Sunday 31 October 2021

The Craziest Deaths in Victorian Novels

Happy Halloween, everyone! Today’s festivities have put me in a macabre and morbid mood so for today’s blog post, I’m running through some of the best (or worst?) ways to die in a Victorian novel. If you like your fictional deaths as strange, memorable and zany as possible, you’re in for a treat. 

My Halloween costume this year

Spontaneous Combustion

Who could forget the strange demise of Mr. Krook in Charles Dickens’s masterpiece Bleak House (1852-1853)? His death is the most famous literary example of human spontaneous combustion i.e. when a person goes up in flames for no reason at all. 

Railway Accident

Victorians were terrified of newfangled train travel and, if we’re to believe the novels, for good reason! There are options here: die instantly in a crash or suffocate to death in a tunnel. Or, if you’re Isabel Vane in Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), become disfigured in a derailing before returning to your family in disguise to act as governess to the children you abandoned to run off with your dashing and dastardly love.

Baby Farm

Your odds of surviving infancy weren’t great in the nineteenth century. But they were even worse if you were divided from your mother and put in a “baby farm” i.e. cheap daycare where you were, at best, neglected and, at worst, given poisoned formula. Check out George Moore’s 1894 novel, Esther Waters, for more on this practice.

Switching Places with a Doppelgänger 

Finding someone who looks just like you = all fun and games, until they find themselves destined for the guillotine, and you take their place in a heroic act for the woman you love…according to Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), anyway.

Sibling Violence

Who hasn’t bickered with a sibling? But let’s just hope your brother isn’t Little Father Time from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), who commits a grisly murder/suicide. 


If you’re a madwoman who lives in an attic (like Bertha in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Jane Eyre) or a crazy old maid who wears her wedding dress every day (like Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s 1860-1861 Great Expectations), step away from the candle! 


Yes, you’ll still die. But you’ll look beautiful doing it, just like many Victorian heroines. “Consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady,” Charlotte Bronte wrote in 1849. I’ll take her word for it.

What other literary deaths have I missed? Do you have a favorite strange nineteenth-century character ending? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

My nineteenth-century-set novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which includes one example from this list, is available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and e-book right now. For regular updates on my blog and writing, sign up to my monthly digital newsletter below.

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Friday 15 October 2021

Neo-Victorian Voices: Yellow Wife, Sadeqa Johnson (2021)

It’s hard to read historical fiction set in the American South in the nineteenth century, especially if the novel’s protagonist begins life enslaved and faces a series of horrific trials, as she struggles to win her own freedom and the freedom of her children. 

Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife (2021) doesn’t shy away from the horrors of existence on a plantation and then in a jail in Virginia, as she tells the story of the fictional Pheby Delores Brown. Pheby may be a work of Johnson’s imagination, but her experiences mirror many real histories. Her mother is an enslaved Black woman, and her father a white slave owner. Her “yellow” skin is a curse more than it’s a blessing, as she’s repeatedly objectified and abused. 

Sold as a punishment for her true love’s escape, plantation-born Pheby finds herself at the Devil’s Half Acre, a jail and trading post in Richmond, and soon draws the attention of the jail master—i.e. the “devil” himself. Selected for her looks, Pheby is in a morally difficult position. She has more creature comforts than the many enslaved people who pass through the door and some modicum of power, but her rapist “husband” still holds her life, and the lives of her increasing number of children, including her Black son, in his hands. Johnson does a good job of giving Pheby agency throughout the novel, despite the difficulties of her position, crafting a character we can root for and believe in.

The novel began for me on familiar ground—the plantation setting reminiscent of other novels I’ve reviewed here, for instance Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (2014). But the descriptions of the Richmond jail, which is based closely on historical record, were fascinating and uncovered a new chapter of American history for me. No spoilers here, but I also enjoyed the realism of the ending and the different relationships Pheby’s “white” children have with their mixed heritage—this struck the right chord and felt like the perfect note to end on. I wish Johnson had dived even more into Pheby’s relationship with her own Blackness. Has she internalized any colorism? How does she relate differently to each of her children?

Overall, this is a fast read, which manages to entertain, while dealing deftly with horrific topics and pulling us into America’s divided past. I’d recommend it. 

Which nineteenth-century set, twenty-first century written novel would you like me to review next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Leave suggestions here, on Facebook, on Instagram or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Have you read my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, yet? It’s available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook, and e-book. And make sure you subscribe to my writerly newsletter below.

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