f poverty was disgraceful to many Victorians and associated with suicide, so was an excess of money, even when generated by hard work and frugality.John Wesley had already warned the English of the dangers of wealth: "religion must necessarily produce both industry and capitalism, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger and love of the world in all its branches" (cited by Fullerton, 19). Such vices deeply troubled Victorians like John Henry Newman, who claimed not to "know any thing more dreadful than . . . that low ambition which sets every one on the look-out to succeed and to rise in life, to amass money, to gain power to depress his rivals, to triumph over his hitherto superiors, to affect a consequence and a gentility which he had not before" (Newman, 159). And such ambition, so well-defined by Newman in 1836, was still with the Victorians in 1860 whenRuskin reminded them that "there is no wealth but Life" (Works, vol. 17, p. 105). For as Victorian society became ostensibly wealthier, the accumulation of money came to be seen as more pernicious, even sinful. "The wages of sin is death," recalled many Victorians — death to those exploited by others' gain, or death by moral atrophy to those involved in the pride, anger, or excessive love of the world that Wesley had cautioned about.
Preventives for such shriveling of the soul were clearly and zealously announced by Victorian moralists and always included a strong dose of social conscience. Even Samuel Smiles, who counselled that "comfort in worldly circumstances is a condition which every man is justified in striving to attain by all worthy means (Smiles, 263), also warned that "money is power of a sort, it is true; but intelligence, public spirit and moral virtue are powers, too, and far nobler ones (289). Nonetheless, historical records and Victorian literature show countless transgressions against such public spirit, with greed and nonchalance substituted for timehonored virtues like benevolence and charity.
Newspaper writers and essayists exposed greed, while writers of fiction and poetry time and again brought fictional golden calves face to face with the dead-end of finance — killing off either their characters, those characters' fortunes, or both. Numbers of these immoral rich die by suicide, a mode of death that seemed especially appropriate to the [61/62] Victorians. Because of its illegality and its association with forfeiture, suicide was linked with godlessness and general indifference to the lives of others. In 1880 a writer for Blackwood's observed of self-destroyers that "the God who was said to prohibit suicide has ceased to be a God for them, and that suicide being no longer interdicted by any power thev respect, has become once more, in their eyes, a permissible solution for the difficulties of life" ("Suicide", Blackwoods, 133). Similarly, Mammon was felt to be increasingly substituted for the God who had interdicted the misuse of money, so that many Victorians came to think of suicide as the fitting end for those in the spell of this false god, and many Victorian writers sought to confirm this association. In literature, as in Victorian society when characterized by a writer for Chambers's, "very few instances of self-destruction occur among hard-working heads of families who have insured their lives" ("Suicide", Chambers's, 295).
Early in the era. in 1840, Thomas Hood described a more decadent family in a trenchant spoof called "Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg: A Golden Legend." Miss Kilmansegg's name alone would give away Hood's purpose: children of a gold-happy father, her family are capable of destroying the eggs of others in pursuit of their own nest egg. In fact, the whole family are goldbugs and Miss Kilmansegg, educated to be like the rest, develops an insufferable hauteur and prizes gold above all else. One day when this haughty young woman is our riding, her "very rich bay called Banker" (Hood, 212) shies at the sight of a beggar and runs away with her. Miss Kilmansegg heads for a fall, this time only a literal one. Her leg is destroyed in the accident, yet she triumphs over adversity by acquiring her precious golden leg:
So a Leg was made in a comely mould,
Of Gold, fine virgin glittering gold,
As solid as man could make it —
Solid in foot, and calf, and shank,
A prodigious sum of money it sank;
In fact 'twas a Branch of the family Bank,
And no easy matter to break it. (SP 803-09)
Pride, vanity, ostentation, insensibility — these are Miss Kiimansegg's sins; but if punishment for them is due, it is slow in coming Miss Kilmansegg dreams on, especially of the god-like veneration she feels she deserves for her goldenness. And her sins compound:
Gold, still gold-and true to the mould!
In the very scheme of her dream it told;
For, by magical transmutation,
From her Leg through her body it seem'd to go, [62/63]
Till, gold above, and gold below,
She was gold, all gold, from her little gold toe
To her organ of Veneration! (SP, 1378-84)
But Miss Kilmansegg rides for a second and fatal fall when she foolishly marries a money-seeking count who depletes her fortune and then asks to raise more money on the golden leg. Miserable in marriage, Miss Kilmansegg now spends her nights dreaming of her past with its "golden treasures and golden toys" (SP, 2319). One night as she sleeps, her leg laid to one side, the count seizes the leg, beats his wife to death, and makes off with the precious limb. The ensuing inquest over her body yields a surprising verdict:
Gold — still gold! it haunted her yet —
At the Golden Lion the Inquest met —
Its foreman, a carver and gilder —
And the Jury debated from twelve till three
What the Verdict ought to be,
And they brought it in as Felo de Se,
"Because her own Leg had killed her!" (SP, 2367-73)
Hood bathetically depicts Miss Kilmansegg's death as a suicide because her own vanity and tenacity are really what have dispatched her. She has chosen to become gold — in thought, in dream, and even in body, and when her gold goes, so does she.
Real-life coroner's juries also tended to deal harshly with the greedy, especially with shady financiers and embezzlers as was the case with John Sadleir in 1856. Sadleir, a member of Parliament and Junior Lord of the Treasury, fraudulently oversold 150,000 pounds of shares in the Royal Swedish Railway, overdrew more than 230,000 pounds from a Tipperary bank, which he managed, represented certain assets of that bank at 100,000 pounds when in fact they were 30,000, and in the end tried to raise money to cover his enormous debts by means of a forged deed. When he realized that he could not hide his fraudulent activities, he repaired to Hampstead Heath on a cold, February night, carrying prussic acid and a case of razors. The poison proved sufficient to kill him without the razors, and the next morning he was discovered stiff and cold on the Heath. The inquest into his death went on through four sessions before the verdict felo-de-se was reached. It was found that Sadleir had left intensely remorseful suicide notes reproving himself for the ruin of others:
I cannot live — 1 have ruined too many — I could not live and see their agony — I have committed diabolical crimes unknown to any human being. They will [63/64] now appear, bringing my family and others to distress — causing to all shame and grief chat they should have ever known me.
