“Eternity is in love with the productions of time” – William Blake
Eternity can go on endlessly. Eternally, as point of fact. It helps to have a reading list. As I begin the inevitable long slouch towards Bethlehem, it seems prudent to gather my notes, and see who correctly pegged the content and character of the afterlife, fully intending to haunt those folks with the most wildly inaccurate descriptions. Or I might just rot quietly. Haven’t decided. Although, there is another more socially constructive option that I hadn’t previously considered. Occasionally, the dead come back to us with book recommendations. Such was the case, when in 1705 a certain Mrs. Veal took time out of her busy schedule of shuffling off this mortal coil, to visit her good friend and confidant Mrs. Bargrave, and offer up opinions on a little light reading that one might want to undertake before their expiration date.
Mrs. Veal and Mrs. Bargrave were childhood friends in Dover, England, from relatively well-off families, but nonetheless were each exposed to various hardships. Of course, by our modern standards, the entire 17-18th Century was a hardship, unless you were an aristocrat, and even that did not always ensure indoor plumbing. While Bargrave did not want for food or clothing, her father was a decidedly unkind man, whereas Veal had the sorrier of the two lots in that her father was not only unpleasant, but he did not provide sufficient means to his children, so she often found herself hungry and ill-dressed. Bargrave and Veal naturally became friends, commiserating over their respective situations, and finding solace in a shared passion for reading. According to Bargrave, Veal once declared, “Mrs. Bargrave, you are not only the best, but the only friend I have in the world; and no circumstance of life shall ever dissolve my friendship,” which would have been rather prescient if only she had said “life and death”.
As her miserly father inadequately provided for her, Mrs. Veal kept house for her brother in Dover. The community regarded her brother as a soberly man, and her as a pious, albeit strange woman given to “fits”, which were often characterized by a certain disassociation during conversation, that found her attention abruptly wandering off mid-sentence. As she could not support herself, when her brother took a position with the Customs House in Dover that put a little more distance between Bargrave and Veal. Bargrave also began spending a few months in Canterbury each year, and degree by degree, although they had never quarreled, their friendship simply waned through neglect, until by 1705, it had been almost three years since they had seen each other. Imagine Mrs. Bargrave’s surprise, when at noon on September 8, 1705, she answered her door in Canterbury to find none other than her old acquaintance (now 30 years old) Mrs. Veal. Mrs. Veal’s behavior was a tad odd, but that was not entirely out of character.
“Madam,” says Mrs. Bargrave, “I am surprised to see you, you have been so long a stranger;” but told her she was glad to see her, and offered to salute her; which Mrs. Veal complied with, till their lips almost touched; and then Mrs. Veal drew her hand across her own eyes, and said, “I am not very well,” and so waved it. She told Mrs. Bargrave she was going a journey, and had a great mind to see her first. “But,” says Mrs. Bargrave, “how came you to take a journey alone? I am amazed at it, because I know you have a fond brother.” “Oh!” says Mrs. Veal, “I gave my brother the slip, and came away, because I had so great a desire to see you before I took my journey.” So Mrs. Bargrave went in with her into another room, within the first; and Mrs. Veal sat her down in an elbow chair, in which Mrs. Bargrave was sitting when she heard Mrs. Veal knock. Then says Mrs. Veal, “My dear friend, I am come to renew our old friendship again, and beg your pardon for my breach of it; and if you can forgive me, you are the best of women.” “Oh!” says Mrs. Bargrave, “do not mention such a thing; I have not had an uneasy thought about it; I can easily forgive it” (Jarvis, 1823, p158-160).
Mrs. Veal profusely thanked Mrs. Bargrave for all her kindly behavior throughout her years of adversity, and having assured each other of the eternal renewal of their previous friendship, they fell into one of their favorite topics of conversation, books, in particular books on the subject of death. While that may seem rather morbid on its face, the truth is meditations on death and the Christian afterlife were probably one of the few books that it wouldn’t be considered unseemly for a pious young woman to read in the 17-18th Century. Mrs. Veal began a rather lengthy discourse on which of the books they had read over the years had the clearest notion on the nature of the afterlife, of those who wrote on the subject.
