The everydayness of death in 19th century England

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mr Harrison’s Confession is a slight and, I suspect, largely unread novella. Its significance is that it’s a prelude to her masterpiece Cranford, which I think I’ve read but cannot remember. Even though Mr Harrison’s Confession is quickly and easily read I had to force myself to keep going. It was dull. I love the wide range of     19th century novels, but this novel has a narrow range, which is in some ways its point. The one thing I took away from the book was the omnipresence of death.

The story is set in an English village where most of the inhabitants are women. Gossip, much of it poisonous, is the main business in the village. People seem genteel but do and say terrible things to each other. Mr Harrison, a young doctor, stumbles into this village and in no time finds himself engaged to four women. Eventually he extracts himself from his predicament, marries the one woman he did love, and tells his story light heartedly.

Death is not the theme of the book, but it is present on almost every page. One of the main characters is a widow who speaks constantly of her ex-husband while searching for a new one. A young boy dies of croup (or perhaps diphtheria), and his sister hovers on the edge of death until rescued by a new and dangerous medicine brought from London. A worker badly injures his arm, and the older doctors think it must be amputated. The worker says that he would rather die than lose his arm and so not be able to work and support his familly. Mr Harrison tries to oblige but is said to be too scared to do the amputation. One of the village gossips starts a collection for the worker’s widow even though he is still alive and does not die or lose his arm.

What struck me in this slight book is the contrast with now. In the pandemic we hear figures every day of the numbers of death, but death, if not denied, is unfamiliar. Even in these days of the pandemic death is not much in our everyday lives, and when it does come it is largely hidden. We rarely see people dying; we don’t see corpses. In contrast, in 19th century England death was present almost every day. It was dreaded and feared but utterly familiar.

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