I blame no one, but attribute all to my own infamous villainy. I could go through any torture as a punishment for my crimes, No torture could be too much for such crimes, but I cannot live to see the tortures I inflict upon others. [AR, p. 35]
Hidden at first by friends who had hoped for a verdict of temporary insanity, the notes ultimately convinced the coroner's jury that Sadleir was sane. No one, their thinking went, could so clearly realize the harm that he had done to others and be intellectually impaired.
This verdict may seem harsh to us today, Sadleir's notes are touching in their sincerity and seem to call out for some sort of leniency. Yet many middle-class Victorians thought differently. As an 1852 essay on "Chagrin and Suicide" in Hogg's Instructor reveals, deep disapproval of the unrepentable act of suicide could outweigh compassionate understanding of the motive power of chagrin:
The love of approbation, which is closely connected with the love of society, is generally the strongest of our passions, and is that by which the lower passions are restrained within the limits of common decorum. It is the disappointment of this passion, or chagrin, which most frequently disposes to suicide. Man's hell is the feeling of solitude, or the dread of being despised; and, if his associates cast him out of their pale, or appear completely to excommunicate him from their sympathies, he seems as if at once possessed by Satan. Should his wounding of his proud desire deprive him of all hope of restoration to the heart of at least some one being who can love him in spite of his faults, he will rush unbidden into the darkness of another world, the apprehension of which is less terrible to him than the loneliness in which he suffers. So common is that catastrophe that it appears like the result of a natural law of the guilty mind, when unacquainted with divine truth, and unsustained by the hopeful consciousness of spiritual and eternal life. Hence heathenism and infidelity have always approved self-murder as the proper remedy for extreme vexation. [Moore, 60-61]
With Sadleir's remedy for such vexation the Victorian sense of justice seemed well-satisfied. The Standard called him the "deep, unscrupulous, scheming, intriguing John Sadleir" (p. 3, col. 3), and this kind of harsh judgment would continue in subsequent assessments of his character. In 1857 the Irish Quarterly Review opened its article on "Suicide: Its Motives and Mysteries" with these thoughts about the Sadleir case:
The most cautious never dreamed that the apparent fivourite of fortune, whose name was considered a guarantee for the success of any project, would involve establishments, undertakings, and a host of individuals, in irretrievable ruin. In almost every suicide, however abhorrent the act, there is something to elicit [64/65] a touch of sympathy — 'the scowl of an unpitying world,' may have driven a youthful aspirant to desperation — broken vows may have bereft a trusting husband of self-control, or a sudden bereavement quite upset reason — but in Sadleir's case, we can trace no higher feeling chan an inordinate thirst of gain, which stopped at nothing for its gratitication. 
In the same year the Annual Register concluded that Sadleir was "indeed a swindler on the very grandest scale, and kept up the game to the last: when his last game was played and dejection was inevitable, he committed suicide under circumstances of the utmost deliberation (AR, 242).
Sadleir's suicide did not escape the notice of two major Victorian novelists in search of objective correlatives for the dead-end of finance. Dickens's introduction to Little Dorrit (1855-57) connects the novel's Mr. Merdle with the times of "a certain Irish bank," while Trollope, in The Way We Live Now (1874-75), patterned Melmotte in part after Sadleir. Trollope altered his original intention to have Melmotte stand trial for forgery and substituted instead Melmotte's suicide. P. D. Edwards believes that the novelist did so because three of his last four novels had included trial scenes, because he needed more space to tie up loose ends that did not include Melmorte, and because in so doing he could better preserve the ambiguity that surrounds Melmotte's character (Edwards, 89-91). More significantly, I think, Trollope saw the symbolic importance of suicide to the theme of The Way We Live Now. Melmotte is a swindler of vast proportions, but he is not Trollope's only character engaged in fraud or living on scrip. Lady Carbury's books are in their own way frauds, and the members of the Beargarden club use worthless I.O.U.s as the basis for endless gambling. Melmotte is simply fraud on its grandest and most unrepentant scale and becomes an example to others in his world. His self-murder through an overdose of prussic acid serves as the climax to Trollope's novel, for it indicates the inherent self-destructiveness in the way we live now. The chapter-long inquest that replaces the once-projected trial scene stresses the deliberateness of Melmotte's actions and reinforces an earlier passage in which Melmotte "told himself over and over again that the fault had been not in circumstances, nor in that which men call Fortune — but in his own incapacity to bear his position" (Trollope, 657). In Trollope's final version of the novel, Melmotte is self-tried, self-condemned, self-executed, and subsequently pronounced by others to have been felo-de-se:
But let a Melmotte be found dead, with a bottle of prussic acid by his side — a man who has become horrid to the world because of his late iniquities, a man who has so well pretended to be rich that he has been able to buy and to sell properties without paying for them, a wretch who has made himself odious by [65/66] his ruin to friends who had taken him up as a pillar of strength in regard to wealth, a brute who had got into the House of Commons by false pretences, and had disgraced the House by being drunk there, — and, of course, he will not be saved by a verdict of insanity from the cross roads, or whatever scornful grave may be allowed to those who have killed themselves with their wits about them just at this moment there was a very strong feeling against Melmotte...and the virtue of the day vindicated itself by declaring him to have been responsible for his actions when he took the poison. He was felo-de-se, and therefore carried away to the cross roads — or elsewhere. [WWLN, 710]
After Melmotte dies, the world of The Way We Live Now alters. The Beargarden folds, Lady Carbury gives up writing and remarries, and Ruby Ruggles and honest John Crumb, who themselves have each threatened suicide when blindly in love, now find reality in each other. In one character's estimation, Melmotte is reduced to the dimensions of the proverbial exploded frog, " 'E bursted himself, Mr. Frisker. 'E vas a great man but the greater he grew he vas always less and less vise" (WWLN, 789). It is as though a pernicious growth has ruptured and then wholly disappeared from the vitals of a society now free quickly to repair its surrounding cells.
