Oscar Wilde said that one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop without laughing. Even earlier, an essay by the critic Fitzjames Stephen defied current attitudes by noting sourly that any interesting child in Dickens’s fiction “runs as much risk as any of the troops who stormed the Redan.” Yet huge numbers of Dickens’s contemporaries, men and women, ordinary readers and intellectuals, were overwhelmed by Nell’s exquisite death and the death of little Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son. Abundantly and unchecked, the tears flowed. Is it cynical of us to find these juvenile deathbeds disgustingly false, cloyingly sentimental today? Are we even in a position to understand the Victorian experience of dying children?
The child deathbed Professor Lerner calls a “topos”: meaning a widely used theme with recognizable details that can be tracked from author to author by literary historians. His aim in Angels and Absences is to describe this particular topos (with special reference to Dickens), investigate its appearance in fiction, and relate it to the real facts of contemporary child mortality. He is not unaware of other critics’ work on nineteenth-century attitudes toward death, or of the fashionable argument that as readers we respond only to word and form, not to any actual experience referred to. (His answer is that, with this subject in particular, the interface between text and experience needs always to be kept in mind.)
The child deathbed, Lerner points out, hardly appeared as an element in fiction until well into the nineteenth century—earlier fiction concerned itself mainly with love and adventure—and of course is rare in literature now. Why so, he makes us wonder? It is obvious that it will not appear much in either life or literature now; but the loss of children was no commoner in Dickens’s time than earlier. In fact, though demographic data are unreliable, one of the reasons Lerner proposes is that by Victorian times, child deaths may have been less common and so more pitiable, more dramatic, than earlier. James Boswell’s cavalier attitude toward the death of a baby might support this, along with his friend Temple’s advice that “you ought not, you cannot feel much for what you have lost. People of reflection love their children not so much from instinct as from a knowledge and esteem of their good and amiable qualities.” Mothers, in spite of some historians’ assertions, no doubt did not feel quite like this; but at this time they were not writing the books. Probably they behaved as society required them to—like Sara Coleridge, who lost a child while her husband was abroad, but, Coleridge was assured, “never forgot herself. She is now perfectly well, and does not make herself miserable by recalling the engaging, though, remember, mere instinctive attractions of an infant a few months old.”
The much more certain reason that Lerner puts forward for the appearance of his topos …