​​Victorian Mourning Culture

From the beginning of the nineteenth century and throughout the Victorian era, the etiquette of sending mourning or condolence cards became an accepted – and expected – practice. John H. Young, author of A Guide to the Manners, Etiquette, and Deportment of the Most Refined Society (1879), wrote the following on the appropriate procedure for sending such cards: 'On announcement of a death it is correct to call in person at the door; to make inquiries and leave your card, with lower left hand corner turned down. Unless close intimacy exists, it is not usage to ask to see the afflicted. Cards can be sent to express sympathy, but notes of condolence are permissible only from intimate friends.' Young adds to this that callers should then wait to receive a 'mourning card' from the bereaved, signalling they are ready to receive them in person. 'Intimate friends, of course, do not wait for cards, but continue their calls, without regard to any ceremonious observances made for the protection of the bereaved.'[1] To further assist visitors, black crape with white ribbon was arranged on some part of the front door to indicate a recent death in the household.

The fashion of the Victorian period was to mount the cards with a black border, signifying their content (a red border, on the other hand, indicated a matter of business). The following examples are from Queen Victoria to Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd, after the President's assassination, and Mary's response to the Queen.

Queen Victoria's condolence letter to Mary Todd

Victoria's letter reads: 'Though a Stranger to you I cannot remain silent when so terrible a calamity has fallen upon you & your Country & must personally express my deep & heartfelt sympathy with you under the shocking circumstances of your present dreadful misfortune — No one can better appreciate than I can, who am myself utterly broken-hearted by the loss of my own beloved Husband, who was the Light of my Life, my Stay — my all, what your sufferings must be; and I earnestly pray that you may be supported by Him to whom Alone the sorely stricken can look for comfort, in this hour of heavy affliction.'

Mary Todd's response to Queen Victoria

Mary's response reads: 'I have received the letter which Your Majesty has had the kindness to write & am deeply grateful for this expression of tender sympathy, coming as they do, from a heart which from its own sorrow, can appreciate the intense grief I now endure.'

Despite the formality of the approved protocol for the sending of condolence letters, as well as the style of the cards themselves, the content was still able to express the personality of the sender.

Leslie and Minny Stephen

Sir Leslie Stephen, born 1832, was a distinguished Victorian Man of Letters; he became the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (as well as being one of its most prolific contributors), he was a respected writer in the fields of philosophy, biography and literary criticism, and an esteemed orator – he became the first Clark lecturer in 1883, and the Leslie Stephen lectures continue to this day. Most famously, though, Stephen was the father of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.

Stephen's first marriage was to Harriet Marian 'Minny' Thackeray, the youngest daughter of William Thackeray, with their wedding taking place in 1866. The couple lived with Minny's sister, the writer Anny Thackeray, for almost the entirety of their marriage. Stephen described his marriage to Minny as eight and a half years of 'exquisite happiness'.[2]

On the 28 November, 1875, Minny died, having suffered a fit of convulsions during the night and falling into an unconsciousness from which she could not be revived. The loss had a profound effect on Stephen, with his biographer, Frederic W. Maitland, writing: 'if few men could be happier, few could be more miserable.'[3] Stephen curtailed many of his social activities, finding solace instead in his books and friendship with Anny.

Condolence Letters

As was customary, both Stephen and Anny received numerous notes of sympathy after Minny's death; the following is a selection of those letters.

Dec 1, 1875 – John Morley to Leslie Stephen

John Morley was a good friend of Stephen's, a contemporary of his in the world of journalism and later a leading Liberal statesman.

Morley writes with sympathy and an offer to take temporary charge of Stephen's literary commitments – not an insignificant gesture as Morley was at this time editor of the Fortnightly Review, with Stephen in the same role at the Cornhill Magazine. 'No one is more deeply and painfully touched by sympathy for you than we are. It haunts me. I wish I could offer you some friendly service. If I can take your work, you know that it will be a real satisfaction to me.'