Mr. Merdle's suicide in Little Dorrit
Mr. Merdle's suicide in Little Dorrit has quite a different effect on the unravelling of Dickens's novel. like Melmotte, Merdle is of unknown origin, is courted and even idolized by members of his society, and perpetrares fraud on the grandest scale. But there is no inquest depicted in Dickens's story because Merdle is self-condemned not only in the end of the novel but from the very beginning. He is a retiring man, almost afmid of the society that courts him because of his reputed wealth. He tucks his hands inside his coat cuffs, trying to withdraw into his clothes, and sometimes clasps his wrists as though taking himself into custody for a crime only he knows. He also suffers from some unknown "complaint" chat early in the story merits an entire chapter. It is, Metdle's doctor tells us, "a deep-seated recondite complaint" (Dickens, 1969; p. 236) that does not ease from day to dav. Dickens further hints of suicidal tendencies in his physical descriptions of Merdle, including a hand-to-head gesture that recalls Sadleir's last days and "black traces on his lips where they met, as if a little train of gunpowder had been fired there" (LD, 577).
These descriptions occur when Mr. Dorrit, newly possessed of a fortune after years of debtorship, is about to invest with Mr. Merdle. For Dorrit, however, as for Merdle and indeed for all the characters of the novel, money becomes associated with death. Wealthy but entirely out of place, Dorrit will eventually die in Italy, babbling of the lost days when he was king of debtors, "Father of the Marshalsea." In yet another important scene, Arthur Clerinarn goes to visit his mother, who embodies [66/67] puritanical zeal and grim money-grubbing at its worst, and finds only emblems of death and suicide. On his way to her fallen-down house he passes "silent warehouses and wharves, and here and there a narrow alley leading to the river, where a wretched little bill, FOUND DROWNED, was weeping on the wet wall" (LD, 29). In the house itself are Mrs. Clennam, like Life-in-Death, and her partner, flintwinch, who has "a weird appearance of having hanged himself at one time or other, and of having gone about ever since, halter and all, exactly as some timely hand had cut him down" (LD, 34). Both Mrs. Clenruim and Flintwinch have given up life for money, as Clennam himself will have to give up money for life.
And here too is where Dickens's denouement differs from Trollope's. Merdle, like Melmotte, proves to have been a man of no substance; like Sadleir's, his complaint is related to fraud and forgery, But whereas an almost illusory Melmotte vanishes when his bubble is burst, and departs from a world that subsequently rights itself, Mr. Merdle leaves a long trail of very perceptible destruction in his wake:
The inquest was over, the letter was public, the Bank was broken, the other model structures of straw had taken fire and were turned to smoke. The admired piratical ship had blown up, in the midst of a vast fleet of ships of all rates, and boats of all sizes; and on the deep was nothing but ruin: nothing but burning hulls, bunting magazines, great guns self-exploded tearing friends and neighbours to pieces, drowning men clinging to unseaworthy spars and going down every minute, spent swimmers, floating dead, and sharks. (LD, 671)
Clennam also is swamped and will suffer deeply, becoming ill in both body and spirit, almost as Merdle did. Only the love of Little Dorrit restores Dickens's hero to health, sanity, and relative unconcern over money. Amy Dorrir is, however, unique in Dickens's novel, the only character "unspoiled by Fortune" (LD, 7 13). The whole of Little Dorrit gives the sense of a far bleaker world than does The Way We Live Now, for all of Trollope's worldly wisdom in that book. Near the end of Little Dorrit, a minor character warns Clennam and us that the next man after Merdle "who has as large a capacity and as genuine a taste for swindling will succeed as well" (LD, 697). Greed, fraud and idolatry, Dickens implies, will continue to reap a grim harvest of death.
W. S. Gilbert's Bab Ballads
A different slant on the Victorian association of money with suicide occurs in the Bab Ballads, where W. S. Gilbert reprints an amusing little poem about a wealthy sugar broker who meets a sorry end. This bloated figure of fun is allied to what the Victorians called "balloon kings," people like Melmotte and the real-lifeGeorge Hudson, the railway [67/68] baron. Such men were considered so overinflated chat their fall from fortune was often metaphorically and pictorially represented as deflation followed by a rapid plunge to earth. The Victorians were of several minds about these men. Though a cartoon in Diogenes in 1853 depicts and derides a corpulent Hudson plummeting downward like a great Humpty Dumpty, Hudson's eventual obituary years afterward in the Times of 1871 would still admire his pluck, long after he had been discovered in profiteering and brought to ruin and exile. Still later, Carlyle would side with the illustrator for Diogenes and rail at those who would dare think to erect a monument to this "gambler swollen big" (Carlyle, 262) Gilbert's broker, on the other hand, is a benign little "balloon king," miserable with his fat. His friends look on in amazement and comment on his frantically unsuccessful attempts to dance the fat away:
"Your riches know no kind of pause,
Your trade is fast advancing,
You dance — but not for joy, because
You weep as you are dancing.
To dance implies that man is glad,
To weep implies that man is sad.
But here are you
Who do the two — You weep as you are dancing!"
The fat, of course, signifies his wealth, but the broker himself never realizes that he cannot shed the fat without shedding riches.
