The thesis consists of two related parts: a creative dissertation excerpted from a novel project and entitled The Paper Shroud, of which 30,000 words is presented here; and a critical essay entitled The Paper Shroud: Bringing Jack Home, in which the objectives and approach of the novel is considered at length.
The creative dissertation was conceived and written as a textual monument to my great-great uncle, Jack Trewhilla Bennett, who was buried in France in September 1918 after dying from wounds he incurred during the last battle of the Somme. The title of the novel references both literal shrouds issued to German servicemen during the First World War, one of which is pivotal to the story line, and also to the way that the body of writing itself functions as a whole. The original shrouds served to isolate and preserve the remains of individual casualties, ideally ensuring accurate identification and effective containment in a temporary burial. The novel fulfils a similar role, safely preserving and interring Jack’s metaphysical remains as a known and identified part of our family narrative, thus enabling some of the traditional rituals of grief denied to Jack’s immediate family to now be completed. The novel intertwines elements of collective memory with a skeletal family history, both oral and textual, resulting in a complete, albeit fictional, story. It tracks the passage of the task of mourning Jack that was passed down through a number of generations, and the haunting effect of his almost unspoken, yet powerfully present, story, chronicling the primary way by which I began to learn the details of his death and reinforced with formal research in social history and the psychology of trauma.
The essay also analyses the way in which each shroud, both literal and figurative, can be perceived as and responded to as a collective or individual symbol of loss, and as such are able to be “located” and “returned to”—becoming sites of memorial in their own right. It also demonstrates how The Paper Shroud functions simultaneously as shroud and monument, comparing its capacities in this latter regard with those of a number of constructed monuments including other instances of literary commemoration, a carillon tower in Jack’s hometown, his actual grave, and two monuments of national significance, The Tombs of the Unknown Warrior in London, England and Wellington New Zealand. The essay draws on a theoretical literature concerned with trans-generational transmission of grief and mourning tasks, with some events that are not quite integrated by one generation being passed indirectly on to family members, often manifesting as a form of haunting. It considers the conditions by which individuals find themselves chained to a history that determines the essential conditions of their own existence. It then explores the process by which a perceived ghost can be transformed into an ancestor by using literature (and the novel form) to creating a personal narrative, thus distancing oneself from the spectre through the dual acts of containment and memorialisation.