Documenting Illness, Death and Grief in the Book Inscription (1870-1914)

O'Hagan, Lauren (2023). Documenting Illness, Death and Grief in the Book Inscription (1870-1914). Textual Cultures (In press).

Abstract

Throughout the long nineteenth century, individuals engaged in rituals of mourning to help deal with loss and grief. Objects were vitally important to Victorians and Edwardians as commemorative artefacts that clearly embodied the deceased and acted as a stand-in for their lived presence. For many people, books served as secular relics, with the safe confounds of the endpapers used to document the illnesses and deaths of loved ones, express feelings of anguish or pass down books informally to other family members. Despite the high cultural value of these inscriptive marks, they have been surprisingly overlooked by researchers. Thus, this paper is the first to shed light on these types of inscriptions in Britain (1870-1914), using a small dataset collected from a secondhand bookshop. Using a combination of archival research and textual/multimodal analysis, I discuss the ways in which inscriptions helped individuals to manage loss, provided protection and therapy and enabled relationships between the deceased and the bereaved to be maintained. I also draw attention to an inscriptive practice – the in memoriam inscription – that appears to have been predominantly used by the working and lower-middle classes. Overall, I argue that book inscriptions should be given equal importance to other relics of death, such as hair jewellery and memorial cards, as they were heavily embedded in broader rituals of mourning and served as aids in the process of grieving.

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