A Dreaded Sunny Day

Death held an especial place in the Victorian psyche. The combination of sentimental literature, with its stressing of the more pathetic (in the sense of pathos) emotions and the evangelical revival ensured that death acquired a prominence in Victorian life that it did not before and has not since. Notoriously, Victorian literature loved to dwell on death of the pure and helpless, from Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop to Helen Burns in Jane Eyre. The horror genre, typified by Stoker and Poe The elegy grew to particular prominence with Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Arnold’s Thrysis, while such works as Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel aestheticised death as a state of romantic longing (Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, noted the particular place tuberculosis held for the Victorian mind; it was a wasting disease founded on passion, a consumption of the life force). Spiritualism became increasingly popular, with Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger proceeding from exploring a lost world of dinosaurs in one story to exploring the other world in a later narrative; not for nothing is it said that the Victorians treated death as simply another territory to be conquered.

More empirically, as the population of nineteenth century London increased and social conditions deteriorated the demands on London’s cemeteries rapidly exceeded the available space; the solution was to build seven new cemeteries at a remove from the city, of which Highgate cemetery remains the most famed. Covering a considerable expanse, Highgate’s necropolis represents as formidable an example of Victorian engineering and architecture as the museums in Kensington or the Houses of Parliament. Funerals had come to cost far more than weddings and accrued a wealth of ritual behind them; both the ceremony and the tomb had to be as grandiose as possible. Accordingly, the tombs cover a bewildering range of styles, from obelisks and pyramids to mourning angels (often with a trumpet to herald the day of the resurrection), to funerary urns half covered with veils (pointing to Roman burials practices; rather oddly as cremation was typically considered pagan and unconscionable), broken pillars (symbolising a life cut short) as well as the vogue for Celtic crosses. Where a modern cemetery is orderly and utilitarian, Highgate is filled with the mythology of the underworld. Walking round it feels like walking round ancient ruins, although this is nonetheless a cemetery of the bourgeois and the excluded (from Marx, Elizabeth Siddall and Christian Rossetti to Radclyffe Hall); those barred from being interred in Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s.

However, many of the monuments in the West Cemetery are still more ornate, most obviously with the vaults held in an Egyptian avenue of lotus columns. Beyond that lies the circle of Lebanon, a rotunda where the vaults ranged from Egyptian to Gothic and Neo-Classical and which has a three hundred year old Lebanon cedar at its heart. The novelist Radclyffe Hall lies here buried with her lover, next to a Columbarium vault that holds later ashes from the first cremations. Nearby there is set of terraces where Victorian gentry could take walks and be seen in what was one of the most fashionable parts of London; this is one of the highest points in London and it originally had a phenomenal view across the city. However, this ended when newspaper magnate and German Jew Julius Beer chose to build his mausoleum so as to block the view in revenge for decades of social ostracism. The tomb, based on that of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus, remains quite spectacular and a peek through the glass windows in the door shows ornate statuary and a ceiling decorated with gold ceramics. A more frivolous tomb was that of a menagerist, where a particular domesticated lion rests forever on top of his grave.

Although the cemetery was originally planted with formal gardens, it is today characterised by the sight of magnificent monument crumbling and reverting back to nature, reverting away from the landscaped tradition towards something more like Prague’s Jewish Cemetery or Stockholm’s Woodland Cemetery. Much of the vegetation in the ceremony is evergreen and even at this time of the year it has the aspect of a dark jungle, with rhizomic tangles of ivy vines throttled many of the tombs, their stone angels ensnared by the leaves. Drifts of snowdrops were just beginning to come into flower. The site is rich in wildlife, with squirrels running inbetween the ferns and ash trees. Other species include dogwood beech, limes, oak, hornbeam and hazel.

By contrast, the East section of Highgate is considerably more understated. There are very few ornate monuments here, just rows of tombstones that have begun to fade as the trees take back this land as well. Although bitterly cold, it was nonetheless a bright and sunny day with a blue sky contrasting against the bleached trunks of the leafless trees here. There is one impressive monument here; Karl Marx’s grave was originally quite nondescript but was eventually replaced with something more ostentatious, surmounted by a bust of the philosopher and surrounded by the graves of communist figures from South Africa and Iraq (and, more incongruously, by the grave of Herbert Spencer). Someone had laid flowers at the base of Marx’s grave. George Eliot, England’s greatest novelist, languishes nearby in obscurity while Dickens (an adulterer, after all) rests in Westminster Abbey and Poet’s Corner. Today, I noted that the East cemetery seems especially popular with the Chinese community, with raw slate boulders engraved with Chinese characters being a common feature.

After Highgate, I went to a few other places in London, starting with the New St Pancras Church, which has an octagonal spire modelled on the Temple of the Winds in Athens and an equally Grecian set of four caryatids on the exterior. I then went to the Church of Holy Trinity in Sloane Square, described as the ‘Arts and Crafts Cathedral.’ Redbrick on the exterior, its stained glass windows were the largest items the William Morris company ever produced, while a Tractarian influenced was evident on the ornate beaten brass work throughout the church. As appears compulsory for Anglican churches at present, it had two Russian orthodox icons showing the crucifixion. Finally, I returned to the Leighton House museum, the residence of the pre-raphaelite painter. A redbrick building near Holland Park, the only sign of anything unusual inside is a small dome surmounted by a crescent; in fact an Arab Hall built using Iznik tiles. I hadn’t noticed the rather inappropriate stained glass beneath the dome; brightly coloured and looking life Tiffany works. Other things I hadn’t noticed before were the classical friezes around the top of Leighton’s studio or the Chinese pottery inset into the black surround of a fireplace (I also hadn’t realised that there’s a tower on a nearby street built by gothic revival architect William Burges). The actual collection in the house is rather slight (Leighton owned a great many works, of which only one Tintoretto has ever been returned), but it does include many of his own paintings. I’d heard it said that his painting of Clytemnestra resembles a man more than a woman before but I also noticed that many of his paintings show androgynous figures and that he did paint male nudes. Since of all the Pre-Raphaelites his work comes closest to pornography (as anyone who has seen his painting of The Tepidarium can attest), Leighton’s sexuality seems something of a puzzle; many of his figures are markedly androgynous he never married and did keep company with gay artists like Simeon Solomon.

Reading Balzac’s Lost Illusions I was struck by how it forms a mid-point between the picaresque novel (since although Balzac’s narrative is highly plotted, the plot nonetheless tends to turn through unexpected events in an episodic fashion, a moral fable depicting the travels of a young man from country to city and consequently from innocence to corruption and redemption) and later social novels (where morality has a much more problematic relationship with social conditions and where the character of society is not necessarily regarded as a given, though Balzac is markedly more nonchalant on that score than Zola). For instance, Balzac writes of Lucien that "he was under the spell of luxury and the tyranny of sumptuous fare; his wayward instincts were reviving," but in practice the majority of the narrative is driven not by Lucien’s fall into immoral debauchery but by the machinations of society driven by the cash-nexus; "everything is taxed, everything is sold, everything is manufactured, even success." Accordingly, Balzac links dissipation with the society that produces it; "the helotism to which the Restoration had condemned young people… having no outlet for their energy they… frittered it away in the strangest excesses." The consequence is that although ‘Herrera’ is clearly marked as a Faustian figure, both author and narrator are left pinioned by the novel’s own logic when he declares that any morality can only come after financial security. A statement worthy of Brecht’s What keeps mankind alive?