In this article by Dr Emma Liggins, a walk in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery (pictured below) inspires a reflection on graveyards, Victorian attitudes to illness and its spread – contagion, a range of literary examples and a unity in living through strange times. Dr Emma Liggins is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature in the Department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies. Her book 'The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories: Gender, Space and Modernity, 1850-1940' will be published by Palgrave later in 2020.

Southern Cemetery

With its long vistas and lime avenue, its bluebells and air of tranquillity, Southern Cemetery (Chorlton, South Manchester) has been one of my favourite haunts during lockdown. Strange sculptures and broken tombstones, urns and monuments, the interplay of light and shadow in the approaches to the half-derelict West Chapel and the eerie, echoing stillness despite its proximity to Princess Parkway, make it a darkly beautiful place. Open since 1879, it is the burial place of the artist L.S. Lowry, Victorian philanthropist John Rylands and founder of Factory Records Tony Wilson, as well as thousands of mute inglorious Florences, Doreens and Elizas. The almost alive Victorian angels adorning the tombstones beckon the viewer towards their half-legible inscriptions and a forgotten past. So many children taken before their time, ‘sleeping in eternity’, or wives separated from their husbands by early deaths. As Jean Sprackland writes in her fascinating new book These Silent Mansions: a life in graveyards (2020), the otherworldly realm of the dead becomes a treasure-trove of buried memories, ‘the place where the stories are kept’. Contemplating tombstone inscriptions seems prescient in the time of Covid-19 when families are divided by the fear of infection, when illness haunts the home and public spaces seem to offer invisible dangers. Image below: Southern Cemetery 

Southern Cemetery

For the Victorians, contagion was a very real fear. Before penicillin, widespread vaccination and the NHS, diseases such as scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria were rife. In Victorian Contagion: Risk and Social Control in the Victorian Literary Imagination (2020), Chung-Yen Chen argues that, ‘Contagions are always affiliated with fear larger than death. During epidemics and pandemics, the fears of contagion reveal the tensions and disputes that lurk underneath the surface of harmony, the resentments present in all social relationships’.  Medical and political responses to Victorian cholera epidemics, for example, were inseparable from fears about filth and contamination, from perceptions of abnormality and cleanliness which mapped onto class differences in the cities. Media coverage of the testing, tracing and tracking of the Coronavirus is in some ways reminiscent of the nineteenth-century compulsion to trace the sources of disease and infection back to wider social and economic problems. Image below: Southern Cemetery 

Southern Cemetery

Many mid-Victorian novels and auto/biographical writings dwelt on the management of disease, the inadequacies of medical supplies and the difficulties of quarantining. The sick-room became a significant space within the Victorian household. In the spirit of Florence Nightingale, women’s responsibilities as nurses and superintendents of the sick-room were celebrated. Poets and novelists drew on direct experience of nursing the sick or of mourning dead children in an age of high infant mortality. The ghost stories of the lesser-known Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant, whose eleven-year-old daughter died of fever in Rome, linger on the untimely deaths and sickness of mothers and children. The motherless Charlotte in ‘The Lady’s Walk’ (1882-3) cares for her younger siblings and vividly remembers the anguish of being quarantined from her charges due to scarlet fever. Haunted by a female ancestor, who shares her anxieties about upholding the smooth running of the household, she is a Nightingale figure who wards off infection. In a letter to Charles Dickens in 1850, the Manchester novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote that she had been crying all morning for the deaths from scarlet fever of three little cousins in Knutsford. She laments the empty nursery and the childless mother left to mourn, mindful of her own loss of her baby son Willie to the same fever in 1845. Partly written to assuage her grief, her novel Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life (1848) draws on Gothic techniques to sensationalise the deaths of women and children, who succumb not only to the dirty conditions and inadequate sanitation of the industrial city but also to infection within the family.

In nineteenth-century Gothic fiction and medico-political discourses, women are often identified as sources of infection. A poor Irish widow, unsuccessfully begging for charity as she dies of typhus, who then infects seventeen other people in her community is cited as an example in a medical text quoted by the Victorian social commentator Thomas Carlyle in Past and Present (1843). His anti-capitalist point is that charity benefits public health and social cohesion; instead the widow ‘prove[s] her sisterhood by dying and infecting [others] with typhus’. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) Elizabeth fatally infects her adoptive mother, who has attended her sick bed, with scarlet fever. In Frankenstein’s dream, Elizabeth ‘in the bloom of health’ fades into the decaying corpse of the dead mother, ‘the grave worms crawling in the folds of the flannel’. Tuberculosis, another deadly Victorian disease, proved fatal for most of the Brontë family, including the elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. Their deaths after studying at Cowan Bridge School were reimagined by Charlotte in the death of the young Helen Burns at Lowood in Jane Eyre (1848). The dangers of contamination and contagion clustering around women, the female body, the family and the crossing of class boundaries come to haunt Gothic narratives in the nineteenth century. Image below: Southern Cemetery 


Intensified within the confines of the middle-class home, the fearful proximity of the sick and the dangers of contagion became part of the legacy of the Victorian age. In her biography of the Brontës published in 1912, the modernist novelist May Sinclair was struck by the ways in which the sickening family had been crammed into the small spaces of the Parsonage bedrooms at Haworth. Isolation was difficult or sometimes impossible in smaller Victorian households. Biographers of the Brontës and visitors to Haworth could not ignore the gloomy churchyard at the bottom of the Parsonage garden (pictured below), its leaning tombstones a visual memento mori. On her visit in 1904 Virginia Woolf imaginatively connects ‘the three famous ghosts’ with their untimely deaths, the ‘dead names’ in the churchyard and the ‘invasion’ of the garden by graves. The proximity of death is an apt symbol of an era characterised by fatal diseases only slowly conquered by advances in medical science.

Southern Cemetery

To look back to Victorian fears about pandemics, quarantining and isolation is to recognise their resonances with our anxieties about nursing the infected and spreading the virus in the twenty-first century. ‘Feelings about contagion are contagions themselves’, suggests Chen, and the climate of fear is palpable: Boris Johnson talks of the disease as an invisible assailant, supermarkets now appear dangerous and unclean, statistics on the news terrify rather than reassure. Yet it’s worth reflecting on struggles against disease in the past and the consolatory ways in which they were recorded, in the ghost stories, autobiographical laments, letters on mourning stationery, on the cryptic tombstone inscriptions and angels with averted eyes in shadowy cemeteries. Creating new narratives of how to deal with a pandemic, embracing charity and community as well as isolation, reaching out to neighbours, has become the new normal. Recording the eeriness of distancing, the terrors of disease and loss as well as the shifting domestic dynamics in our lock-downed homes, is also a necessary recognition of the undeniable strangeness of these strange times, a strangeness the Victorians knew only too well.

Haunt Manchester also interviewed the Writer-In-Residence at Southern Cemetery, Dr Tania Hershman, in a previous article here.

Text and photography by Dr Emma Liggins