iconic flower. And in addition to the name’s loaded associations, the young man bears a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary’s portrait. The youthful acolyte transforms first into a wanton seductress and then finally into a demon, a curious line of anti-evolutionary descent suggesting that in the Protestant imagination the Virgin Mary should actually be understood as the Whore of Babylon. This demonization of the Virgin Mary’s mother, as well as the almost uncanny obsession with her miraculous fertility, and then the need to blast this quality, repeats over and over again in Thomas Lovell Beddoes. Dying brides, thwarted fertility, dead babies, these representations permeate Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ works, and the question for the literary critic is why?

First and most obviously, we could look at the medical trends and see a very clear pattern of male physicians infiltrating the obstetrical care of women, with nurse-midwives being removed from their traditional role of delivering babies. Although statistics show that deaths in childbirth actually declined very gradually throughout this period,2 fictional literature would suggest otherwise.

One could then examine attitudes toward sudden or lingering deaths, the anxiety about sewage, miasma, graveyards, and pollution, noting the increased outbreaks of cholera and influenza that swept across Europe and Britain during this period.3 These medical or scientific explanations are tempting, but this article will instead propose a religious explanation for the motif. In fact, in order to understand Thomas Lovell Beddoes, I would claim that we need to recognize the deeply anti-Catholic nature of much gothic literature, and understand that these texts served the blatantly ideological function of secularizing and reformulating the major tenets and representations of Christianity.

North American philosopher Susan Griffin, as well as earlier critics such as literary scholar Joel Miles Porte and Sister Mary Muriel Tarr, of course, long ago recognized the virulent anti-Catholicism in gothic texts, and more recently Robert Miles has examined the theme in Irish clergyman Charles Robert Maturin’s ‘Irish tales’, noting the nationalistic work that anti-Catholicism accomplishes for this Anglo-Irish writer, a descendant of Huguenots and a Protestant clergyman himself. Bostrom and Sage have also explored the theological and religious dimensions of gothic literature in direct retort to English author Augustus Montague Summers, who claimed “it is folly to trace any ‘anti-Roman [Catholic] feeling in the Gothic novel!? For Porte, gothic is a type of moral fable, with Protestant religious anxieties being displaced onto a Catholic setting. For him, figures such as Faust or Cain are ‘guilt-haunted wanderers’ inhabiting texts that are fable[s] of inexplicable guilt and unremitting punishment-in which [they] saw an image of their own condition and fate”. And surely we can see throughout the works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, particularly in his use of the doubled father-son configurations in ‘Death’s Jest-Book’ (1849), just this sort of guilt-ridden angst and morbid religious dread. These specifically Calvinist fears are too narrow, however, to explain the eschatological fears that must have plagued members of all religious denominations during the nineteenth-century. But rather than focusing on arcane theological disputes or issues of political legitimacy or nationality, which admittedly do appear in gothic texts, I want instead to examine one of the methods by which gothic literature spoke so effectively to the growing Protestant audiences of Germany and England. This article will contend that Thomas Lovell Beddoes self-consciously used a variety of pre-Christian as well as Germanic literary sources in order to valorize the death-fetish, as well as to critique Catholicism and the female body.

Much like earlier gothicists such as English novelist and dramatist Matthew Gregory Lewis, Scottish novelist Walter Scott, English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Robert Maturin, Thomas Lovell Beddoes had a clear ideological agenda in presenting the lure and horror of death in his two major dramas. In order to understand his convoluted imagery, however, it is necessary to unpack the leitmotif of death eroticism by casting our eyes back to some of the earliest ballad forms, then their adaptation by Jacobean dramatists, and then finally to German poetry and Miirchen.4

