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.”

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Passionate Life

“Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind as a steady purpose – a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye. “- Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft  was born in London, England on  27 April 1759, the second eldest of six children.   Emotionally neglected by both parents,  she often slept outside her mother’s bedroom to protect  her from Mary’s father when he came home in drunken fits.    Neither parent cared about her education, resulting in Mary only having a few years of schooling. 

From an early age, Mary decided, “I must be independent and earn my own subsistence or be very uncomfortable.”   She escaped home at the age of nineteen and became a companion to a wealthy widow.   In 1783 , with the money she’d earned,  Mary opened a school at Newington Green, outside of London.   Around this time, she penned her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, which advocated independent thought, self-discipline, and rationality.    It was published by Joseph Johnson in 1787.   After informing him of her plans of becoming a full-time writer, he helped Mary find an abode in London. 

There, Mary entered a new world of ideas and intellectual debate.  Invited to Johnson’s afternoon dinners she conversed with other writers, artists, and political revolutionaries.   The liberal Johnson had published works by Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and the mystical poet and painter, William Blake.  Mary fell madly in love with the artist, Henry Fuseli, most famous for his erotic painting, The Nightmare.   Mary was twenty-nine to his forty-seven.  He fascinated her with his  tales of visiting prostitutes and his pornographic drawings.   At a time when proper ladies were supposed to deny their own sexual desires,  Mary welcomed Fuseli speaking to her in such a frank manner.   And not treating her as a fragile doll who shouldn’t hear of such things.  She was devastated when he broke up with her and married one of his models, Sophia Rawlins.

To escape her pain, Mary threw herself into her writing.   The  French Revolution which had begun in 1789 inspired Mary and her circle.  Many believed it would spread to England.  Parliment member, Edmund Burke, condemned the destruction of the French aristocracy in his Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Mary defended the Revolution in Vindication of the Rights of Man.  In 1790, the second printing had her name attached to it, and she became a bonafide heroine to all English supporters of the cause. 

The Revolution with its dreams of liberty inspired many female writers to critique their subservient place in society.  Six weeks later Mary wrote, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.   In it she urged women to fight for their civil and political rights.  She claimed the only difference between men and women stemmed from upbringing rather than biology.   If girls were granted the same education as boys they would be able to find employment and be financially independent.    “I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves. ”  She encouraged women to rise “from the flowery bed, on which they supinely sleep life away.”  The book made Mary one of the most famous women in Europe.

  In 1792  she traveled to France.    The common people had triumphed.  Joie de vivre spilled out through the streets.     Love affairs were encouraged; celibacy denounced as unhealthy and unnatural.  

But for all the mirth, the Revolution was entering a heightened, dangerous phase.  In January 1793, after King Louis XVI was guillotined, England and Spain declared war on France.  Now, in France,  foreigners were looked upon with suspicion.   Rumors  spread of guards arresting people in the middle of the night.  Mary feared for her life and almost  fled the country.  But she had met a new man: American  Gilbert Imlay.

Imlay, born in New Jersey, had fought in the American Revolution, and  now worked in business (much of it shady).   Even though Imlay admitted to having simultaneous relationships with other women, Mary fell deeply in love.  With Imlay, she wrote in her diary,  she experienced orgasms for the first time.  

The happiness did not last.   On a personal level, Imlay began spending much time away on business.  On a global scale, the radical French leader, Robespierre, rose to power and the Terror began.  Thousands of people (including many of Mary’s own friends who had supported the Revolution) were sent to the guillotine.    In October, the British people living in Paris were rounded up.   Luckily,  Imlay had registered Mary as both his wife and an American citizen. It was at this perilous time that Mary discovered she was  pregnant.   She spent her days working on a new book, A Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution.  To  report accurately, she forced herself to go to the Place de la Revolution and watch the  daily beheadings.

