amus reminded us that there is just one truly philosophical problem — suicide and that judging whether life is worth living is and must always have been the fundamental question for every human being. (Camus, 1955) Up to now, students of Victorian culture have had little idea of how Victorians confronted the problem of suicide. We know that they openly mourned death and sensationalized murder, but they seem to have deeply feared suicide and to have concealed it whenever possible. Duplicitous Dr. Jekyll hides (as Mr. Hyde) and then fittingly dies a suicide's death to continue concealing his double identity. For most Victorians there was something subversive about suicide, something that demanded suppression and swift entombment.
My book sets out to air Victorian attitudes toward suicide, and my approach has been determined by the quality of available sources. Statistics of suicide, for example, have been of little use. They are virtually nonexistent for the first half of the nineteenth century and for the second half appear to be underestimates of actual numbers. Definitions of suicide vary, records from different parts of Britain are uneven in quality, and concealment was always widespread. Whenever possible, Victorians tended to interpret available statistics to reaffirm pre-existing ideas about suicide rather than revise their attitudes to conform with statistics. Although the incidence of suicide seems not to have risen considerably until near the end of the period, people chose to be alarmed that it had. Something other than facts or numbers determined what Victorians believed about self-destruction.
Almost from the beginning my subject led me into a world of mentalities, not facts, and this is where my book is based. From first to last, this is a study of what Victorians chose to believe about the taking of one's life — of what they felt and of what they wanted or needed to think. In penetrating what initially seemed a prevailing silence about suicide, I uncovered conflicting ideas and feelings. There are, of course, no generic Victorians. When I use the term Victorian, I use it bearing this in mind. The classes and sexes, for example, often viewed suicide very differently. Some Victorians realized that suicide can both entail the negation of the self and represent the ultimate in self-possession. But this very paradox was fearful since it either threatened the Victorian belief in willpower or suggested that such a belief was unchristian. Although not all Victorians understood these threats intellectually, many, [xiii/xiv] nevertheless, acted and reacted toward suicide with personal dread. In Britain, no Durkheim or Freud emerged at the end of the nineteenth century to set the record straight and interpret this dread. By the close of what we choose to call the Victorian age, suicide was felt to be something of a universal plague.
As I burrowed through Victorian documents, more and more voices began to make themselves heard. Mainly they were those of male professionals — doctors, lawyers, essayists, novelists, and poets. Sometimes, however, they were the voices of women, or children, or the working-class, or even of freaks, like John Merrick, "the Elephant Man." Because I hoped that these voices would add a new dimension to my study, I tried to listen to and include them all. And because I sought links between social and aesthetic forms, I tried to keep in mind that I was interpreting not just a text but a culture, not just a single viewpoint but multiple points of view. For this purpose traditional literary texts — which so many of us have been trained to see as high points in a culture — often came to be no more important than letters, scientific treatises, or broadsides. All helped to tell the story of suicide, some more eloquently than others. To those literary critics who may wince at the summary treatment I have given their favorite poems and novels, I can only say that I have tried to provide a new angle of vision for those works by viewing them in the light of opinion about suicide. To those historians who mistrust literary texts as fictions, I would suggest that contemporary literary criticism has much to offer history, for it has reminded us that people fictionalize their lives every day by arranging and editing their perceptions and that not only novels, but autobiographies, newspapers, and letters are fictitious. For many of the voices I have interpreted, I have attempted to read beyond the text, to decode attitudes toward the mystery that is suicide. As often as possible, however, I have let the Victorians speak in their own words and thus reveal a nineteenth- more than a twentieth-century bias.
I had set out to use traditional chronology and to bind myself to the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). But again, my materials dictated a different narrative, even as to beginning and ending. Suicide law was significantly revised in 1823, where 1 now open my account, and suicide remained illegal in England until 1961. I have ended my book somewhat arbitrarily in the late 1890s, with the close of the Victorian century, a time when many foresaw what Hardy called "the coming universal wish not to live." As we all know, the generations succeeding Hardy did not wish themselves out of existence and drift willingly toward death. Hardy and his contemporaries simply held one more set of attitudes toward self-destruction; theirs was a way of talking about the perniciousness of despair, an attempt at making desperate sense of a [xiv/xv] senseless world. Despite dire late-Victorian fears and prophecies, more than the fittest survived the cities, the fall of the empire, and even two world wars. Selves did not atomize, and divided selves were sometimes made whole. Soon after the turn of the century, the subconscious self became the side to listen to. It could even help one become freer and seem more integrated. And so my book might have gone on. We still seek to define suicide and despair.
As it stands, this study begins with the death of Castlereagh and the end of Old Europe and concludes with the death of Eleanor Marx and the dawn of the twentieth century. In each chapter I look at a set of attitudes and then follow them through time. In Chapter I, I describe how folklore about suicide flourished alongside legal verdicts and medical knowledge. Chapter II reveals how, through powerful spokespeople like Carlyle, Mill, and Nightingale, willpower became the Victorians' number one defense against self-destruction. Shifting focus, I then indicate how open discussion of suicide was unusual except in the case of the impoverished, the ill-famed, or the self-sacrificial. Otherwise, except by the medical community, suicide was dealt with mainly through displacement. The more powerful liked to think of self-destruction as the appropriate refuge or punishment for the seemingly weaker, even when evidence suggested the contrary. Middle-class men, in particular, tended to make suicide the province of other selves — of men belonging to other times or places, of make-believe monsters, or of women.
The chapters record an important drift that I believe would have been detectable by intelligent persons living in the years 1822-1898. In a recent study of death and culture, Philippe Ariès argues that changes in human attitudes toward death happen very slowly or else take place between what he calls "periods of immobility" that "span several generations and thus exceed the capacity of collective memory." (Ariès, p.xvi) Contemporaries, he suggests, do not notice such changes. I would counterargue that an English person living during the time span I have delimited could have known revolutionary changes in attitudes toward suicide. For every social class, moral and theological stands against self-destruction would weaken, while existential and social interpretations of suicide would increase, In every decade of the period, however, persistent questions about suicide would be posed: was suicide illegal? was it immoral? what kind of person committed suicide? and was the suicidal individual insane? These questions, which plagued the coroner's jurymen after Castlereagh's death in 1822, could still trouble the jury at Eleanor Marx's inquest in 1898. Answers to them were offered by men and women of every cast of mind. This book tells the story of some of those answers.
Last modified 12 May 2023