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 in fiction is the appearance there of childhood itself, from Rousseau’s Confessions and Wordsworth’s Prelude onward. The six years’ darling and the noble savage were both seen to live in the “fountain-light of all our day.” As Lerner says, in Jane Austen’s work children figure as little more than a nuisance (Anne Elliott’s sweetest moment in Persuasion, producing “most disordered feelings,” is when her former lover silently lifts a fretful child off her back). By the time of Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, The Mill on the Floss, children are characters in their own right. And since the young in the nineteenth century were still vulnerable to early death, famil-iar to every family, where there are child characters there will be child deaths.

There is, of course, more to it. Might the importance of the dying child in fiction have some connection with the approaching crisis in Christianity? Lerner does not stress this; but even before The Origin of Species, religion was becoming less secure; and what more inexplicable action of an omniscient God than the death of a child? The repeated declarations of the Victorians in bereavement that children are better away from an impure world, that God had chosen them for his own, that they were living forever in a region of sunshine and flowers, has the desperate ring of protesting too much. As Jane Eyre wonders when she sees her schoolgirl friend dying, “Where is that region? Does it exist?”

In the nineteenth century children died chiefly from tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, smallpox, typhus, and, no doubt, malnutrition and diarrhea (though we hear less about the obscure poor). These were not peaceful deaths: there was pain, mess, fear, noise. (Flaubert, researching in hospital the material for a dying child, had to give up in distress after a while.) But what are the characteristics of the child deathbed topos? Sweetness, beauty, unchangeability, purity—and a heavenly calm.


She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death.

Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. “When I die, put me near something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.” Those were her words…

…Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and her fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty.

How they wept, the readers! It was a kind of all-British sob-in, a nationwide therapy group.

Dickens received letters about Little Nell’s death from even “the dwellers in log-houses among the morasses, and swamps, and densest forests, and deepest solitudes of the Far West.”1 His future biographer, John Forster, wrote after hearing the author read it aloud,

I could not say to you last night my dear Dickens how much this last Chapter has moved me…. I felt this death of dear little Nell as a kind of discipline of feeling and emotion which would do me lasting good, and which I would not thank you for as an ordinary enjoyment of literature.

The actor Macready wrote, “You have crowned all that you have ever done in the power, the truth, the beauty and the deep moral of this exquisite picture.” And from Francis Jeffrey, much-feared critic on the Edinburgh Review: “I have so cried and sobbed over it last night, and again this morning; and felt my heart purified by those tears, and blessed and loved you for making me shed them; and I never can bless you and love you enough.” What these correspondents all bless and love Dickens for is the moral uplift of the scene: “Go on, my dear, excellent friend—make our hearts less selfish” (Macready); “In reading of these delightful children, how deeply do we feel that ‘of such is the kingdom of Heaven’; and how ashamed of the contaminations which our manhood has received from the contact of earth” (Jeffrey).

Their industrialized century was indeed a brutal, filthy, ruthless one; there was a corresponding longing for purity. Rat-like children gnawed bones and coughed and picked garbage out of the Thames mud for pennies—Dickens made sure people knew about that. But Nell (who is in a sense classless, having passed through the underworld without getting dirty) lies among green leaves on her spotless couch and all is well, all is “peace and perfect happiness.” Even their own clean children inexplicably died (Macready had recently lost a child); but this was not by the cruelty of a willful God, for he had only wafted them into the care of angels. (The biblical heavenly hosts, in deepest Victoriana, dwindled to nursemaids.)

Dickens’s readers were used also to the slow fading of children, like Paul Dombey’s—tuberculosis at work, we assume. Words like “delicate” and “sickly” stayed in use into this century and even, in a jocular sense, the phrase “too good for this world.” Any child not boisterously strong was an object of concern. Nell hears whispers and sees pitying glances, and Paul through the mists of his decline thinks he hears the words “want of vital power.” Children did know they were to die. Sometimes, in fiction, they said (as in A Tale of Two Cities), “I am called, and I must go!”; sometimes the more lifelike “P’r’aps I’ll have some strawberries, too, and some ginger-snaps—I’m not going to have any old bread and butter up there.” Again, like Nell’s snowy deathbed, Paul Dombey’s last illness is all sweetness. Attended by his devoted sister, he watches the comings and goings of the street, dreams of the river rolling on through the city, says goodbye to one person and another, and calls, “Don’t be so sorry for me! Indeed I am quite happy.” Seeing his dead Mamma welcoming him from the other shore, he fades out of life.

