In Memoriam Documenting Illness, Death, and Grief in the Book Inscription (1870–1914)

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Lauren Alex O’Hagan


Throughout the long nineteenth century, individuals engaged in rituals of mourning to help deal with loss and grief. Objects were vitally important to Victorians and Edwardians as commemorative artefacts that clearly embodied the deceased and acted as a stand-in for their lived presence. For many people, books served as secular relics, with the safe confounds of the endpapers used to document the illnesses and deaths of loved ones, express feelings of anguish, or pass down books informally to other family members. Despite the high cultural value of these inscriptive marks, they have been surprisingly overlooked by researchers. Thus, this article is the first to shed light on these types of inscriptions in Britain (1870–1914), using a small dataset collected from a secondhand bookshop. Applying a combination of archival research and textual/multimodal analysis, I discuss the ways in which inscriptions helped individuals to manage loss, provided protection and therapy, and enabled relationships between the deceased and the bereaved to be maintained. I also draw attention to an inscriptive practice — the in memoriam inscription — that appears to have been predominantly used by the working and lower-middle classes. Overall, I argue that book inscriptions should be given equal importance to other relics of death, such as hair jewelry and memorial cards, as they were heavily embedded in broader rituals of mourning and served as aids in the process of grieving.



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Author Biography

Lauren Alex O’Hagan, Open University/Örebro University

Lauren Alex O’Hagan is a Research Associate in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies at the Open University and a Visiting Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at Örebro University. She specializes in performances of social class and power mediation in the late 19th and early 20th century through visual and material artefacts, using a methodology that blends social semiotic analysis with archival research. She has published extensively on the sociocultural forms and functions of book inscriptions, food packaging and advertising, postcards, posters, and writing implements.