​Dec 1, 1875 – Julia Bradford Gaskell (daughter of Elizabeth) to Anny Thackeray

Julia Gaskell was the youngest daughter of the famous novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell had known Stephen and Minny, and even predicted their future as a married couple on observing them at dinner early on in their acquaintance.[4] Julia became good friends with Annie whilst both were living in Oxford.

Condolence letter from Julia Gaskell to Anny Thackeray

Julia writes: 'I have seen with the deepest sorrow and sympathy what has befallen you – I learnt it only this morning – I cannot find words to tell you how my whole heart is aching for you and for poor, poor Mr. Stephen.'

Dec 1, 1875 – Henry Sidgwick to Leslie Stephen

Henry Sidgwick was a noted philosopher and economist, as well as a champion of women's right to higher education. He and Stephen were friends from their Cambridge days, later clashing as philosophical rivals; Stephen's The Science of Ethics (1882) appeared as a response to Sidgwick's The Methods of Ethics (1874), and both wrote unfavourable reviews of the other's text.   

Sidgwick writes in his condolence letter: 'Nothing has happened to me for years which has pained me so much. I wish I could do anything more than say just this.'

Dec 24, 1875 – Margaret Oliphant to Leslie Stephen

Margaret Oliphant was a popular and prolific novelist, and a friend of Annie and the Stephens. Oliphant suffered several tragic losses in her own life, having by this date lost her husband to tuberculosis and three children in infancy.

Condolence letter from Margaret Oliphant to Leslie Stephen

Although the black bordering to this condolence letter is not visible in the picture, it does frame the other side of the writing paper.

Taking a gentle but practical approach to Stephen's grief, Oliphant writes: 'I write in the hope that you are perhaps finding some help in work again. I do indeed know what it is, and feel for you with all my heart.' Oliphant also mentions the Cornhill Magazine, and encourages Stephen to work on a piece she thinks would be appropriate for the magazine.

Stephen's Reaction

Despite Stephen's general dislike of Victorian pomp and ceremony ('No one cared less for convention', wrote Virginia Woolf [5]) and his reputation as something of a misanthrope, he replied to his numerous condolence letters with the same degree of feeling as they contained. Apart from bringing into question Stephen's image as a rather hardened old Don, the collection of correspondence also reveals an insight into both the formality of the Victorian condolence letter protocol and the deep level of emotion they could still convey. The following is Stephen's response to the card received from John Morley:

'My dear Morley, We came safely home to our desolate home last night, and your most kind note appeared a few hours later […] I shall remember you henceforth as a man who has been through a cruel operation would remember the kind friend who stood by and spoke words of encouragement and affection. Words can in one sense do nothing in such cases, but they, or the sentiments they which express, stamp themselves most deeply on one's heart.' Writing of Anny, Stephen describes his sister-in-law to Morley as 'the most affectionate and sympathetic woman I know,' and finishes his letter as follows: 'I may for once use the privilege of deep sorrow, and that I value your friendship as highly as any man's, and that you and I may hold together as long as we are in this queer world.'[6]

[1] Young (London: W. C. King & Co., 1879; repr. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001), p. 82.

[2] Leslie Stephen, Leslie Stephen's Mausoleum Book (London: Cox & Wyman Ltd., 1977), p. 11.

[3] Frederic William Maitland, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (London: Duckworth & Co., 1906), p. 270.

[4] Maitland, p.179.

[5] Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (1976; repr. London: Triad/Granada, 1978), p. 158.

[6] John W. Bicknell, Selected Letters of Leslie Stephen: Volume 1 1864 – 1883 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1996), pp. 169-70.

Tom Breckin is a PhD student at Leeds Trinity University, working on a thesis that explores Virginia Woolf's literary connections with the Victorian era. The research focuses particularly on Woolf's relationship with Sir Leslie Stephen, as both her father and as a fellow writer.

Tom recently visited the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University, NC, to research their collection of Leslie Stephen letters and manuscripts. The pictures of the Leslie Stephen and Anny Thackeray Ritchie letters are from that trip, by kind permission of the Rubenstein Library.

The images of the two letters to and from Queen Victoria are copyright of the Library of Congress (https://loc.gov/).

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