On May 14th, Mary gave birth to Fanny.   When Mary joined Imlay, who had gone back to London, he informed her he didn’t want to be husband or father.  Mary attempted suicide by taking laudanum.  Imlay discovered the note she’d left and found her in time.   Afterwards, Mary tried to fight off her depression by traveling around Europe with Fanny and a nursemaid.  Nevertheless, when she returned to London and discovered Imlay  living with another woman,  she attempted suicide for a second time.   If the first attempt was a mere cry for help, there is little doubt that the second time she really wished to die.  Her letter to Imlay expressed: “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, I shall be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold. . . . I shall plunge into the Thames where there is least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude”

  She stepped out one rainy October afternoon,  rented a small boat, and rowed it over to the less crowded Putney Bridge.   Welcoming death, she plunged into the Thames River.    She  expected to sink quickly as her clothes had become soaking wet from the rain.  Instead, water filled her lungs and she choked.  A  witness jumped in and rushed Mary  to a doctor who resuscitated her.

Of the suicide attempt, Mary wrote: ” I have only to lament, that, when the bitterness of death was past, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery. But a fixed determination is not to be baffled by disappointment; nor will I allow that to be a frantic attempt, which was one of the calmest acts of reason. In this respect, I am only accountable to myself. Did I care for what is termed reputation, it is by other circumstances that I should be dishonoured.”

Afterwards, Imlay offered Mary financial help but she wrote to him for the last time in 1796 refusing his help and saying she departed with him in peace.  Since death had not embraced her as she had expected it to,  Mary stoically decided to get on with her life.   With this new determination, Mary penned, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.   The  book brought her the adoring attention of William Godwin.

From the outside it appeared a bizarre pairing.  Mary was passionate and freespirited.  William, shy and withdrawn.     The former minister had become a founding father of anarchism with his book, Political Justice.   In it, Godwin spoke out against government and envisioned a future society where  people lived harmoniously in total freedom.  

They became very close friends but both were hesitant to make the first step towards romance.  William, being naturally timid, and Mary hesitant to give her heart away again after the disasterous affairs with Fuseli and Imlay.  But by 1796 they could no longer deny their love.  In Godwin, Mary found her soulmate.  They wrote several letters every day to each other; sharing a love for literature, philosophy, and idealistic dreams of a future utopian society.  They calculated Mary’s menstrual cycle for safe times to have sex.   The rhythm method worked as well as always; Mary was pregnant by December.

Godwin considered marriage  a form of slavery for women  (it should be remembered  at this time women surrendered all financial and bodily rights to their husband).    But when Mary voiced her fears of another child suffering illegitimacy,  he agreed to their getting wed.

On August 30th, Mary went into labor and gave birth to Mary Godwin(who would become famous as the authoress of Frankenstein) that evening.   However, the placenta never came out and a doctor was forced to take out the broken pieces by hand.  The procedure, without any painkillers, took several hours.   The doctor did not sterilize his hands or equipment causing an infection.   Eleven days later, with Godwin by her side,  Mary Wollstonecraft passed away.

The conservative Anti-Jacobin Review stated the cause of her death clearly depicted the differences in the sexes, and claimed it,  “the destiny of woman.”

Godwin was too distraught to attend the funeral.  He wrote his friend, Thomas Holcroft, “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.”

Godwin channeled his grief into devoting all his time to his wife’s memory.  Inspired by Rousseau’s candid Confessions, Godwin sought to write a vivid, true portrait of his wife. He gathered all her diaries and letters and published, Memoirs of the Author of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”.   He believed the honest portrait would enamor people to his beloved wife.  That they would see her as a strong woman who had lived and loved passionately with all her being.   In the preface he wrote, ”  I cannot easily prevail on myself to doubt, that the more fully we are presented with the picture and story of such persons as the subject of the following narrative, the more generally shall we feel in ourselves an attachment to their fate and a sympathy in their excellencies.”   However, England had become increasingly conservative and the Tory press nearly demonized Mary for enjoying premarital sex and for her suicide attempts.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s reputation remained shattered for over a century.  Women were cautioned that no self-respecting female should ever read her works.   Largely ignored even by 19th century suffrage activists,  it was not until the twentieth century that she was embraced by such luminaries as Virginia Woolfe and Emma Goldman. 

