Dr Jen Baker, A Salve for Grief and Guilt: Domestic Medicine and the Memorialisation of Child Death in Victorian Fiction and Culture



Join the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies (LCVS) in their next #LCVSVirtual event on Wednesday 21 April as they consider the impact of grief and guilt in Victorian literature.

What’s happening?

In her consolation work How Sorrow was Changed to Sympathy, published in 1884, Elizabeth Prentiss’ written records of the illnesses and deaths of her children around thirty years earlier, and her attempts to find emotional alleviation, reflect many such Victorian domestic journals by otherwise little known parents, as well as more famous writers such as Margaret Oliphant. The journals mark and record the physical characteristics and also the suffering of the children in a way that memorialises them through embodiment – particularly given that many were very young, their characters still forming, and of course had little to no opportunity to tell their own stories.

The first part of this talk considers these aspects, and the strategies through which the child is both remembered but also reformed and denied agency in accordance with ideals about “the child” and about “family”.

The second and main part of the talk hones in on a related aspect that is at odds with the depicted beautiful child body and peaceful solace. Particularly noticeable in the works published by mothers, were detailed descriptions of the often brutal methods and medicines offered, the horror of the physical suffering, and an increased expression of frustration toward, as well as knowledge about, the cures offered by (and excluded by) doctors. Furthermore, there are moments in which resentment is expressed at the attitude of professional practitioners toward these mothers. Owing particularly to the outcome (i.e. the death), the mothers clearly believe they had (and perhaps did have) greater knowledge than the medical men when it came to their child’s health, and gesture towards an alternative outcome that could have been – despite the frequent resignation that this is the will of God. Given the futility in these cases, the details and opinions which are left in the narrative despite sometimes heavy editing elsewhere are, Dr Baker proposes, both a pedagogical tool and expression of solidarity with other mothers, but also a tactic in which (like the memorialisation in part one) the author attempts to assuage themselves of a guilt that is socially advanced by the perceived vulnerable and innocent status of those they have lost. As such it is not a new emotion, but a new form of expression from earlier periods. This talk draws together these domestic manuals with some fictional examples, then, to consider the interrelation between memorialisation and medicine in Victorian consolation literatures centred on the child.


Wednesday 21 April, 1.00 – 2.00pm


This event will be delivered remotely via a Microsoft Teams meeting.

How can I book?

To register your place, please email Jane de Gay.


Dr Jen Baker is a permanent Teaching Fellow in C19th and C20th Literature at the University of Warwick, appointed in August 2020, having worked there on a fixed contract 2017-19, with an “unpaid sabbatical” in between. During that brief hiatus she became an accredited Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, became, and still is an Early Career Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath. She also began working on her first monograph, Spectral Embodiments of Child Death in the Long Nineteenth Century, which is under contract with Edinburgh University Press, and in part based on her thesis on monstrous children and death c.1830-1914, which she defended at the University of Bristol in 2017.

Dr Baker has published a range of material relating to “the child” figure, and the Gothic. Forthcoming are a chapter on pronouns, agency and child death in a collection on Gender and the Supernatural in Victorian short fiction with Avenel Press, another on pseudo-guardians in Women’s Ghost Stories for an upcoming issue of Women’s Writing, and another on ‘The Revenant Child’ in the forthcoming Palgrave Gothic Handbook vol.2, edited by Clive Bloom. Works published already include one on spectral stowaways in a short story by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps in Gothic Studies, and folklore and child death in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure’ with the Thomas Hardy Society Journal. Other tangential interests on which Dr Baker has published works are endless childhood in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, the figure of the Paedophile in Gothic fiction, and pop-up and interactive books in the Gothic tradition. More info: https://hcommons.org/members/drjenbaker/