"Words survive" : death and dying in women's letters



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During the nineteenth century, the publication of letter collections, often titled “Life and Letters,” became very popular and let the public in on the private lives of public figures. Women from literary families all wrote letters with an awareness of the possibility of the world reading them. Even as letters were viewed as ostensibly private forms of communication, they were serving an intimate public as a vehicle for public feelings long before publication. Exploring the epistolary remains of three nineteenth-century women writers from literary families, I focus, in particular, on how these writers confronted illness, grief, and death, all things that kept them isolated from others and made correspondence necessary. Sara Coleridge wrote about the deaths of those closest to her in order to learn from and plan her own death. While Alice James concentrated almost entirely on her own demise, Charlotte Brontë did not write about her death, even preferring that others at least hold off speculating on it while she was still living. Instead Bronte focused on her sisters’ deaths, knowing that their deaths would shape how her life got written. Indeed, the family narrative would never lose its association with death. Throughout the study, Virginia Woolf acts as a mediating figure who both engaged in these epistolary practices of bereavement and read and wrote about letter collections from the past. The significance of these letters is how they reflect attitudes towards death and dying in the nineteenth century, particularly in how narratives get worked into an epistolarity of death in which the narrating of grief itself provides a means to manage the challenges of bereavement. The work of death and the writing of it are creative acts that build toward leaving a written corpus more permanent, or at least more durable, than the body and less vulnerable than life.