Today, Mary Wollstonecraft  has reclaimed her place  as the mother of the feminist movement.   And unlike many of the members who believed they had to deny their feminine side in order to be equal to men, Mary embraced her femininity.   She  was as unafraid to love as she was to speak out against social and political injustice.

“It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should be only organized dust — ready to fly abroad the moment the spring snaps, or the spark goes out, which kept it together. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable — and life is more than a dream. “- Mary Wollstonecraft

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Mary Shelley And The Night That Birthed Frankenstein

In the summer of 1816 a cold spell swept across Europe and North America.   The unusual chill caused snowfall in July and unparalleled thunderstorms.   Pamphlets were passed around predicting the end of the world.

During June of that year,  five of the most famous persons in the world gathered together in a summerhouse in Villa Diodati, on the southern shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.  “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know”*- Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, ethereal Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont (eighteen years-old and pregnant with Byron’s child), and her stepsister, Mary Godwin (mistress to the married Shelley).

Mary Godwin (later Shelley) was born on August 30, 1797 to the radical political philosopher William Godwin, and  founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (authoress of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”).   Mr. Godwin never got over the death of  his wife who died due to complications during childbirth.  He taught young Mary to spell her name by tracing the letters on her mother’s tombstone.

Although both Godwin and Wollstonecraft had been disciples of the free love movement, he was outraged when his own daughter began a love affair with the married poet and refused to speak with her.

Mary had spent her childhood haunted by the idea that she’d murdered her mother and  was determined to prove her consequent life worthy.   It had not been easy growing up the child of famed revolutionaries.   Now,  practically disowned by the father she adored, and in the company of  the poetic geniuses, Byron and Percy, Mary felt an even greater need to prove herself.

On June 16, 1816, as candles flickered and lightning illuminated the room, Byron read from Fantasmagoriana,  a volume of German shudder stories translated into French.  Upon finishing, he challenged everyone in the room to write a ghost story.  This was just the incitement Mary needed.

Mary wrote, “I busied myself to think of a story,- a story to rival those which had excited us to this task.  One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror.”  

However, Mary was unable to think of an idea until June 22nd.   On that evening, the conversation turned to, “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.”  They discussed the experiments of Erasmus Darwin who had, “preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.”

Mary began imagining a corpse re-animated.    Past midnight, she found herself unable to sleep.  “My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.”   Her eyes closed, she saw, “a pale student of unhallowed arts….kneeling beside the thing he had put together.  I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

Mary opened her eyes, but she was not able to dismiss the “hideous phantom”.  She later recalled thinking, “O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night.”  A few moments later she realized,  “I have found it!”

The next morning, Mary announced she had thought of a story.  Along with the dream, she brought with her  a lifetime spent devouring the works of Goethe, Dante, Schiller, Shakespeare, Milton, and Matthew “Monk” Lewis.

In writing, Frankenstein ; or, The Modern  Prometheus, she would further utilize the theory of vitalism which held that a life force separated living things from  non-living things.  Some believed in a connection between vitalism (or elan vital) and electricity.  In 1803,  Giovanni Aldini had claimed to make dead bodies sit up and raise their arms by applying electricity. 

Mary’s first words were, “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.” ( This opening spoken by Dr. Victor Frankenstein would later become the opening of chapter 4 in the 1818 edition and chapter 5 in the revised 1831 version).

Dr. Frankenstein discovers the secrets of creating life.  After gathering human parts from charnel houses, he infuses the spark of life into the being.  However, Frankenstein is immediately horrified at the ugliness of his own creation.    He casts the Monster out into the unfeeling world.  This Monster- sensitive and tender- seeks understanding from Man but is constantly spurned until he chooses suicide.

The Monster cries out,”I shall die.   I shall no longer feel the agonies which now consume me, or be the prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched.”

As Mary began penning what at first was only intended to be a short story, she could have no idea that she was creating one of the most enduring characters ever invented.   The  unnamed Monster, rejected by his own father, (as Mary had been rejected by hers) would outlive all of the five men and women gathered together in that villa on the shores of lake Geneva.

*quote by Lady Caroline Lamb- lover to Lord Byron

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