Sunday, October 25, 2009
A Melancholic Victorian Scene
This print is from the story Bessy Wells written in 1875 by Mrs. Henry Woods. Mrs. Woods was once considered to be a minor writer of the mid nineteenth century, but is now being rediscovered by academia. Poor Bessy Wells' father lies dying in his room surrounded by a reserved Doctor, a woman fearfully peeking over her prayer book, and an impoverished friend sitting on the bed wearing tattered and soiled clothes. Bessy Wells' father, once a good man, is dying from too much drink. Death was a rite of Victorian literature. Melancholic scenes such as this were so frequent because they portrayed the grueling reality of disease, poverty and general hardship that characterized so much of Victorian society. The public was susceptible to a wide variety of diseases caused by malnutrition, poor working conditions, poor sanitation and lack of public health and medical care. In 1840 the average lifespan was 45 years for the upper class, and 27 years for tradespeople. Labourers and servants lived only 22 years, on average. Women, as a rule, had a shorter life expectancy as they were responsible for the care of the ill, suffered from poor nutrition (society frowned on hearty appetites for women) and because of the difficulties caused by childbirth.