This lachrymose, fast-paced broker suffers from two related diseases of the Victorian world: he is discontented with his lot, and he is obsessed with ceaseless activity. In the late nineteenth century, both of these maladies were thought to lead to suicide. S.A.K. Strahan, author of Suicide and Insanity, directly linked self-destruction to the Victorian pace of life (Strahan, 83). And Emile Durkheirus famous work, Le Suicide, described how compulsive activity could derive from unfulfilled or unquenchable desires and cause one type of "anomic" suicide:
...demands make fulfillment impossible. Overweening ambition always exceeds the results obtained, great as they may be, since there is no warning to pause here. Nothing gives out appeasement. Above all, since this race for an unattainable goal can give no other pleasure but that of the race itself...once it is interrupted the participants are left empty-handed...Effort grows, just when it becomes less productive. How could the desire to live not be weakened under such conditions?" (Durkheim, 253).
Like an anomic suicide, Gilbert's broker is involved in a dance of death. Eventually his mania for dancing runs away with him until at last: [68/69]
Upon his shapeless back he lay
And kicked away like winking,
Instead of seeing in his state
The finger of unswerving Face,
He laboured still
To work his will,
And kicked away like winking. (BB, 133)
The poor little broker, fattened perhaps by his own sugar and surely by his riches, winds up a kind of inverted turtle. In Gilbert's accompanying sketch, he certainly looks a very dead one as well. Here Gilbert confronts not so much greed or dishonesty, but excess, self-delusion, futile reliance on willpower, and the tendency to overdo that marked so many of his contemporaries.
The broker's probable death is absurd and amusing, whereas Merdie's death is both pathetic and dangerous to others. But none of the suicides that I have so far discussed in this chapter is in any way tragic. Their stories are admonitory, Sadleir's true-life tale as reported by the Victorian press as much as the four wholly fictive accounts. The morals of the stories overshadow the fates of the people involved. They warn of the excesses of the rich their enormous potential for ostentation, their hollowness and callousness, their pointless obsessions. They signal the dangers of a society whose members become indifferent to immorality through idolatry. They deplore a world that has forgotten noblesse oblige. Merdle's "chief Butler" remarks of his employer's suicide that since Merdle was no gentleman, "no ungentlemanly act on his part" (LD, 667) surprises him. And they warn, finally, of the godlessness of those wealthy who operate unhampered by social conscience. One of Sadleir's suicide notes shows that even he saw himself as so "wicked" that his prayers must be of no avail. Thus all of these people reach the dead end of finance by failing to acknowledge that "there is no wealth but Life." Their deaths would have seemed especially just to their contemporaries. Lawless, ruthless, or immoderate, all these once-monied ruins would, in being self-murdered, have seemed suitably self-judged.
Honorable and Dishonorable Suicide
Men like Sadleir attempted in lessen dishonor by doing what seemed to them the honorable thing, but their lives and deaths remained disgraceful. Victorian society was harsh in its judgments of men who were pronounced felo-de-se, placing them among its least redeemable members. Strahan quotes Richard II (I i.), "Mine honour is my life, both grow in one: Take honour from me and my life is done," as a sentiment applying only to an initially virtuous person. Conscientious Victorians, he insists, "inquire into the facts of a case, which proceeding too often robs the dishonoured one of all right to pose as a martyr, and shows [69/70] some gravely immoral or illegal course deliberately entered upon is the real cause of the disaster" ( Strahan, 58) On the other hand, there was such a phenomenon as "the honourable thing" in Victorian England, and it corresponded to what both Savage and Durkheim would call "altruistic" suicide. (See ch. 1, p. 27 of this study and Durkheim, ch. 4). Knowingly to die for others — because of military, religious, political or personal commirment — could be a pathway to heroism. Strahan refers to this type of death as the highest form of what he calls "rational, or quasi suicide," and makes it the polar opposite of a death like Sadleir's:
To give up life is the greatest sacrifice man can make, and when that sacrifice is made without hope of gain or reward, in order that others may escape some terrible calamity which nothing else can avert, then, if the sacrifice be at all justifiable, the act is the grandest and noblest of which fallen man is capable (Strahan, 41).
In 1885 physician William Wynn Westcott summarized public opinion on ignoble and noble suicide by observing that "in some cases self-destruction is contemptible and cowardly; in some it is venial; in some cases death is distinctly the lesser evil, in a few it has been honourable, and as such should escape all condemnation, and merit the approval of men of development and refinement," (Westcott, 5) Earlier, Charlotte Brontë had discriminated similarly in Jane Eyre. Jane's cousin, John Reed, is a cruel dissolute who wantonly takes his own life; while her other male cousin, St. John Rivers, works himself to death for the sake of others, dying as a martyred missionary in India. For this Brontë rewards him both with a final call from Jesus and the closure of her novel. Today our sympathies probably lie rather with the heroism of the scrappy, living Jane than with the martyrdom of St. John, but Victorians responded with empathy toward St. John. If for them the more typical use of willpower was to defend the self and maintain the integrity of one's own life, there were occasions when exercising the will to lose life was utterly praiseworthy. Heroic self-sacrifice was the one form of romantic suicide still acceptable to most Victorians.
A Tale of Two Cities
Ever popular and always discerning when it came to the moral judgments of his readers, Dickens humored this Victorian predilection toward self-sacrifice in his Tale of Two Cities (1859). There is little doubt that Sydney Carton does a "far better thing" at the end of that novel than he had ever done before. Nor was contemporary response to Carton ambivalent. The daily papers, which saw flaws in the novel's plot and in its comic characters, praised the characterization of Carton. The Morning Post (21 December 1859) fennel Carton "the finest and most finished portrait which Dickens had ever executed," and the Morning Star (24 December) called him "one of the finest conceptions in the [70/71] whole range of fiction" ( Tucker, 10) Here one finds no note of condemnation for suicide as there had been in the papers following Sadleir's true-life suicide three years earlier. In Victorian eyes, Carton's death seemed to redeem a misspent and virtually wasted life, and Dickens's characterization seemed artficially to offer that redemption. Carton, hardly a Christ-like figure in life, dies a Christ-like death for the sake of others.