Drelincourt’s “Book of Death,” was the best, she said, on that subject ever wrote. She also mentioned Dr. Sherlock, and two Dutch books which were translated, wrote upon death, and several others; but Drelincourt, she said, had the clearest notions of death and of the future state of any who had handled that subject. Then she asked Mrs. Bargrave whether she had Drelincourt. She said “Yes.” Says Mrs. Veal, “Fetch it.” And so Mrs. Bargrave goes upstairs and brings it down. Says Mrs. Veal, “Dear Mrs. Bargrave, if the eyes of our faith were as open as the eyes of our body, we should see numbers of angels about us for our guard. The notions we have of heaven now are nothing like what it is, as Drelincourt says. Therefore be comforted under your afﬂictions, and believe that the Almighty has a particular regard to you, and that your afﬂictions are marks of God’s favour; and when they have done the business they are sent for, they shall be removed from you. And believe me, my dear friend, believe what I say to you, one minute of future happiness will inﬁnitely reward you for all your sufferings; for I can never believe” (and claps her hand upon her knee with great earnestness, which indeed ran through most of her discourse) “that ever God will suffer you to spend all your days in this afﬂicted state; but be assured that your afﬂictions shall leave you, or you them, in a short time.” She spake in that pathetical and heavenly manner, that Mrs. Bargrave wept several times, she was so deeply affected with it. Then Mrs. Veal mentioned Dr. Homeck’s “Ascetick,” at the end of which he gives an account of the lives of the primitive Christians. Their pattern she recommended to our imitation, and said their conversation was not like this of our age; “for now,” says she, “there is nothing but frothy, vain discourse, which is far different from theirs. Theirs was to ediﬁcation, and to build one another up in faith; so that they were not as we are, nor are we as they were; but,” said she, “we might do as they did. There was a hearty friendship among them (Defoe, 1903, p256-257).
Mrs. Veal than made a few innocuous requests of Mrs. Bargrave, asking her to write a letter to Veal’s brother in Dover, instructing him to give a few valuables to various acquaintances, telling him the location of her purse of gold, and compelling him to provide some of the gold therein to be set aside for her cousin Captain Watson, who also happened to live in Canterbury. Sounds like a last will and testament of sorts, but did not seem to raise any eyebrows with Bargrave. At this point, Veal seemed to be falling into one of her “fits”, deeply concerning to Bargrave who rushed to her side, and in an effort to ground her, inquired as to the material of her dress, which Veal said was “scoured silk”. Veal seemed to recover, and then politely inquired after Bargrave’s daughter, asking her to fetch her so that she might give her greetings. By the time Bargrave had returned with her daughter, Ms. Veal was already at the door preparing to depart. Bargrave implored Veal to put off her journey for another day, so that they might reconnect at length, but Veal was insistent on the need to leave, vanishing into the market crowds. Assuming that Veal was lodging at her cousin Watson’s while in Canterbury, Bargrave sent a messenger inquiring after her. Captain Watson later responded that Mrs. Veal had not been there, nor was expected and was puzzled that if she was indeed in Canterbury that she had not visited him. Watson asked for a description of what she was wearing, and mentioning the “scoured silk” gown, he was convinced that Veal had been there, as it was a gown he had gifted her, and only the two of them knew that it was scoured silk. To Mrs. Bargrave, this all seemed to be getting a little weird, and she sent communication to Veal’s brother in Dover, including her requests, and inquiring after her friend.
Mrs. Veal, in Dover, after one of her “fits” on September 7th, 1705, and no more than a few hours of lucidity, died around noon, a full day before her impromptu visit to Mrs. Bargrave. The writer Daniel Defoe reported that the story was told directly to him by Mrs. Bargrave, and that she never changed it despite admonitions from her family, and Mrs. Veal’s. I think it very thoughtful of Mrs. Veal to return undead and let her lifelong friend know which reading materials most closely depicted the afterlife. It gives you something to sink your teeth into, rather than those lazy specters that just flit about moaning, or vaguely assure a bosom buddy that everything is cool in the netherworld, without focusing on specifics. Now let’s focus on the tomes recommended.
Charles Drelincourt (1595-1669) was a vehemently anti-Catholic French Protestant minister and a prolific author on theology, and one of his most popular works, well known in England was Christians Defense against the Fears of Death (Consolations de l’âme fidèle contre les frayeurs de la mort, 1651), with the subtitle in translations rendered as “How to Prepare Ourselves to Die Well”, which doesn’t seem like much of a fun read, but everybody’s got their peculiar tastes. Suspiciously, Daniel Defoe’s A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs. Veal is appended to the 1706 English translation of Drelincourt’s work which led many to immediately dismiss Defoe’s story as pure fabrication, solicited by the publisher to boost flagging sales of such a depressing treatise, and written by Defoe for the sake of making a buck.
