A Corpse Dressed for a Ball: 1830s

 

death and the maiden Death's Doings 1827

DEATH AT THE TOILET

“’Tis no use talking to me, mother, I will go to Mrs P—.’s party to—night, if I die for it—that’s flat! You know ‘as well asl do, that Lieutenant N— is to be there, and he’s going to leave town to-morrow—so up I go to dress.”

“Charlotte, why will you be so obstinate? You know how poorly you have been all the week; and Dr — says late hours are the worst things in the world for you.”

“ Pshaw, mother! nonsense, nonsense.”

“Be persuaded for once, now, I beg! Oh, dear, dear, what a night it is too—it pours with rain, and blows a perfect hurricane! You’ll be wet, and catch cold, rely on it. Come now, won’t you stop and keep me company to-night? That’s a good girl!”

“Some other night will do as well for that, you know; for now l’ll go to Mrs P ——’s if it rains cats and dogs. So up—up—up I go! ” singing jauntily, ‘Oh, she shall dance all dress’d in white, So ladylike…’

Such were, very nearly, the words, and such the manner, in which Miss J—— expressed her determination to act in defiance of her mother’s wishes and entreaties. She was the only child of her widowed mother, and had, but a few weeks before, completed her twenty-sixth year, with yet no other prospect before her than bleak single blessedness. A weaker, more frivolous, and conceited creature never breathed—the torment of her amiable parent, the nuisance of her acquaintance. Though her mother’s circumstances were very straitened, sufficing barely to enable them to maintain a footing in what is called the middling genteel class of society, this young woman contrived, by some means or other, to gratify her penchant for dress, and gadded about here, there, and every where, the most showily dressed person in the neighbourhood. Though far from being even pretty-faced, or having any pretensions to a good figure—for she both stooped and was skinny—she yet believed herself handsome; and by a vulgar, flippant forwardness of demeanour, especially when in mixed company, extorted such attentions, as persuaded her that others thought so.

For one or two years she had been an occasional patient of mine. The settled pallor—the tallowiness of her complexion, conjointly with other symptoms, evidenced the existence of a liver complaint; and the last visits I had paid her, were in consequence of frequent sensations of oppression and pain in the chest, which clearly indicated some organic disease of her heart.  I  saw enough to warrant me in warning her mother of the possibility of her daughter’s sudden death from this cause, and the imminent peril to which she exposed herself by dancing, late hours, etc.; but Mrs —’s remonstrances, gentle and affectionate as they always were, were thrown away upon her headstrong daughter.

It was striking eight by the church clock, when Miss J—, humming the words of the song above mentioned, lit her chambercandle by her mother’s, and withdrew to her room to dress, soundly rating the servant-girl by the way, for not having starched some article or other which she intended to have worn that evening. As her toilet was usually a long and laborious business, it did not occasion much surprise to her mother, who was sitting by the fire in their little parlour, reading some book of devotion, that the church chimes announced the first quarter past nine o’clock, without her daughter’s making her appearance. The noise she had made overhead, in walking to and fro to her drawers, dressing-table, etc. had ceased about half an hour ago, and her mother supposed she was then “engaged at her glass, adjusting her hair,” and preparing her complexion.

“Well, I wonder what can make Charlotte so very careful about her dress to—night!” exclaimed Mrs J—, removing -her eyes from the book, and gazing thoughtfully at the fire; “Oh! it must be because young Lieutenant N — is to be there. Well, I was young myself once, and it’s very excusable in Charlotte—heigho!” She heard the wind howling so dismally without, that she drew together the coals of her brisk fire, and was laying down the poker, when the clock of — church struck the second quarter after nine.

“Why, what in the world can Charlotte be doing all this while?” she again inquired. She listened—“I have not heard her moving for the last three.quarters of an hour! I’ll call the maid and ask.” She rang the bell, and the servant appeared.

“Betty, Miss J— is not gone yet, is she?”

“La, no, Ma’am,” replied the girl, “I took up the curling irons only about a quarter of an hour ago, as she had put one of her curls out; and she said she should soon be ready. She’s burst her new muslin dress behind, and that has put her into a way, Ma,am.”