Carton's life up until his decision to die is in many ways more suicidal than his actual death. He drinks heavily and pities himself yet more heavily. "I am a disappointed drudge. I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me," (Dickens, 115) he tells Charles Darnay, his look-alike and rival for the heart of Lucie Manette. He also sees himself as consistently depressed, a stand-in in life — virtually dead: "like one who died young. All my life might have been" (TTC, 180). Dickens's narrator pities this lost creature, a man "incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away" (TTC, 122). Carton has paralyzed his own will, and tedium vitae now has him fully in its grip.
But in this book filled with resurrection men and resurrection imagery, there is hope even for the deadened Carton. At first Lucie, whose name suggests as much, offers that light; then the prospect of personal sacrifice for Lucie lights Carron's way. All this is reinforced by Carton's recollection of the burial service for his father: "he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." Carton makes a turn-around, if not a dramatic conversion. He begins to value life, to leave off drink, and to walk with a more "settled step" (TTC, 367). He is, of course, on his way to the guillotine, and his behavior is characteristic both of the determined suicide, whose last days or hours are often marked by energy, and of a determined Victorian, whose life should be guided by willpower. When he confronts Darnay in the cell and begins to effect an exchange of clothes and places, Darnay finds his plan "madness," but the narrator discerns in Carton a "wonderful quickness...a strength both of will and action, that appeared quire supernatural" (TTC, 380) Carton discovers life through death.
Carton's self-sacrifice has certainly intrigued twentieth-century literary commentators. Recently, John Kucich called it a victory over Darnay as rival. In Lucie's eyes Darnay will never be able to displace Carton's willing and complete sacrifice of self for others. Because of this "tension of the rivalry," Kucich believes that Carton's sacrifice is redeemed from seeming a "savage, suicidal waste" ( Kucich, 119) Even more recently, Garrett Stewart has gone further and has found in Carton's "fictional death by proxy" a "displacement of fatality for the reader as well as Darnay," (Stewart, 97) and so it is. Yet most nineteenth-century readers would have [71/72] been more concerned with the simpler, Christian message of the self-sacrifice. Carton dies that the Darnays might have life, and have it more abundantly. He, rather than Lucie, becomes a beacon of hope for a family, a France, and an England to come. Like Christ's, his final vision is prophecy.
The vision is also a triumph over Victorian disease — both as fear (of revolution, cruelty, tyranny) and as tedium vitae. Carron's self-sacrifice involves self-healing, a Victorian preoccupation that pervades the book. For example, after Doctor Manette is "recalled to life," the Doctor lapses in and out of a "malady" that demonstrates how deeply he has been marked by his confinement. Miss Pross intuits that "not knowing how he lost himself, nor how he recovered himself, be may never feel certain of not losing himself again" (TTC, 128), and she proves correct. Later Mr. Lorry speaks to Manette about Manette, trying to get him to diagnose his own malady by thinking of it as a disease affecting some other, fictitious person. Only then does Manette sense the insecurity at the root of his relapses into the silence and shoemaking of his prison days, and only then does he hope to forestall further such relapses. Up to this point, it has been impossible for him to realize that his has been a case in need of self-help — of physician, heal thyself. On the other hand, Carton's diseases — depression, overindulgence, and tedium vitae — appear to be more incurable than Manette's relapses. Even Lucie fears that "he is not to be reclaimed; there is scarcely a hope that anything in his character or fortunes is reparable now" (TTC, 238). Still Carton does heal himself by losing himself, and Dickens fully sanctions — almost sanctifies — his behavior.
Matthew Lovat, the Shoemaker as Would-Be Crucified Christ
The attempted crucifixion of Matthew Lovat, frontispiece, Forbes Winslow's Anatomy of Suicide (1840). Click on image to obtain a larger picture, which takes longer to download.
Despite Victorian love of martyred characters like Carton, excesses in martyrdom, as in the case of Matthew Lovat. shocked even the Victorians. Lovat's extraordinary case surfaced again and again in Victorian studies of suicide (Winslow, 254 ff). Lovat was an Italian shoemaker, a young man subject to attacks of gloominess but initially sane. Much taken by religious exercises, on the day of the feast of his namesake, St. Matthew, Lovat attempted to crucify himself. He constructed a cross from the wood of his bed and proceeded to nail himself to it. Stopped as he was about to pound a nail into his left foot, he ostensibly left off his attempt, Secretly, however, he garnered ropes and more nails, and fashioned himself a crown of thorns. Three years later, in 1805, he tried again. This time he built an amazing contraption for his intended crucifixion. He made a net to hold his cross, and affixed brackets to the cross for his feet. He then stripped naked, placed the cross horizontally on his floor, sat on it, nailed down his right hand and two feet, and slit his side with a knife. Finally, he slid the entire contraption out of the window, himself [72/73-74] included, and hung suspended from the window-frame in plain view of the people in his street. Rescued, he was reported to have exclaimed, "The pride of man must be mortified; it must expire on the cross!" (Winslow, 333). For early Victorian commentators like Winslow, Lovat's religious melancholia was grisly, fanatical, and incurable. After Lovat's body was healed, remarked Winslow, "his mind retained until his death the same melancholy caste, although he never had another opportunity of putting his sanguinary project into execution" (333) Lovat's attempt seemed like a sick echo of Christianity, but certainly no self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
As the nineteenth century progressed, the Victorians found not only fewer deaths worthy to be called martyrdom but fewer commitments worth willfully dying for. Love and war, for example, seemed more complicated and uncertain, less worthy of self-sacrifice than they once had. Tennyson depicted this uncertainty inMaud(1855), when he drew the portrait of a man crazed by dishonor, love, and the need for selfsacrifice. The poem is framed by the two kinds of suicide represented in Jane Eyre and in this chapter — selfish self-termination and willing self-sacrifice. The narrator's father appears to have died from a deliberate leap taken as the result of a financial failure:
Did he fling himself down? who knows? for a vast speculation had fail'd,
And ever he mutter'd and madden'd, and ever wann'd with despair,
And out he walk'd when the wind like a broken worldling wail'd,
And the flying gold of the ruin'd woodlands drove thro' the air. [Tennyson, 1.9-12]
In the wake of this golden shower of despair, the father has left a broken-hearted widow and a bitter son who says he believes that "sooner or later I too may passively take the print / Of the golden age — why not?" (PT, I. 29-30). For the son, the world is pervaded with inescapable mammonism, cheating and death. Yet for him redemption also seems possible, through war and a more honorable kind of suicide — military self-sacrifice.
