Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, 1875


Death of Melmotte

Chapter LXXXIII – Melmotte Again at the House

Death of Melmotte:

…He might have wrapped his toga around him better perhaps had he remained at home, but if to have himself talked about was his only object, he could hardly have taken a surer course. The scene, as it occurred, was one very likely to be remembered when the performer should have been carried away into enforced obscurity. There was much commotion in the House. Mr. Beauclerk, a man of natural good nature, though at the moment put to considerable personal inconvenience, hastened, when he recovered his own equilibrium, to assist the drunken man. But Melmotte had by no means lost the power of helping himself. He quickly recovered his legs, and then reseating himself, put his hat on, and endeavoured to look as though nothing special had occurred. The House resumed its business, taking no further notice of Melmotte, and having no special rule of its own as to the treatment to be adopted with drunken members. But the member for Westminster caused no further inconvenience. He remained in his seat for perhaps ten minutes, and then, not with a very steady step, but still with capacity sufficient for his own guidance, he made his way down to the doors. His exit was watched in silence, and the moment was an anxious one for the Speaker, the clerks, and all who were near him. Had he fallen some one, — or rather some two or three, — must have picked his up and carried him out. But he did not fall either there or in the lobbies, or on his way down to Palace Yard. Many were looking at him, but none touched him. When he had got through the gates, leaning against the wall he hallooed for his brougham, and the servant who was waiting for him soon took him home to Bruton Street. That was the last which British Parliament saw of its new member for Westminster.

Melmotte as soon as he reached home got into his own sitting room without difficulty, and called for more brandy and water. Between eleven and twelve he was left there by his servant with a bottle of brandy, three or four bottles of soda water, and his cigar case. Neither of the ladies of the family came to him, nor did he speak of them. Nor was he so drunk then as to give rise to any suspicion in the mind of the servant. He was habitually left there at night, and the servant as usual went to his bed. But at nine o’clock on the following morning the maid-servant found him dead upon the floor. Drunk as he had been, — more drunk as he probably became during the night, — still he was able to deliver himself from the indignities and penalties to which the law might have subjected him by a dose of prussic acid.

Chapter LXXXVIII – The Inquest:

…On Saturday morning the inquest was held. There was not the slightest doubt as to any one the incidences of the catastrophe. The servants, the doctor, the inspector of police between them, learned that he had come home alone, that nobody had been near him during the night, that he had been found dead, and that he had undoubtedly been poisoned by prussic acid. It was proved that he had been drunk in the House of Commons, a fact to which one of the clerks of the House, very much against his will, was called upon to testify. That he had destroyed himself there was no doubt, — nor was there any doubt as to the cause.

In such cases as this is for the jury to say whether the unfortunate one who found his life too hard for endurance, and has rushed away to see whether he could not find an improved condition of things elsewhere, has or has not been mad at the moment. Surviving friends are of course anxious for a verdict of insanity, as in that case no further punishment is exacted. The body can be buried like any other body, and it can always be said afterwards that the poor man was mad. Perhaps it would be well that all suicides should be said to have been mad, for certainly the jurymen are not generally guided in their verdicts by any accurately ascertained facts. If the poor wretch has, up to his last moments made himself specially obnoxious to the world at large, then he is declared to have been mad. Who would be heavy on a poor clergyman who has been at last driven by horrid doubts to rid himself of a difficulty from which he saw no escape in any other way? Who would not give the benefit of the doubt to the poor woman whose lover and lord may have deserted her? Who would remit to unhallowed earth the body of the once beneficent philosopher who has simply thought that he might as well go now, finding himself powerless to do further good upon the earth? Such, and such like, have of course been temporarily insane, though no touch even of strangeness may have marked their conduct up to their last known dealings with their fellow-mortals. But let a Melmotte be found dead, with a bottle of prussic acid by his side — a man who has become horrid to the world of his late iniquities, a man who has so well pretended to be rich that he has been able to buy and sell properties without paying for them, a wretch who has made himself odious by his ruin to friends who had taken him up as a pillar of strength in regard to wealth, a brute who had got into the House of Commons by false pretences, and had disgraced the House by being drunk there, — and, of course, he will not be saved by a verdict of insanity from the cross roads, or whatever scornful grave may be allowed to those who have killed themselves with their wits about them. Just at this moment there was a very strong feeling against Melmotte, owing perhaps as much to his having tumbled over poor Mr. Beauchamp in the House of Commons as to the stories of the forgeries he had committed, and the virtue of the day vindicated itself by declaring him to have been responsible for his actions when he took the poison.

He was felo de se, and therefore carried away to the crossroads — or elsewhere. But it may be imagined, I think, that during that night he may have become as mad as any other wretch, have been driven as far beyond his powers of endurance as any other poor creature who ever at any time felt himself constrained to go. He had not been so drunk but that he knew all that happened, and could foresee pretty well what would happen. The summons to attend upon the Lord Mayor had been served upon him. There were some, among them Croll and Mr. Brehgert, who absolutely knew that he had committed forgery. He had no money for the Longestaffes, and he was well aware what Squercum would do at once. He had assured himself long age,— he had assured himself indeed not very long ago, — that he would brave it all like a man. But we none of us know what a load we can bear, and what would break our backs. Melmotte’s back had been so utterly crushed that I almost think that he went mad enough to have justified a verdict of temporary insanity.

But he was carried away, no one knew whither, and for a week his name was hateful. But after that, a certain amount of whitewashing took place, and, in some degree, a restitution of fame was made to the names of the departed. In Westminster he was always odious. Westminster, which had adopted him, never forgave him. But in other districts it came to be said of him that he had been more sinned against than sinning; and that, but for the jealousy of the old stagers in the mercantile world, he would have done very wonderful things. Marylebone, which is always merciful, took him up with affection, and would have returned his ghost to Parliament could his ghost have paid for committee rooms. Finsbury delighted for a while to talk of the great Financier, and even Chelsea thought that he had been done to death by ungenerous tongues. It was, however, Marylebone alone that spoke of a monument.



Adrienne Nater, 2008

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