“Phoebe fashioned an ensemble in black—skirt, jacket, blouse, and gloves of sleek bombazine, and a petal-soft parramatta silk skirt trimmed in crinkled crape. The crowning achievement was a wide-brimmed, black silk hat with an intricately woven veil of black lace. Lowering the veil, she felt transformed. She could move among people with impunity now, and a modicum of privacy. Her eyes, swollen from crying, were no longer a problem. As much as she hated wearing black, it was worth it for the veil.”
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In my debut novel, Ellington Hall, due to be launched in late fall, I discovered some fascinating facts regarding death and funerals in England in 1898. Like most research, it not only provided setting and motive, but stoked the fires of creativity when I considered what might truly have been going on behind the veil. I decided to go a little deeper.
“Through black lace, she watched those attending her mother’s demise, and it occurred to her why women wore veils—it gave them something to hide behind. A white veil at marriage could signify purity as well as entering into a contract blind. It was the last time in her life a woman would be the center of attention. Once the vows were said, her life would never be her own again. It would belong to husband, family, children, washwomen, and grocers—which explained why older, wiser women cried at weddings. It was sorrow, not joy.
As for the black veil, at least with upper-class and persons of nobility, when the husband you’d perhaps learned to love over time was lowered into the ground, a wife’s only means of livelihood were dead and buried. She must depend on the son and heir not to throw her out. And with physical abuse never reported or addressed, Phoebe wondered if maybe, beneath the veil, any of them thanked God it was over, despite the loss of revenue.
Of course, the lower class just kept on working. But how ironic, that both events took place in a church. Whether white or black, the veil signaled the end of a life.”
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Traditions have changed from 1898. Veils are seldom worn either at weddings or funerals, but there have been times in my own life when I’d have loved a veil to hide behind.
Some other interesting traditions following a death in the family at the turn of the century came up, and I included them in the story. Upper-class women weren’t allowed to attend funerals or express their feelings in public such as weeping—displays of emotion relegated to the lower classes. A funeral expert was engaged to dress the deceased. The body was surrounded by layers of sandalwood, roses, cedar, and other herbs to offset the odor. A woman was paid to watch the body all night, in case the dead awoke. Just in case, a bell was attached to the casket with a rope inside. Curtains and drapes were drawn, and clocks stopped at the time of death. Mirrors covered in black crepe prevented the spirit of the deceased from being trapped for all time in the looking glass. And family photographs were turned face-down to prevent the deceased’s spirit from possessing any of the relatives. A huge wreath was affixed to the door, and a period of mourning ensued from six months to two years, depending on if you were a wife, mother, or other relation to the deceased. For that period of mourning, black was the dress code, eventually transitioning to grey before resuming normal modes of dress.
I’d like to think there may have been other reasons for the veil. My particular character, having grown up on her own, had acquired a fondness for liquor. At the reading of the will:
“Phoebe, seated between Loraine and the Vicar, held the lace handkerchief to her mouth to help hide the waft of whisky.
Thank God for the veil, she thought yet again, smiling behind the handkerchief.
Thank God for the veil.”
Note of Interest: If Scottish whisky, you omit the “e” – if Irish whiskey, add the “e”.
Discovering the world that existed at that time in Devonshire, England lent credibility, motive, and interest to all my characters. It’s amazing what you stumble on when you research.
It can be the fun part of setting your novel in a different time and place. Just don’t get me started on methods of contraception—illegal in Victorian England!
Thanks for walking through the corridor with me.