Maud too believes in patriotism and bravery, and sings of "Honour that cannot die" (PT, I. 177). Smitten with her words as with the young woman herself, the narrator longs for a man to arise in him "that the man I am may cease to be" (PT, I. 397). In one sense he is saying what all prospective lovers wish to say: "May I be worthy of my love." But in another sense he is simply confirming a suicidal bent and his need for the courage to die. This man does not separate love from death because he holds Maud's family responsible for his father's ruin. Nevertheless, for awhile he deludes himself into believing that love will provide him with the needed loss of self. Only after he kills Maud's brother [74/75] in a duel does his original motive again surface: to redeem dishonorable suicide and now murder — through deliberate self-sacrifice.
In the interval between the duel and the poem's conclusion, the narrator endures utter abasement in Tennyson's brilliant madhouse scene:
Dead, long dead,
And my heart is a handful of dust
And the wheels go over my head,
And my bones are shaken with pain,
For into a shallow grave they are thrust,
Only a yard beneath the street,
And the hoofs of the horses beat, beat,
The hoofs of the horses beat,
Bear into my scalp and my brain,
With never an end to the stream of passing feet,
Driving, hurrying, marrying, burying,
Clamor and rumble, and ringing and clatter;
And here beneath it is all as bad,
For I thought the dead had peace, but it is not so. [PT, 2. 239-53]
What this narrator imagines is the ignominious burial of a suicide at a cross-roads and thus another disgraceful death in his family, but what he had wanted was quite the opposite a worthwhile displacement of self unlike his father's surrender to adversity. Tennyson provides him with this and with relief from mad-cells only in the last part of the poem. The winds of the Crimean war wake him "to the higher aims / Of a land that has lost for a little her lust of gold" (PT, 3. 38-39) and offer the finai opportunity for "making of splendid names" (PT, 3. 47). In the poem's famous conclusion, the narrator goes forth to embrace his "doom assign'd" (PT, 3. 59).
Although such an ending ostensibly offers an opportunity for heroism, the last part of Maud is problematical. In the first place, Tennyson's narrator is unbalanced, throughout the poem incapable of altruism because of his neurotic self-obsession. He swings from hiding and self-abnegation to violent outbursts of passion. Both in his love for Maud and in his hatred of her brother, he ignores Maud's feelings and seems incapable of selflessness of any sort. Secondly, war was itself problematical in 1855. The blunder at Balaclava in October of 1854, with the loss of the Light Brigade, was still fresh in the public's mind.Gladstone faulted Tennyson for offering a bungled and increasingly unpopularCrimean war as a last resort for youthful disillusion and despair. Yet Tennyson was of two minds about Crimea. His "Charge of the Light Brigade" was published along with Maud and held both praise [75/76] for the heroic six hundred and the clear message that "some one had blundered" (PT, 1035). Tennyson had hardly overlooked the blindness, in-fighting, and inexperience of the command at Balaclava, but he, like the lookers-on that day, was taken with the picture of a perfectly outfitted, perfectly discipined young cavalry brigade meeting death in utter order, closing ranks whenever a horse or rider dropped. In publishing his two poems together, Tennyson left undefined the "doom assigned" the narrator of Maud. Like the Light Brigade, that young man might die heroically; on the other hand, his death might be ironic waste rather than patriotic self-sacrifice.
Despite the laureate's ambivalent stance on Crimea, his "Charge" itself drew fire from those trying to reduce the suicide rate. Late in the century, Strahan believed that the poem "breathes exactly the same barbaric spirit and contempt for death as did the wild chants of the Sea Kings" ( Strahan, 24) Earlier, reform movements trying to end privilege in the buying of commands had stimulated public interest in paintings like Elizabeth Thompson's (later Lady Butler) Balaclava (1876) and The Roll Call (1874). Balaclava depicts privates and noncommissioned officers on the battlefield (Lalumia, 25-51). The Roll Call shows broken and wounded Grenadier Guards at muster, standing in line with one soldier fainting dead in the snow. In both paintings, the callousness and folly of the command are implicit, the focus on common soldiery explicit. Strahan and Thompson did not, however, speak for the many who treasured poems and stories in which such military contempt for death was extolled. There were scores of much-loved ballads that lauded "acts of suicide, in obedience either to orders or to the standing orders of duty and love of country" (Bratton, 68). If many of these poems featured Crimea, it was because the English favored tales about success won over and against heavy odds, and Alma and Inkerman as well as Balaclava offered examples of such bravery. In these ballads about war, the incompetence of the command was usually ignored unless it served as a contrast to the bravery of the common man. Those who were cannon fodder needed desperately to believe in heroic self-sacrifice:
"For victory! — no, all hope is gone; for life —
let that go too;
But for the Colours still work on — the chance
is left with you." (Langbridge, 184)
These are the words of a colonel, soon to be left behind in safety, in Sir Francis Doyle's popular "The Saving of the Colours (Tedium vitae is a subject favored by many of the Victorian commentators on suicide. See, for instance, Forbes Winslow's The Anatomy of Suicide (London: Henry Renshaw, 1840), chs. 4 and 8. January, 1879)." The colonel speaks to two commoners, Coghill and Melvill, who will obey, help save the colors, and die. [76/77]
Ouida's Under Two Flags
Such willing deaths under fire certainly gained readers for novelists in Victorian England, as Ouida knew. Her Under Two Flags (1867) describes not one but two heroic self-sacrifices, both of lower-class lives lost for one relatively undeserving aristocrat, the Honourable Berrie Cecil, second son of a Viscount and officer of the guards. Handsome Berrie, the "Beauty of the Brigades," is a chaser of women and a racer of horses who eventually winds up in the French army in North Africa. Valiant as well as handsome, Berrie has already inspired the devotion of an anonymous soldier who in battle impales himself on a sword meant for Berrie. The aristocrat saw "the black, wistful eyes of the Enfant de Paris look upward to him once, with love, and fealty, and unspeakable sweetness gleaming through their darkened sight" ( De la Ramée, 401-402). The possessor of another pair of black eyes, Cigarette, will again save Berrie from certain death nearer the story's end. A young street girl who follows Berrie's regiment, Cigarette is madly and unrequitedly in love with Berrie. She hates the "idle rich" who live from the sweat of workers but is imbued with great personal loyalty to her imagined lover. When she hears of Berrie's impending execution, she wins a reprieve for him through influence with the Marshal and rides hard for eight hours, arriving just in time to stop the bullet meant for Berrie with her own body. Like the Enfant de Paris, Cigarette has proven her self-worth by being fit to serve and loyal to the death; she has fully redeemed her former immorality and has saved herself from becoming an aging camp-follower in the bargain. Among her last words are: "I am only a little trooper who has saved my comrade" (UTF, 597). Her white gravestone is carved with a sentimental inscription "on which the Arab sun streamed as with a martyr's glory, "CIGARETTE ENFANT DE L'ARMEE, SOLDAT DE LA FRANCE" (UTF, 601). The colors of course fly over her grave.