In thinking about the gothic tradition of the eroticization of death or the dying bride herself, one could focus on Matthew Gregory Lewis’ ‘The Monk: A Romance’ or his poetic tale ‘The Dying Bride’, or the truncated bridal celebrations that abruptly conclude all of English author and pioneer of the Gothic novel genre, Ann Radcliffe’s major gothic novels, or the murder of Elizabeth in ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’, or Lucy in ‘Dracula’, or Lilla in ‘The Lair of the White Worm’. We could also have examined the theme in William Wordsworth’s ‘The Thorn’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, or Walter Scott’s ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’, whose heroine, Lucy Ashton, attempts to murder her bridegroom as he meets her in the bridal chamber and who then promptly sinks into insanity and death, a dead bride who takes her true love, the Master of Ravenswood, with her to the tomb as he sinks into quicksand, a particularly apt image of the soggy earth, part land, part water, unable to hold its dead permanently. Instead, this article will ask why the motif of dying brides revives with such a vengeance in some selected poetry and dramas of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, whose ‘The Brides’ Tragedy’ (1822) and ‘Death’s Jest-Book’ (1825–49; pub. 1850) are filled with dying brides, rotting fertility, and a loathing of the flesh that verges on the pathological.

‘The Brides’ Tragedy’ builds on this nausea toward the flesh and was supposedly motivated by a historical event that was then popularized in ballad-form. Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ version, however, contains a very curious addition by way of explaining Hesperus’ murder of his bride Floribel. Like a pre-Freudian, Thomas Lovell Beddoes very conveniently provides us with a childhood trauma to account for Hesperus’ bouts of madness, explaining that as a small boy he had witnessed the sudden violent death of his wet nurse-mother substitute as he lay on her breast. We are told that suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge bolt fell on her and crushed her head just inches from his face. This strange episode reads as almost a parody of the nursing virgin with the male infant on her lap, except in Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ version, she dies a sadistic, horrific, and undeserved death that will continue to haunt Hesperus throughout his life. For Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the only permanent way to control a woman’s fertility is to kill her, and women die all too frequently throughout his works. This is not to claim, however, that men do not also die with a vengeance in Thomas Lovell Beddoes, but in some way their deaths are less disturbing because they are described as welcome escapes from betrayal, treachery, and angst.

1.
For informative discussions of burial practices in England, France, and Germany during this period, see Vanessa Harding, ‘The Dead and the Living in Paris and London’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Craig Koslofsky, ‘The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in Early Modern Germany’ (New York: St Martin’s, 2000); and Richard A. Etlin, ‘The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris’ (Boston: MIT, 1984).
2.
Irvine Loudon has documented that the female British population experienced a drop in deaths from 280 deaths in childbirth per 10,000 births in 1670, to 100 by 1800, and to 60 by 1850: “Pre-industrial English deaths in childbirth were only a relatively small proportion of deaths amongst women of childbearing age. Even for mothers in the age of maximum child bearing, 25-34, maternal deaths accounted for only one in every five deaths in that age group”. Irvine Loudon, ‘Death in Childbirth, 1800-1950’ (London: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 159 and 162.
3.
For attitudes toward death during the period, see Philippe Aries, ‘The Hour of Our Death’, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Lane, 1981); also Christopher Daniell, ‘Death and Burial in Medieval England, 1066-1550’ (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 67 ff., for a discussion of anxieties about sudden death in the medieval period.
4.
The most extended treatment of Germanic sources for the works of Thomas Lovell Beddoes can be found in Anne Harrex, ‘Death’s Jest-Book’ and the German Contribution: ‘Studia Neophilologica 34’ (1967), 15-37 and 301-18. She summarizes the earlier studies of Germanic influence on Thomas Lovell Beddoes and sees Novalis’ theory of Magic Idealism and Tieck and the Schlegel brothers’ concept of Romantic irony inconsistently employed throughout Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ works (p. 37). See also Fred Burwick, ‘Death’s Fool: Beddoes and Buchner’, ‘The Haunted Eye: Perception and the Grotesque in English and German Romanticism’ (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1987), pp. 274-300.
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