The Contagious Visual Expression of Mourning

There may never have been a time in western history that had such an expression of grief and mourning as the Victorian period. And no person that had such a singular impact on the visual and cultural expression of mourning as Queen Victoria.

It is such a striking impact never seen before or since in recorded Western history. I was lead to ask: why did this woman at this moment have so much influence on the culture and the appearance of grief?

My study of the queen has led me to a few conclusions that I would like to posit. I am not an expert on Victoria or British history, but my study yielded impressions that I am willing to share and explore with you.

I will first explain why I think Victoria had such great cultural influence and then look at precursor events in Victoria's life that shaded and contoured her approach to grief, discuss the grief she demonstrated for over 40 years and then draw some conclusions. In this way, the examination will not be a chronological or linear treatment of her life, but a circular one that aims to explain her impact on the mourning culture of the western world.

Queen Victoria's Wedding

I think this is the place to begin with Victoria's influence on a grief culture. Certainly her intense love and affection for Prince Albert opened the door to her pain upon separation by death. Further, and more it the point of this query, her marriage ceremony to Prince Albert was paradigm-shifting for the culture of her time, thus setting the stage for her sphere of influence.

Up until this time, weddings among the ruling class were often in the early evening, small (close family members) with the bride and groom wearing their best clothing – no new garments were acquired. This meant that often brides wore black, crimson, blue – but not white. White was sometimes, in fact, thought of a funeral color in that time period.

Victoria, perhaps inspired by her new-found love, imagined something totally unseen and unknown by her contemporaries. She planned and produced an afternoon wedding that had pageantry and procession, was large in scale and attendance - and – she wore a white gown specifically made for the occasion. Such passion, spectacle and innovation, as witnessed by the upper class who attended the festive wedding, must have captured people's imagination. Thus it came to be that Victoria became every young woman's role model for the dream of romantic love and marriage (and every mother's standard for showing how cultivated and refined their family was.)
I suspect that this innovative wedding deeply imprinted on the cultural psyche and set the stage for people to think of Victoria as the person to watch for trends in a way that no other royal had achieved. Perhaps the influence she created continued to take the culture with her into her deepest grief, which lasted over 40 years.

Precursors to Understand Victoria's Approach to Grief

There were two early influences on Victoria that stood out to me as causal. One - Victoria's father died when she was 8 months old. Though she was too young to comprehend the loss, I would anticipate that this could have shaped her home life and psyche in a powerful way. Two - Victoria's mother was very controlling. Victoria was watched 24 hours a day and never allowed to be alone. She was even forced to sleep in her mother’s room. Though Victoria did not like this, it may have caused her to learn how to be independent of mind whilst habituated to having constant companionship.

Victoria finally became liberated and happy when she married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. They bore 9 children together. She was adoring of Albert, they were constantly in connection, the precedent of constant companionship having been set by her mother, but now happily realized with Albert. She went, in a flash, from a miserable childhood to an ecstatic young adulthood.

A Grief to Influence all Grief

At forty-two years of age, Victoria’s young husband quickly contracted and died of typhoid fever. Victoria's mother had died just months before Albert.

She wrote to her daughter Victoria: "How I, who leant on him for all and everything—without whom I did nothing, moved not a finger, arranged not a print or photograph, didn't put on a gown or bonnet if he didn't approve it shall go on, to live, to move, to help myself in difficult moments?" This is a telling statement – the woman who had never been alone, who had found a simpatico partner to enjoy constant companionship with – was now, for the first time - very, very alone.

The Queen turned her grief and mourning into the sole focus of her existence for three years. She immediately donned black and dressed her entire court that way. Albert's rooms were maintained exactly as when he was alive. Servants were to continue all tasks related to the Prince without interruption as if he were alive. She had statues made of him, displayed mementos of his around the royal palaces, and she spent most of her time secluded in Windsor Castle or in Scotland where she had enjoyed happy times with Albert.
After the first year, her mourning came to be viewed as obsessive, and was aggravated by Victoria's refusal to appear in public except on the rarest occasions. But, society was watching. And taking their queues from Victoria. They may not have seen much of her, but what they did see became quickly assimilated into the community.

Intricate traditions were quickly established. A widow was to remain in mourning for over two years. Full mourning, a period of a year and one day, was represented with dull black clothing similar to Victoria's. A woman who was in mourning was not allowed to exit her home with the exception of attending church services. Isolation, similar to Victoria's, became the standard.

Mourning attire became a way to show the wealth and respectability of a woman. Like the Queen, some went so far as to dress their servants for mourning. Middle and lower class women would struggle to keep pace by dying dresses black and then bleaching them out again. An industry of mourning was invented by tailors who are thought to have started rumors concerning the bad luck of recycling funeral attire.
The color black best represented the Victorian act of mourning. Victoria dressed in black an the world seemed to follow. Some have posited that black, for the Victorian, symbolizes the absence of light and life. It certainly served as an instantly recognizable sign that a loved one had died.

In 1901, with the death of Queen Victoria, England seemed to rise out of mourning with her passing. Women were no longer dictated to follow the strict Victorian code of visual and behavioral etiquette. However, many of the conventions survive, even to this day.

In America, the change in mourning had been forced before Victoria’s death. The Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, left approximately 618,000 dead. Twice as many Southern soldiers died than Northern and practically the whole population of the South was in mourning. So many women were dressed in black that the governor of Mississippi tried to pass a law banning Victorian mourning garb because of the low morale of the people.

My sense of Victoria is that she projected her great, epic love into her environment with such visual and cultural innovation that she captivated a society that watched her and followed her all the way into her great, epic grief.

Perhaps no singular person has ever changed the interface of visuals and grief to the extent that Queen Victoria did.