Like Dickens's, Ouida's brand of melodrama sold books. In less than ten years, from the inception of her literary career in 1859 to the publication of Under Two Flags in 1867, Ouida wrote five three-decker novels and a book of short stories. From their proceeds she was able to support herself, her mother, and her grandmother in grand style. By the 1870s, Ouida was earning five thousand pounds a year and was widely read by both women and men. Originally Under Two Flags was published in a military periodical, and during its release Ouida became the toast of military parties. As one might conjecture, the melodrama of Ouida's heroic suicides is not unrelated to the melodrama of the deaths of other unfortunates. In the Enfant de Paris's and in Cigarette's sacrifices there is the same focus on passivity and powerlessness that we saw in domestic melodrama. Anonymous common men and fallen women gain statute by showing up the moral indifference of the powerful. [77/78] Here too we can detect the enactment of the childish fantasy that our parents or our perceived "betters" will only truly appreciate us after we die. Ouida's fictional representation of this fantasy appealed to females who sought the moral superiority of women over men in the substitution of an heroic woman for the more conventional mate military hero.
If both in fiction and in fact the lower orders died so that others might live, their military superiors nonetheless basked in their glory. Lord Cardigan, who rode at the head of his Light Brigade through the Valley of Death in October Of 1854, landed to a hero's welcome at Dover the following January. Self-sacrificial bravery transferred to the military elite, but it also helped exacerbate a serious problem involving officers: self-destruction off the field. In the two decades following Crimea, statisticians turned with fascination to the question of high rates of suicide among the military, especially among the elite corps and officers. Between 1862 and 1871, civilian rates of death by suicide for males aged twenty to forty-five were less than one third those of the prevailing rate in the army. (Data here are drawn from Millar, 187-192). Counted among the reasons for the frequency of suicide in the armed forces were free access to firearms, a cheapened sense of life's value because of training in killing, ennui and a sense of lost opportunities for personal self-sacrifice. As one medical man, a Dr. Mouat, put it, having fewer means of killing others or of killing time, soldiers "took to killing themselves instead." (As quoted in Millar, 191. Mouat's remark represents his response to Millar's paper). Mouat took care to point out that in the army suicides were far more frequent after than before or during a campaign, and related observations were made about naval officers, especially captains. Sir James Anderson, another expert on military suicide, noticed that most naval suicides "occurred at the end of voyages; they happened very seldom where even the ordinary amount of the duties of a captain on a long voyage required attention from him" ( As quoted in Millar, 192; also in response to Millar).
Retirement from active service had a similar effect. With their last voyage over and done with, men like Robert FitzRoy, the famous captain of H.M.S. Beagle, suffered deeply from a sense of futility and hopelessness. By the 1860s FitzRoy, then an admiral, could not get comfortable at home. He felt extremely tired, both physically and emotionally. All his life the Beagle's captain had been a perfectionist, but a perfectionist with a purpose: accurate surveying of the South American coastline, or painstaking preservation of other lives and property, or proper exercise of a deeply felt noblesse oblige, or scrupulous presentation of orthodox religious beliefs, or careful working out of a system of storm warnings. Into his retirement FitzRoy carried an intolerance for sloppiness, insubordination, or folly of any kind along [78/79] with a continuing need to prove his noblesse, but alas he had no command. Finally he arrived at a state of irreconcilable contradiction and utter depression.
Darwin had seen FitzRoy like this years before, in 1834 on the Beagle when the English naturalist described him as "thin and unwell accompanied by a morbid depression of spirits, and a loss of all decision and resolution" (See Mellersh, 135). At such times FitzRoy was known to brood over the suicides of two important predecessors — the previous captain of the Beagle and his own uncle, Viscount Castlereagh. He was also known at such times to plunge himself even more deeply into work, an intended cure that sometimes led him to the verge of collapse. During FitzRoy's younger years, periods of depression usually preceded recovery followed by new energy and new responsibility. But the end of FitzRoy's life was different. The two projects that took so much of his energy late in life — opposing Darwin's evolutionary theories and working out a system of weather forecasting that he hoped would save lives at sea-were both going badly. By the 1860s, Darwin's theories were gaining credence and FitzRoy's new Weather Book was being attacked by the scientific community as prophetic and empirical rather than accurate and factual. FitzRoy fought back with characteristic intensity until he fell into one of his depressions, the last of his life. On 30 April 1865, very like his famous uncle some forty years earlier, Robert FitzRoy went into his dressing room, took up his razor, and cut his throat. Driven by a sense of honor, worried over his wife's concern about him, and seemingly defeated, FitzRoy appears to have opted for what he must have felt was "the honourabIe thing."
