This is the second book of Diane Setterfield’s that I have read — The Thirteenth Tale
being the first. Like the Thirteenth Tale, Bellman & Black is historical fiction, based in Queen Victoria UK. William Bellman is the central character. I hesitate to call Bellman a protagonist because I do not see any material change in Bellman’s evolution as a character. Sure, he becomes an adult and gets fantastically rich judged by the times. He marries, procreates and suffers along the way. That is the stuff of living, of making a world for a character so that he seems real for a reader. But, at the end, I do not see that Bellman grew in the sense of character or his values.
Setterfield’s gift is making business history interesting. That kept me reading. The rest of the story, except that about for Bellman’s daughter, Dora, could have been deleted. Setterfield could have ended the novel without Bellman’s death. The ending for me dragged.
But Bellman & Black works in the sense that Setterfield relates about the growth of an industry — funerary. Yes, it is morbid, but it is also fascinating. Who would have thought that death, and in particular mourning and memorializing one’s relatives and friends, would be so profitable. But it is what it is — and it has been that way for a while.
In Bellman & Black, Bellman opens up a store dedicated to outfitting every member of a mourning party, from the deceased to the relatives to the friends and beyond. Remember the time period is Victorian England, not the 21st century. It is also stiff upper lip England. Yet, funerals were big — and got bigger with the advent of public mourning being respectable, if not expected.
Everyone knows about New Orleans’ funerals. Those are in-your-face affairs walking down Broad Street in the middle of the day with the band playing at full tilt. Southern Italian funeral customs, if the Godfather and other movies are realistic, may be less bold but still are intense.
A few years ago, for research for my book, I went on a mourning tour at Stately Oaks, in Jonesboro, Georgia. Imagine a house that upon entering looks like a black widow spider has spun a web all over the house. There is black crepe fabric over every mirror and picture of the deceased. The hands of the grandfather clock are positioned at the time of death — and the clock does not tick, tock. The table in the dining room is laid out with every imaginable sweet. Lights, in this time, candles or gas lights, are dimmed. The central focus — the deceased in the casket on a black-draped table by a bodacious amount of flowers to cover, as perfume — and the loved ones, dressed in fully in black under veils hand dyed using the hulls of black walnuts.
Ultimately, death is big business. I like to think it helps bring closure and maybe, if we lucky, brings us into a closer relationship with the deceased. It is a time also about celebrating the deceased’s life. In that way, it is not morbid or tasteless. If the deceased was not a player during life, he or she becomes one. It is a time when people come together to say nice things about the deceased. Granted, those same things should have been said when the person was alive, but it is also a way of sending the person off to what we hope is a better life and for remembering why we are to love and treasure our loved ones who are still with us.