*2014 Daphne du Maurier FINALIST*
A Victorian undertaker enjoys the patronage of the Royal House of Hanover, even while withstanding betrayal, treachery, and recklessness by those closest to her. But can she survive when a crazed killer sets sights on her for uncovering a buried secret?
“I was entranced with Violet and her world from page one…Lady of Ashes is a book you can sink your teeth into, with characters you’ll fall in love with.” Mystery Scene Magazine
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The inspiration for this book came from an unusual place: my writer friend, Mary Oldham. Sitting together at a writing conference one day, I was musing about what kind of profession my next heroine would have. I was considering something in the Victorian era. Mary said to me, quite casually, “Do you know what I’ve always wanted to read about? A Victorian undertaker.”
After I got over the shock of that idea, my mind went crazy with possibilities, and the end result will be LADY OF ASHES. I thought I’d share with you some of the fascinating research about Victorian-era funerals and undertaking I’ve discovered.
Coffin vs. Casket, what’s the difference? A coffin is a burial container in which it widens at the shoulders to accommodate a person’s shoulders. Think old Dracula movies and anything produced for Halloween. A casket, however, is the modern burial container Americans generally use today, made of steel or wood, that is designed as an even rectangle with a rounded top.
Did you know that Victorians did not embalm their dead? In fact, the practice only took off in the United States during the Civil War, in order to cope with preserving dead soldiers—on both sides—while being sent home on trains.
Do you know why the Victorians didn’t embalm their dead? They thought it an unseemly—and un-Christian—practice to fill a body with chemicals before placing it in the ground.
Guess why lilies are traditionally associated with funerals? Their scent is so intense that they masked the odor of decomposing bodies. While Prince Albert’s coffin stood inside Windsor Chapel in 1861, the profusion of lilies was so overpowering that the guards had to be switched out every hour to prevent them from fainting.
First class or coach? The Victorians were still a class-conscious society, even if some of those barriers were breaking down. In planning your funeral, the undertaker—wearing a top hat swathed in black crape—would offer your family options appropriate to your social status. For example, if you were of high enough rank, you might have a funeral car with glass sides, interior curtains, and plumes adoring the top. Were you just middle class? Well, a smaller carriage then, no curtains and no plumes. For those of little means, your funeral carriage was more like a long, black open cart.
What’s a professional mourner? Depending on your social status, your undertaker might hire professional mourners to walk alongside your funeral car. Dressed in black, the number of them helped demonstrate how important or wealthy you were. The same is true for the number of horses pulling your funeral car, the number of ostrich plumes adorning the horses’ heads and your funeral car, and in what part of the cemetery you were buried.
Parade routes aren’t just for floats. In America, the hearse (or, in Victorian parlance, funeral carriage) drives from the funeral home to the church to the cemetery. In Victorian England, the funeral carriage went from the home of the deceased to the cemetery’s chapel. Except, it didn’t always go directly there. For society people, the funeral procession would frequently detour through busy or fashionable streets, so that everyone could get a glimpse of what important person had died.
Fascinating, isn’t it?
1. The Victorian era was a period of rapidly changing technology and social hierarchies. What evidence do you find of this in the book?
2. Although every profession has its bad apples, undertaking was a particularly reviled industry in the Victoria era. Why do you think this was so?
3. How did Victorian undertaking practices in England differ from what is done now? Are there Victorian practices that you would like to see performed once again?
4. In Victorian England, it was considered important to journal the final days of a loved one as a memorial and keepsake for posterity. Why do you think this was considered important? Why do you think this has fallen out of favor today?
5. Graham was determined to become a part of society, one of the new “self-made” men who came to enjoy substantial prosperity in Victorian England. Was this a realistic goal to achieve? What were some of the ways Graham sought to rise in society that we still embrace today?
6. How would you describe Violet’s and Graham’s marriage? Would you say it was more or less typical than most marriages of the time? What were some of the challenges Violet faced as she struggled to keep her marriage together?
7. Conversely, consider the marriage between Albert and Victoria. What do you admire about it? What weaknesses lay between them?
8. The workhouse was one of the ways in which the Victorians attempted to address the needs of England’s poor. Compare and contrast the workhouse to some of today’s social programs. In what ways was the workhouse better or worse?
9. What was your reaction when you read that Violet brought Susanna home to live without first consulting Graham?
10. What surprised you the most about British attitudes and involvement toward the U.S. Civil War?
11. Was the British government right to be outraged by the taking of two Confederate diplomats, Mason and Slidell, from RMS Trent? Was their insistence on neutrality in all waters at all times realistic and/or enforceable?
12. After Albert’s death, Victoria remained in mourning for the rest of her life, even choosing to be buried in her wedding veil. Yet she later developed a special attachment for a servant by the name of John Brown, with whom many people claim she had an affair. Do you think Victoria had an affair or was this purely a platonic relationship?