Friday, March 1, 2013
When Prince Albert, royal consort to and beloved husband of Queen Victoria, died suddenly in 1861, he must have known it would devastate his wife. Even after having nine children they were a devoted and loving couple, and Albert had already witnessed several times how deeply Victoria could grieve. She had just lost her mother, the Duchess of Kent, in March of that year, and she had been so distraught that times Albert had feared for her mental health. He may have even suspected that Victoria had an unnatural obsession with grief, but I doubt he could have guessed how long his wife would mourn him -- for the next forty years, until the day she died.
Throughout history the practice of mourning the loss of a loved one has been a common and enduring social ritual. Public and private demonstrations of grief provide an opportunity to emotionally process a loss, and in time transition from the sorrow, shock and anger death instills to finding peace, acceptance and the strength to go on. In that sense it is healthy and even important to mourn.
Like any social practice mourning has also initiated trends and inspired unique behaviors. At the time Queen Victoria lost her husband extravagant shows of mourning by women had become quite the vogue -- and like all fashions, had a long list of rules to go with it. Grieving widows were required to dress completely in dull or matte black with little or no jewelry for the first year after their loss, and never step a foot outside without first covering their head and face with a veil made of black crape, a kind of crimped gauze made of silk and cotton. Men had it a little better; they were expected to wear black hatbands and armbands (the latter being adopted from an old military mourning practice among soldiers.) Men's swords and buckles were sometimes blackened, too, so they didn't shine. While the servants of a mourning household would usually wear a black armband to denote the loss, some wealthy widows dressed their entire household staff head to toe in black.
A day after the first anniversary of the death the grieving widow could enter into the second stage of mourning, which wasn't much different than the first. She could go out with her veil lifted away her face, add a little black trimming and shinier or more decorative black fabrics to her lacklustre wardrobe (pinstriped black was also now allowed), and wear some mourning jewelry, usually made of jet. After another nine months, the mourning woman could finally ditch her all-black gowns and dress in half-mourning, which was generally somber but much lighter shades of gray or white, and later on lilac, lavender, mauve and even burgundy. Finally, after two years of this depressing business, mourning was considered completed (unless you had the bad luck of losing someone else, at which point the cycle started over again.)
Queen Victoria was still wearing full mourning for her mother when Prince Albert died, and she would continue wearing it for her husband for the next three years -- as would her entire court. The clothing industry naturally capitalized on the Queen's grief by stocking up on black fabrics, trims and other mourning desirables. Poor women would dye their ordinary clothing black (which they later bleached out) while the middle class relied on bombazine, a silk-wool blend. Rich ladies demanded more luxurious black goods and could afford to buy fine cambric linen, kid, fur and silk for their gowns and accessories. Men began wearing black cravats and shirt studs, soldiers covered up their uniform brass with crape, and the macabre fantastic "hair art" -- ornaments and other wearables created from the actual hair of the dead -- reached new heights. Thanks to the queen's reaction to the loss of her husband, demonstrating bereavement became very fashionable.
Across the pond in America grief over Prince Albert's death was not felt as keenly. Not out of any shown of disrespect to the Queen, either; our country had plunged into the nightmare of the Civil War. When it ended in 1865 over six hundred thousand soldiers had died, creating an unprecedented void of grief for their loved ones. While Americans still emulated English fashions, the terrible losses may have initiated the gradual move away from adherence to Victorian mourning practices. After the war America needed to rebuild itself, and it couldn't do that sitting in church in black bombazine and a weeping veil.
Creating my Toriana universe required a few adjustments to history. In my world, Queen Victoria is actually assassinated, along with Prince Albert and several of their children, and in the aftermath their daughter, also named Victoria, assumes the throne. The Civil War also does not take place. While these are admittedly radical adjustments to history, by making these changes I was able to shift the timeline into new and different directions.
Although they are still publicly obedient to the Crown, Torians quietly demonstrate their underlying rebellious natures by creating and following their own social practices, and among them mourning is one of the more elaborate and unique. A newly-widowed Torian woman does not dress in all-black like the English, but instead dresses exclusively in vivid white, red and blue. This custom pays homage to the loss of a Torian man in a symbolic color parallel to the same colors of the lost flag of independence, known as the "Stars and Bars." While the deceased's name is never spoken in public (a custom dating back to the Lost War of Independence in an effort to protect his next of kin), he is remembered, usually by the display of symbolic red, white and blue flowers. Some other rituals, such as installing nesting doves outside the deceased's residence, were derived from imitating the mourning practices of indigenous tribal peoples.
In addition to the personal display of grief, several celebratory, wake-like, indoor and outdoor gatherings are held for the family and friends. On the night after the burial, the immediate family hosts a "Heavenly Freedom" dance or ball, during which neighbors, friends and business associates present largely ceremonial gifts of food, money or other goods to the widow (a practice dating back to the lost war, when the family of a soldier killed in battle was left entirely destitute and depended on the community for immediate support.) If she is childless, the widow is also introduced to potential suitors; this to prevent her deceased husband's monies and properties from reverting to the crown. By law a childless Torian widow must remarry within three months to transfer her husband's estate to her new husband, or forfeit her rights to it entirely.
These Torian mourning practices range from very modest (the wearing of red/white/blue hair ribbons, placing a single nesting dove over the front door, and a gathering of neighbors at a local tavern for a poor widow) to beyond elaborate (months of lavish parties, picnics, house guests and balls leading up to a wealthy widow's high-society remarriage.) Naturally merchants profit enormously from Torian mourners and provide a wide range of suitable goods. While the Crown is certainly aware of some if not all of the true meaning of Torian mourning practices, turning a blind eye to them keeps the peace so they don't interfere.
In the same way that Victorian mourning practices could be very depressing and isolating, the Torian version can be a grueling ordeal for a widow. Intended to inspire a sense of community, Torian mourning does require a hefty amount of emotional endurance by the grieving family. As with other bereavement rituals throughout time, however, such demands are regarded and respected as a social duty; in Toriana they are even more vital, not only to honor the dead but to quietly demonstrate their secret patriotism. Torians may abide by English rule, but they cling fiercely to the hope of someday gaining their independence from it. In this unique way the mourning practices of Toriana celebrate life as much as death.
Photo Credit: © Tammy Belanger | Dreamstime.com