It sounds rather enjoyable. It was what Keats might have been thinking of when he yearned to cease upon the midnight with no pain—the very embodiment of the Romantic death wish. In fact, as we know, Keats died slowly and wretchedly, in a foreign city. As Lerner acutely remarks, the death wish is a defense against fear of death. It is nevertheless a deep-rooted longing that Dickens touches on: the idea, when the “vital power” is low, of laying down the burden, of ineffable peacefulness, the sweetness that Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich finds at the end of his torments. It implies a sense of being cared for, and Victorians did sit by their dying (though Freud’s early case histories suggest that it could drive the carers mad). The other string that Dickens plays on—more realistically, less sentimentally—is the shock of bereavement; the pain of Nell’s death scenes is most of all in her grandfather’s blank, half-crazed disbelief. All in all, I think if Nell’s author were read to us in the way he did, we might, surreptitiously, shed tears over Nell too.2


We now think of psychosomatics as a post-Freudian discovery, but in Victorian fiction, though the immune system had not been heard of, it is easily taken for granted that mind affects body. Shock and tragedy naturally weaken the will to live, and lead on to the Romantic decline.3 The perfect scenario (and not at all mawkish) comes in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. Orphaned Caroline Helstone, lovesick, is delirious from a fever: “Probably in her late walk home, some sweet, poisoned breeze, redolent of honey-dew and miasma, had passed into her lungs and veins, and finding there already a fever of mental excitement, a languor of long conflict and habitual sadness, had spanned the spark of flame, and left a well-lit fire behind it.” She is being nursed by the kindly Mrs. Pryor. And who is Mrs. Pryor revealed to be? None but her own lost parent. “My mother! My own mother!”

In Nell’s case there is a hint that she fades away because the world has treated her harshly, a hint of reproach. There must be Dickens scholars who have spotted that the force that the author put into Nell’s story comes from its being a rewriting of his own childhood. In late childhood, like Nell, he was thrown out into the world as a result of family irresponsibility—for a time his six shillings a week was crucial at home. But instead of wandering through a succession of picturesque scenes, he was monotonously screwing on bottle tops in a factory. Instead of the mutual devotion of Nell and her grandfather, there was rage and resentment in his heart. Instead of floating away from earth at the end of his labors, he lived on to be an all too earthly man.

To add to all these fires of emotion that flicker round the deathbed topos, there is the half-innocent, half-knowing Victorian leaning toward what we might now call frank pedophilia. Young men were curiously fond—of the idea at least—of picking out a girl of twelve or so and training her up for marriage. One critic quoted by Lerner has called Nell’s death “a model of perfect eros.” Lerner argues that Nell, though in her teens when she dies, is in fact kept—just—on the virginal side of the child/woman divide. He contrasts her with the equally liminal figure of Jenny, the dolls’ dressmaker in Our Mutual Friend—a kind of wizened, ageless child, an anti-Nell. Jenny does not die—she is perhaps not pure enough—though she would much like to. Lerner also refers back to the curious incident early in Dickens’s marriage when his wife’s sister, Mary Hogarth, died suddenly in their house at the age of sixteen. Dickens’s grief was violent, inexhaustible. (Peter Carey’s brilliant re-imagining of Dickens in his new novel Jack Maggs has her death of “heart failure” actually caused by an abortion arranged by Dickens.)

In a different compartment of his mind from the part that sanctified premature death, Dickens knew as well as anyone the difference between death and sleep, a corpse and an angel. Early on in The Old Curiosity Shop, comparing Nell’s grandfather’s senility to a second childhood, he says,

We call this a state of childishness, but it is the same poor hollow mockery of it, that death is of sleep. Where, in the dull eyes of doating men, are the laughing light and life of childhood, the gaiety that has known no check, the frankness that has known no chill, the hope that has never withered, the joys that fade in blossoming? Where, in the sharp lineaments of rigid and unsightly death, is the calm beauty of slumber, telling of rest for the waking hours that are past, and the gentle hopes and loves for those which are to come? Lay death and sleep down, side by side, and say who shall find the two akin.

Himself for one.

Flaubert, however, in spite of abandoning his medical researches in distress, learned enough from them to describe a dead child with the realism he wanted: its immobility, its skin with “bluish spots, resembling mildew, as if life, already abandoning the poor little body, had left nothing but matter for vegetation to grow on.” Dickens’s deathbeds told his bereaved readers that their dead children were not just decaying matter; they embodied all that was sweet and holy, and held a moral lesson for mourners. What that lesson was, in literal terms, is vague.

The few modern novelists mentioned by Lerner who have tackled child deathbeds—Mann, Hesse, Huxley—follow in Flaubert’s footsteps rather than Dickens’s. All chose death by meningitis, perhaps just because it is among the most horrible of afflictions. Nothing is sanitized in their accounts, no scream or grimace omitted. God, if there is a God, is not excused. Camus, in La Peste, confronts the omnipotent one squarely with his handiwork, a child tortured by the plague into a posture of crucifixion. The priest who preaches after the child’s death specifically turns away from religious consolation. “It would have been easy for him to say that the eternity of delight awaiting the child could make up for his suffering, but in truth he knew nothing about that.”

