Secular Relics and Death in Nineteenth-Century British Literature and Culture


ACLS Fellowship Program




Ninteenth-century Britons treasured objects of daily life that had once belonged to their dead. The love of these keepsakes, which included hair and other remains, speaks of an intimacy with the body and death, a way of understanding absence through its materials, almost lost today. This project analyzes relic culture as an affirmation that objects held memories and told stories. These practices show a belief in keeping death vitally intertwined with lifeā€”not as generalized memento mori but rather as respecting the singularity of unique beings. In a consumer culture in full swing by the 1850s, such keepsakes stood out as non-reproducible, authentic things whose value was purely personal. Relic reverence shared intimacies with literary practices; the material object and its representation met here.