Conrad's Lord Jim
Like FitzRov's navv, the mercantile marine had a high frequency of suicides, which Sir James Anderson (1874) again attributed to post-voyage let-down, tedium vitae, and to the enforced separation of the captain (as "gentleman") from most others in a confined space. Deaths like these would also be numbered among the intriguing subjects ofJoseph Conrad's fiction. Lord Jim (1899) revolves largely around the question of when merchant mariners die willingly, when they save themselves, and when they die sacrificially. One of the great enigmas of the book is Captain Brierly of the "crack ship of the Blue Star line (Conrad, 48). At age thirty-two, Brierly has one of the top commands in the East and is a hero. He "had saved lives at sea, had rescued ships in distress, had a gold chronometer . . . and a pair of binoculars with a suitable inscription from some foreign Government, in commemoration of these services" (LJ, 49). He was also one of two captains officially called upon to assess the Patna situation in which Jim is implicated. The inquiry must look into the motives for Jim's abandoning his badly damaged ship and joining [79/80] his captain and fellow officers in a lifeboat. Clearly, Brierly is disturbed by Jim's behavior both during the Patna incident and at the inquiry. Throughout the questioning, Jim is overeager to take blame and face the issues with zealous courage, attitudes that narrator Marlow distinctly admires. Brierly, on the other hand, sympathizes with Jim but dislikes the blame-taking and thinks that Jim is a patsy for his renegade captain and should "creep twenty feet underground and stay there" (LJ, 55) rather than expose himself to further humiliation.
Ironically, Brierly is the one who commits suicide, jumping overboard only a week after the inquiry and only a few days out of port. He simply asks one of his men to confine his dog for awhile, sets and oils his log, carefully hangs his gold chronometer under the rail, hoists himself overboard, and sinks — his pockets weighted with iron belaying pins. His death comes as a total shock and mystery to his mate, Jones. Seemingly a complacent man and certainly another perfectionist and a successful man, Brierly appears to Jones to be ideally suited to live, not to die. But Marlow hints that what Brierly has learned from watching Jim is that at some point anyone can fail in courage or in perfection — is only a matter of time. A surrogate self for Jim, in one sense Brierly simply quits while he is ahead. Possibly he falls victim to fulfilled ambition, a condition that Anderson felt lethal to youthful captains. He seems to have no higher rungs to climb on the ladder of seamanship, nowhere to go but down — into the sea itself.
Jim, on the other hand, jumps into the sea to live and must spend the rest of his days proving his life worth having. Unlike Brierly, who is a gentleman captain, Jim fights to earn his title "Tuan" ("Lord") and to preserve it. Early in the novel he thinks of himself as so many of Tennyson's contemporaries had thought of the men of the Light Brigade: he would never break rank. Marlow confirms Jim's self-image with his own insights: "He was outwardly so typical of that good, stupid kind we like to feel marching right and left of us in life...the kind of fellow you would, on the strength of his looks, leave in charge of the deck" (LJ, 39). If so, you would be in trouble, for both Jim's self-image and Marlow's assumptions prove mistaken — or so the Patna incident seems to indicate. Conrad causes both Jim and his storyteller to revise early impressions of Jim, but not wholly.
For the deeper mystery inherent in Conrad's look at suicide in this book lies in Jim's life after Patna and in his death. The second great leap of Jim's life is to Patusan where he goes to try to live anew in a faraway land. "Romantic," according to those who know him, and determined as well, Jim has not only assumed leadership of a group of natives but has gained their total assent and confidence. His reciprocal good [80/81] faith he hopes will make him "in his own eyes the equal of the impeccable men who never fall out of the ranks" (IJ, 296). Inevitably, the test comes. When a white interloper enters Jim's world and murders one of Jim's most trusted native companions, Jim in turn permits himself to be executed by the murder-victim's father, another willing self-sacrifice.
How one reads this action determines how one reads Conrad's novel. Early in Lord Jim, Jim, a minister's son, wishes to be "an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book" (LJ, 3). Is this final action then heroic and sufficient to redeem the lack of heroics during the Patna incident? Jim's eyes send a powerful and brave look toward the natives facing him at his death, but Marlow presents points of view that counter the glory of that look. "It may very well be," says Marlow, "that in the short moment of his last proud and unflinching glance, he had beheld the face of that opportunity which, like an Eastern bride, had come veiled to his side" (LJ, 312). On the other hand, one of Marlow's correspondents has contended that
"giving your life up to them" (them meaning all of mankind with skins brown, yellow, or black in colour) "was like selling your soul to a brute." You contended that "that kind of thing" [my italics] was only endurable and enduring when based on a firm conviction in the truth of ideas racially out own, in whose name are established the order, the morality of an ethical progress. "We want its strength at our backs," you had said, "We want a belief in its necessity and its justice, to make a worthy and conscious sacrifice of our lives. Without it the sacrifice is only forgetfulness, the way of offering is no better than the way to perdition." In other words, you maintained that we must fight in the ranks or our lives don't count. (LJ, 254)
And Marlow himself views Jim as leaving "a living woman to celebrate his pitiless wedding with a shadowy ideal of conduct," possibly of "exalted egotism" (LJ, 312). At the turn of the nineteenth century, it was not easy for Conrad to suggest, nor for his readers to assume, an unironic self-sacrifice of this sort. Jim's possibly heroic death is shrouded in a haze of doubt.
Last modified 12 May 2023