A Victorian death expert explains what Amy Winehouse took from John Keats

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Mon, October 31st, 2011

Deborah Lutz has written about Gothic villains, Victorian sex rebels and the Cannibal Club; her latest book is on Victorian death culture. She is an assistant professor at Long Island University.

In 1821, the Romantic poet John Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 26. A period of “tuberculosis chic” followed, says Professor Deborah Lutz.

Digital Dying spoke to her on hair jewelry, the glamorization of tuberculosis and just what it means to live in a world without relics.

Why were the Victorians so obsessed with death?

The Victorians died in homes and the body was kept around. People touched bodies, took hair from bodies, took photos of bodies. People were used to seeing bodies. But today people die in hospitals. We often don’t see dead bodies, they go to the morgue and disappear. We want to think of ourselves as progressive people, interested in the sexual body, but we are disgusted by the dead body. The Victorians were okay with both.

What is a relic, and what does it have to do with sweat and blood?

Relics are often associated with the church, but the Victorian relics I talk about are secular relics. A firsthand secular relic could be hair, or someone’s desiccated heart or a finger bone. Secondhand relics, or contact relics, could be clothing or letters or manuscripts. It could be something that was sweat on or bled on or cried on, like the Shroud of Turin. Their texture can carry someone’s essence, a sweater would work because you wear it on your body and presumably you might sweat on it. Most religious relics are made of porous materials, something that takes in the essence, like wood. A wooden toy you have handled for all these years takes on the texture of being handled, the fact that you touched it over and over actually affects its surface.

Other Great Reads: Religious Funeral Customs from Around the World

Do we have digital age relics?

One reason relics lost their importance was because of photography, which became popular in the 1840s and 1850s. Photography is a disembodied means of holding onto the memory of someone. You don’t have to keep hair or clothes, you can just have a picture. By the 1880s and 1890s relic culture was dying out. You get early cinema and sound recording and telephones, all these disembodied ways of communicating with people and holding onto traces. The more embodied means eventually went out of fashion. People don’t—or rarely—keep locks of hair. People don’t keep body parts, that’s for sure. People don’t keep clothing. We no longer make jewelry out of hair or write letters. Letters used to be contact relics, people would touch paper, date it and put the place from where it was sent, something that really steeped it in time and place. In the nineteenth century it was common to put a lock of hair in a letter. If someone died you might keep their emails, but they never touched those emails, those emails are not contact relics, you can’t email a lock hair. Our correspondences have lost the warmth of flesh. You can’t bleed on an email, or cry on an email, or sweat on an email.

It’s as if we’re headed towards a world where people don’t die?

That’s precisely the problem, we don’t think of death as being natural. It’s like doctors have failed if they can’t keep someone alive perpetually. Whereas earlier in the nineteenth and mid-twentieth century death was something that happened to everyone, and it could happen to you at any time. People have this idea that they should be able to live forever and if they can’t, someone screwed up. Either the machine didn’t work or the doctor screwed up and can be sued.

 But even today there’s a “death chic”, seen in people like Amy Winehouse?

The Victorians thought of death as beautiful and the dead body as a work of art. They aestheticized the dead body, what we do is make people look like they’re dead and aestheticize that. People like Amy Winehouse are not quite gothic but play along the same lines. It’s a form of bohemianism, a way of rebelling against middle class values, like being a really healthy good eater who gets enough sleep. The idea is young artistic radicals have a kind of deep wound inside of them and are internally bleeding. They are pale, they maybe have tuberculosis, they look like they’re dead. But I think that look has been coopted by popular culture. It’s no longer radical to look pale and thin and deathly. I mean, it’s what all the models look like. It’s a fashion statement now.

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Why was tuberculosis seen as sexy in the Victorian era?

The whole TB thing is connected to this romantic idea of a beautiful death. When someone dies, especially when someone dies young, they’re frozen in that moment. You want them more because they’re dead and you can’t have them, and also because they’re this young beautiful person and they can’t age. It goes back to Goethe, and The Sorrows of Young Werther, which caused a kind of committing suicide fad among young people. In the book Goethe is so deeply in love he kills himself. It was glamorous to believe that you felt so deeply that you died, that your heart could break and you could pine away with deep emotion and deep feeling. People thought the Romantic poet John Keats, who died in 1821 of tuberculosis, died for love. He was in love with this woman, Fanny Brown, and he couldn’t have her because he was poor, so people connected this deep love for this woman with his sickness and dying, which is wrong. You don’t get TB because you’re in love. People thought these romantic poets like Keats, Shelley and Emily Bronte lived these reckless, dashing lives. Emily Bronte died of tuberculosis when she was 31. The idea was, live recklessly, feel deeply, and die young and beautiful. It’s similar to this whole idea of heroin chic; thin, pale. I mean, people who have taken a lot of heroin look like they’re dead. I have seen these people walking around.

Queen Victoria mourned Prince Albert for 40 years, was that normal for the Victorian era?

Her mourning was pretty excessive, even for Victorians. But there were all these rules about mourning, what they had to wear and for how long. They had mourning jewelry and black carriages. It was connected to status. If you wanted to be an important person in the upper-middle class, you spent a lot of money on a funeral and you followed all the rules, and they were really expensive rules. In the Victorian era, if your husband died and you were a proper sophisticated person you would feel it for a long time and mourn. What Queen Victoria did was thought to be very sophisticated, because she had the leisure to lock herself away for 40 years and mourn.

Tell me about hair jewelry?

There is sentimental hair jewelry, like you might ask your girlfriend for a lock of her hair because you want to wear it on your body. It could be erotic, but your girlfriend is still alive. You could also cut hair from corpses, then it would be part of the mourning process. Mourning hair jewelry is often inscribed with things like, R.I.P. so and so, or a weeping willow over a tomb, or a black band. Sentimental hair jewelry might have an inscription about love, say a picture of two doves with their beaks together. There’s a hair museum in Kansas, I think Wichita. It’s full of nineteenth century hair wreaths, which came in shadow boxes, framed and behind glass. They are made up of different family members hair. You might have hair from five different heads. The hair was twisted and braided, sometimes there were also beads, or feathers and flowers. It was a pretty common practice in nineteenth century America. Now you can buy them on eBay, though they’re kind of expensive.

Have a question for Deborah Lutz, or some thoughts on hair jewelry and the end of relics? Leave a comment below…

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