Another recommendation was a certain Dr. William Sherlock (1641-1707), Dean of St. Paul’s, reprimanded in 1686 for anti-Papal preaching and author of the popular Practical Discourse concerning Death, to which Mrs. Veal was no doubt referring. This text is filled with happy thoughts such as, “That which first presents itself to our Thoughts, and shall be the Subject of this following Treatise, is DEATH; a very terrible thing, the very naming of which is apt to chill our Blood and Spirits, and to draw a dark Veil over all the Glories of this Life. And yet this is the Condition of all Mankind, we must as surely die, as we are born: For it is appointed into men once to die” (Sherlock, 1715, p2). Recommended as a clear course in the preparation for one’s ultimate demise, was Dr. Anthony Homeck’s (1641-1697) Ascetick, the full title of which was The Happy Ascetick, which is likely because it was not directly a treatise on death, but a suggestion to behave like the “primitive” Christians if one wanted to slide past the Pearly Gates. Also, his real name was Dr. Anthony Horneck and he was a German Protestant clergyman and scholar, who opted to get the heck out of Germany, and take up residence in London, where he established himself as a preacher, and pretty much proceeded to offend everybody at one time or another. His writings weren’t too controversial, rather devotional, he just sucked as a preacher, and made a few poor political choices. Luckily, he squeaked onto Veal’s reading list of the dead.
Let’s face it, ghosts can often be rather demanding with their business dispensations for stuff they should have taken care of before they croaked, their calls for vengeance, and general complaints about dying. It’s refreshing to see the occasional ghost that offers something in return, like book reviews. The libraries up there in Heaven must be pretty good, but perhaps Hell’s have a better selection since that’s likely where all the burned books go. Unfortunately, the late fees are a killer. At any rate, wherever you wind up, you’re going to be there for a while. Forever, actually, so you’ll have plenty of time to peruse fine literature in between pokes with a pitchfork or harp solos. People have been mass publishing theological musings since the printing press was invented, so it pays to have some otherworldly intel on how to narrow it down to useful tomes, for as Arthur Schopenhauer observed, “the biggest library if it is in disorder is not as useful as a small but well-arranged one, so you may accumulate a vast amount of knowledge but it will be of far less value than a much smaller amount if you have not thought it over for yourself”.
Beard, J. R. (John Relly), 1800-1876. The Autobiography of Satan. London: Williams and Norgate, 1872.
Crawhall, Joseph, 1821-1896. Olde Tayles Newlye Relayted: Enryched with All Ye Ancyente Embellyshmentes. [London]: The Leadenhall press, 1883.
Cruikshank, George, 1792-1878. A Discovery Concerning Ghosts: With a Rap At the “spirit-rappers.” 2nd ed. London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1864.
Day, Clarence S. Remarkable Apparitions and Ghost-stories, Or Authentic Histories of Communications (real Or Imaginary) With the Unseen World. New York: Wilson and company, 1848.
Defoe, Daniel, 1661-1731, and Howard Maynadier. The Works of Daniel Defoe. New York: Crowell, 1903.
Drelincourt, Charles, 1595-1669, and J. Millbank. The Christian’s Defence Against the Fears of Death: With Directions How to Die Well. London: Printed for J. Davidson, 1764.
Great Ghost Stories. Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius Company, 1913.
Jarvis, T. M. Accredited Ghost Stories. London: J. Andrews, 1823.
Jones, Louis C. (Louis Clark), 1908-1990. Things That Go Bump In the Night: Illustrated by Erwin Austin. New York: Hill and Wang, 1959.
Sherlock, William, 1641-1707. A Practical Discourse Concerning Death. The sixteenth edition. London: Printed by J.R. for D. Brown, 1715.
Timbs, John, 1801-1875. Signs Before Death, And Authenticated Apparitions: In One Hundred Narratives. London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1825.
Tregortha, John. News from the Invisible World: Or, Interesting Anecdotes of the Dead. Containing a Particular Survey of the Most Remarkable and Well-authenticated Accounts of Apparitions, Ghosts, Spectres, Dreams and Visions. Burslem [England]: Printed by John Tregortha, 1813.