On human remains

On Sunday I spent a wonderful afternoon visiting the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men at the Museum of London.

The exhibition stems from the discoveries made during an archaeological dig at the old burial ground of the Royal London Hospital (find out more here). Over 250 bodies were found, showing various signs of having been subject to dissection and autopsy. These bodies would have been used for teaching and practice for trainee surgeons and anatomists. With these excavated remains as a starting point, the exhibition explores how the early nineteenth century trade in dead bodies could be a lucrative career for 'resurrection men' who worked in groups to dig up the freshly buried and sell their corpses on to medical professionals in private anatomy schools.

It was a gripping, if somewhat gruesome, afternoon. Alongside the human remains are exhibited wax models, anatomical drawings, pickled specimens and press clippings, as well as contraptions that could be bought by those wanting to ensure that their dear departed remained firmly in the ground, and sets of surgeon's tools, which, despite their gleamingly clean presentation, still managed to provoke a shiver down my spine and a silent thanks to the wonders of modern day anaesthetics.

The exhibition was fascinating and really well presented, and contributed to a swirling mass of incomplete ideas I have recently been exploring about the role of death and possessions in Our Mutual Friend. In my reading of the novel, themes of death, inheritance, and appropriate possession are completely central, and the Resurrection Men exhibition made me think of several ways in which Dickens explores these themes through the characters and occupations of Gaffer Hexam and Mr. Venus in particular, both of whom are involved in the salvage of human remains and the effects which might accompany them (Mr. Venus, of course, directly supplies 'a perfect Beauty', an articulated skeleton, to an art school).

The event in the novel for which the exhibition really provided new meaning, however, was the death of Betty Higden, an episode tenderly described by Dickens in a chapter entitled 'The end of a long journey'. Betty, poor and homeless, feels the end of her life approach and is determined to die independent, not in the workhouse. She keeps the money for her burial safely sewn into the breast of her gown, desperate not to let herself, or her small estate, fall 'into the hands of those that she held in horror', and she flees society to die.

'The Flight', engraving by Marcus Stone. Image source: The Victorian Web.

The 1832 Anatomy Act is an important marker in the resurrection men's tale; its main provision was to decree that those who handed themselves into the care of the state, in the form of workhouses, asylums, or prisons, by default also offered up their bodies, once dead, to the hands of the medical profession for anatomical study. Previously, only the bodies of executed criminals could be lawfully used for dissection. But after 1832, providing no relatives came to claim the bodies, the workhouses and prisons were going some way to supplying the huge demand for the freshly deceased that advances in medicine demanded. There was no major revision to this law until well into the 20th century.

In light of this, Betty's death takes on a new significance in Dickens' tale of use and re-use. Her determination to provide for herself even after death suggests that she's aware of the alternative fate which might await her; in death, Betty stands to lose control of the final possession - her body. By keeping out of the workhouse, and hence out of the hands of the anatomists, Betty might quite literally be able to retain her integrity in death. Her tragic end, which had before sometimes seemed to me a rather overly sentimentalised episode, and somewhat superfluous to the plot, seems much more fitting if viewed in these terms. It becomes, rather, another episode in which Dickens reflects on what can and should be salvaged and to what extent death is an end, taking its place in a novel which, at its core, is concerned with inheritance in all its many forms.

This is one of the things I love about research - those little 'click' moments where connections are made, or something falls into place. Even when you've not quite made full sense of it yet, the feeling that there's something there, something to be teased out, is really exciting. 

I urge all (except the queasy) to head to the Museum of London to see the exhibition Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men, which runs until 14th April this year.