“Go up to her room, then, Betty, and see if she wants any thing; and tell her it’s half-past nine o’clock,” said Mrs J—. The servant accordingly went up stairs, and knocked at the bed-room door, once, twice, thrice, but received no answer. There was a dead silence, except when the wind shook the window. Could Miss J— have fallen asleep? Oh, impossible! She knocked again, but unsuccessfully, as before. She became a little flustered; and, after a moments pause, opened the door, and entered. There was Miss J— sitting at the glass. “Why, la, Ma’am,” commenced Betty in a petulant tone, walking up to her, “here have I been knocking for these five minutes, and”— Betty staggered,horror-struck, to the bed, and uttering a loud shriek, alarmed  Mrs J—, who instantly tottered up stairs, almost palsied with fright.—Miss J— was dead!

I was there within a few minutes, for my house was not more than two streets distant.  It was a stormy night in March: and the desolate aspect of things without—deserted streets—the dreary howling of the wind, and the incessant pattering of the rain, contributed to cast a gloom over my mind, when connected with the intelligence of the awful event that had summoned me out, which was deepened into horror by the spectacle I was doomed to witness. On reaching the house, I found Mrs J— in violent hysterics, surrounded by several of her neighbours, who had been called in to her assistance. I repaired instantly to the scene of death, and beheld what I shall never forget. The room was occupied by a white-curtained bed. There was but one window, and before it was a table, on which stood a looking-glass, hung with a little white drapery; and various articles of the toilet layscattered about—pins, brooches, curling-papers, ribands, gloves, etc. An arm-chair was drawn to this table, and in it sat Miss J—, stone dead. Her head rested upon her right hand, her elbow supported by the table; while her left hung down by her side, grasping a pair of curling irons. Each of her wrists were encircled by a showy gilt bracelet. She was dressed in a white muslin frock, with a little bordering of blonde. Her face was turned towards the glass, which, by the light of the expiring candle, reflected with frightful fidelity the clammy fixed features, daubed over with rouge and carmine—the fallen lower jaw—and the eyes directed full into the glass, with a cold, dull stare, that was appalling. On examining the countenance more narrowly, I thought I detected the traces of a smirk of conceit and self-complacency, which not even the palsying touch of Death could wholly obliterate. The hair of the corpse, all smooth and glossy, was curled with elaborate precision; and the skinny sallow neck was encircled with a string of glistening pearls. The ghastly visage of Death thus leering through the tinselry of fashion—the “vain show” of artificial joy—was a horrible mockery of the fooleries of life!

Indeed, it was a most humiliating and shocking spectacle. Poor creature! struck dead in the very act of sacrificing at the shrine of female vanity!—She must have been dead for some time, perhaps for twenty minutes, or half an hour, when I arrived, for nearly all the animal heat had deserted the body, which was rapidly stiffening.  I attempted, but in vain, to draw a little blood from the arm. Two or three women present proceeded to remove the corpse to the bed, for the purpose of laying it out. What strange passiveness! No resistance offered to them while straightening the bent right arm, and binding the jaws together with a faded white riband, which Miss J— had destined for her waist that evening!

On examination of the body, we found that death had been occasioned by disease of the heart. Her life might have been protracted possibly for years, had she but taken my advice, and that of her mother. I have seen many hundreds of corpses, as well in the calm composure of natural death, as mangled and distorted by violence; but never have I seen so startling a satire upon human vanity, so repulsive, unsightly, and loathsome a spectacle as a corpse dressed for a ball!

Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician, Volume 1, Samuel Warren, 1835

corpse at a ball deaths doings 1928

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: There was an entire genre of cautionary literature about the perils of ball-going. Young ladies were warned against late hours, over-heated rooms, unduly stimulating beverages, low-cut gowns, and over-familiar gentlemen. They were cautioned to tell their Mothers everything, and to wear wraps coming and going, lest they end a frigid corpse like Frozen Charlotte. One would think, to read these well-intentioned screeds, that a young person’s reputation, virtue, health, and life were at dire risk whenever she left the house. Here is a sample specimen, entitled “Eleven Modes of Suicide.” Mrs Daffodil’s readers will consider themselves warned.

Dr Warren, while he may have derived much satisfaction at his diagnostic ability, seems a censorious, misogynistic prig. Given what Mrs Daffodil knows of how the face of a corpse strangely alters after death, it is unlikely that even the most assiduous observer could detect a “smirk of conceit” in the countenance of the recently deceased. One fears that the doctor’s hateful personal prejudices have compromised his observational powers.

One also wonders why, if the young lady was “the torment of her amiable parent, the nuisance of her acquaintance,” would the good Doctor have wished her life protracted, “possibly for years” except for his own personal vanity in not wishing to lose a patient?

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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