Moralists and novelists contemporary with Dickens, however, were tying themselves in knots to justify the ways of God to child. Cited by Lerner is the author of an improving volume called Our Little Ones in Heaven, who argued that “it would be a far more terrible [world] if little children did not die!” The reasoning was that God’s way of making mortality tolerable is to distribute it among all ages; some children, thus, have to die in order to implement the benevolent plan. The grieving parent must remember that “all thy life thou hast been reaping advantages that came to thee by the death of the infants of others.” Even more repellent is that little-read classic of Calvinism, Mary Sherwood’s The Fairchild Family. In it a whole slew of children quit this life: one from disobedience (carrying lighted candles about); one of heart disease, pronouncing “Thy will be done”; one run over by a carriage; one from shock and a delicate constitution; one from catching cold, murmuring “Blest redemption” as she goes. The book was enormously popular.

Is it fair for us to criticize, protected as we are from such slaughter? Is sentimentality in literature an artistic crime—or perhaps a moral one? Are we in our own way repressed because we are repelled by our forefathers’ “gentle sobs and delightful tears”? Or are we actually—intellectual snobs excepted—much the same as they were? Lerner describes the public reaction in 1817 of the death of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent, and her baby. Newspapers were bordered in black; laments, according to The Times, to be found in every cottage; the deaths were blamed on national degeneracy; the widower’s behavior at the funeral watched with eagle eyes by the newspapers. Familiar? Anyone who saw the crowds this summer streaming toward Kensington Palace with flowers and teddy bears can answer that.

So in his closing chapter Lerner has to struggle with the problem of sentimentality, in literature and life. It can be assumed to mean essential falsification—a frivolous surplus of emotion. F.R. Leavis’s criticism of the sentimentality of the Little Nell story is its artistic emptiness:

To suggest taking Little Nell seriously would be absurd; there’s nothing there. She doesn’t derive from any perception of the real; she’s a contrived unreality, the function of which is to facilitate in the reader a gross and virtuous self-indulgence—

a kind of pornography of the emotions, in other words. John Carey uses the words “sickly” and “sanctimonious” (moral accusation) and “improbable” (literary accusation). Other modern critics, though, have seen this as the imposition of twentieth-century standards on a nineteenth-century convention. Didacticism and emotional manipulation, they would argue, simply were once in fashion and now are not. There can be no absolute standard of honest writing.

Lerner, after deliberation, concludes that in fact there can. He traces the history of literary sentimentality, or sensibility, from the bluff times when Samuel Johnson declared, “Sir, it is an affectation to pretend to feel the distress of others, as much as they do themselves. It is equally so, as if one should pretend to feel as much pain while a friend’s leg is cutting off, as he does.” Lerner’s argument that there is a genuine difference between false and true is supported by turning to the Victorians themselves, both critics and novelists. Even at the time, a good many objected to Dickensian blubbering. The critic Fitzjames Stephen, already mentioned, complained of Nell’s deathbed that Dickens “gloats over the girl’s death as if it delighted him; he looks at it,…touches, tastes, smells and handles as if it were some savoury dainty which could not be too fully appreciated.” Another journalist wrote that

It has been said that if anybody can get a pretty little girl to die prattling to her brothers and sisters, and quoting texts of Scripture with appropriate gasps, dashes, and broken sentences, he may send half the women in London, with tears in their eyes, to Mr Mudie’s or Mr Booth’s.

Most unkind of all, of Dickens—

No man can offer to the public so large a stock of death-beds adapted for either sex and for any age, from five and twenty downwards. There are idiot death-beds, where the patient cries ha! ha! and points wildly at vacancy—pauper death-beds, with unfeeling nurses to match—male and female children’s death-beds, where the young ladies or gentlemen sit up in bed, pray to the angels, and see golden water on the walls. In short, there never was a man to whom the King of Terrors was so useful as a key figure.

These were standards of taste close to our own, with a similar revulsion against Dickens’s blatant manipulation.

There is a comparison too of the florid sentimentalists with nineteenth-century writers who handled childhood and death with more grittiness, acuteness, and honesty. Lerner examines the death of the child Ilyusha in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov of 1880—an example of child pathos which, he argues, is artistically acceptable to the modern reader. Around this child’s deathbed there is more ambivalence, more complex detail, than in those of the sentimentalists—the business of a teasing teenager, of a lost dog, of a mentally retarded mother. Dickens may redeem sentimentality by his comic inventiveness and linguistic exuberance, Lerner says, but in convincingly implying spiritual growth Dostoyevsky is the superior. Lerner also turns to a little-known contemporary source: a letter written by Tennyson (not always a stranger to sentimentality) on the death of his first child, a stillborn boy. “I have suffered more than ever I thought I could have done for a child still born,” Tennyson wrote:

…I refused to see the little body at first, fearing to find some pal-lid abortion which would have haunted me all my life—but he looked (if it be not absurd to call a newborn babe so) even majestic in his mysterious silence after all the turmoil of the night before.

This child is not an angel but an absence—a mysterious and majestic one. Lerner might have quoted one more firsthand account of absence, even barer (this is from Mary Wollstonecraft’s journal):

Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits.

Absence is the core of bereavement, and Dickens fought it with everything he had.

This Issue

February 19, 1998