Famous Victorian Obituaries

I thought the following obituaries of famous persons from the Regency and later Victorian era would be historically interesting as a demonstration of just how cruel Victorian society could be.

Of Mary Wollstonecraft, (1759-1797) author of  AVindication of the Rights of Woman, and A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution,  who died a few days after giving birth, the anti-Jacoban Review mocked,  “She died a death that strongly marked the distinction of the sexes, by pointing out the destiny of women.”

On William Godwin (Wollstonecraft’s husband, most famous for his book, Political Justice which called for the end of marriage in its then current form which he denounced as slavery for  women as they lost all bodily and monetary rights to their spouse; as well as calling for an end to government, and instead envisioned an ideal society where reasonable people would act for the good of all:

“In weighing well his merits with his moral imperfections, it is melancholy to discover how far the latter preponderated, and we are led to the very painful though certain conclusion, that it might have been better for mankind had he never existed.”- The Gentleman’s Magazine

John Bull magazine wrote upon the news of poet Percy Shelley’s death,  “The author of that abominable and blasphemous book called Queen Mab  was lately drowned.”

And here are snippets from The Death of Edgar Allen Poe from the New York Tribune in 1849:   “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it…..

Passion, in him, comprehended many of the worst emotions, which militate against human happiness. You could not contradict him, but you raised quick choler. You could not speak of wealth, but his cheek paled with gnawing envy. The astonishing natural advantage of this poor boy, his beauty, his readiness, the daring spirit that breathed around him like a fiery atmosphere, had raised his constitutional self-confidence into an arrogance that turned his very claims to admiration into prejudice against him. Irascible, envious, bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold repellant cynicism while his passions vented themselves in sneers. There seemed to him no moral susceptibility. And what was more remarkable in a proud nature, little or nothing of the true point of honor. He had, to a morbid excess, that desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but no wish for the esteem or the love of his species, only the hard wish to succeed, not shine, not serve, but succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.”

The  New York Tribune did, however at least go on to praise his work and declare of the Raven,  “”it is the most effective single example of fugitive poetry ever published in this country, and is unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conceptions, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative lift.”


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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wow, talk about speaking ill of the dead! Frankly I think the obituaries, or commentaries say more about the person who wrote them, than the person about whom they were written. I’m sure this kind of thing still goes on, we could probably dig up all kinds of stuff on Hunter S. Thompson’s death. Lots of sniping at Dylan Thomas’s alcoholism wouldn’t surprise me. In fact right after Thompson’s death a few years ago, I put up a blog post about him (back on my LiveJournal blog, before I was on WP) and immediately got an e-mail from someone who claimed to have known him, going on about what a drunk he was, and how they had to prop him up at the office, and so on. There’s always someone ready to say something nasty.

  2. “Frankly I think the obituaries, or commentaries say more about the person who wrote them, than the person about whom they were written.”

    This. Exactly. It’s the same with people speaking nasty about living persons. I’m always like, “Wait. You’re speaking ill about someone behind their back about something they might not even be doing. And even if they are, it’s none of your business.”

    It’s astounding how hypocritical some can be.

  3. I’ve ended friendships with people like this. I’m sure to this day she is firmly convinced she did nothing wrong, and I am the one at fault. I’ve always wondered what her name for me was when she sniped at me behind my back. She made up names for most of her “friends” (I remember one she called “Big Head” because the woman & her husband apparently had a habit of living beyond their means).

  4. My own obituary:

    “Ironic that in the long run, all those final shots missed their intended targets, made more so by the fact that we remember all these writers but no not those who reached with barbed spears at their superiors but failed in the worse way. In anonymity.”

  5. I hate obituaries, I’m too worried that mine would say something like “He tried…and failed”

  6. DD,

    That’s a classic example of, “with friends like that…”

  7. Heh. Clever Ralfast, but I don’t think you have to worry about that!

  8. And I don’t think you need to worry about that either, Chazz!

  9. I really dislike that anti-Jacoban Review obituary. It’s bad enough to be snarky about someone’s death, but to use it to mock that person’s ideals is tasteless.

  10. Agreed, Marian. All those I posted are vicious, but I found the anti-Jacoban one written for Mary W. to be truly sick. I did see other horrible ones for her, too. One paper actually called her the “B” word and mocked any man who’d allowed her to “control” him.

    William Godwin, who absolutely adored his wife, was devasted, as one can imagine. Horrible enough to lose a loved one. But then to have newspapers write such filth about the person you lost?

    The weirdest thing to me, is that these leading newspapers had no qualms at all about writing such cruelty.

  11. Short comment award:

    This was a remarkably sad post. :`(

  12. I know, Jessica. And their words also anger me, as well as sadden. But I think it’s important to show all aspects of that time.

    A happy Victorian post coming soon! 🙂

  13. Wow, I thought the Victorian age was all about respecting the dead and being in mourning for at least two years and such.

    Good job gypsyscarlett. I believe all aspects need to be seen so that we don’t romanticize the times.

    off topic: I’m at the library and I just found a book, Sweeney Todd: The real story of the demon of Fleet Street by Peter Haining. Thought you might be interested.

  14. Thanks so much, Lyra. I agree about not romanticizing the era.

    And thank you for mentioning the book. That definitely is my cuppa tea. 🙂

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