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Victorian Suicide

Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories

Barbara T. Gates
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Victorian Suicide
    Book Description:

    When Viscount Castlereagh, leader of the House of Commons and architect of the Grand Alliance, committed suicide in 1822, the coroner's inquest could consider only two legal verdicts: insanity or self-murder. Public outrage greeted his burial in Westminster Abbey; the tradition lingered that a suicide's burial place be at a crossroads, with a stake through the heart to keep the lost soul from wandering. Probing a remarkable variety of sources and individual cases, Barbara Gates shows how attitudes toward suicide changed between Castlereagh's death and the end of the century. By 1900 the Victorians' moral censure of suicide and the accompanying denial that it was a widespread problem had been replaced by a more compassionate response--and also by an unfounded belief in a "suicide epidemic," which Thomas Hardy described as a "coming universal wish not to live.".

    Exposing a rich area of interaction between history and literature, and utilizing the methodology of the new historicism, Gates discusses topics ranging from the plot for Wuthering Heights to Victorian shilling shockers. Among other findings she includes evidence that Victorian middle-class men, particularly, tended to make suicide the province of other selves--of men belonging to other times or places, of "monsters," or of women.

    Originally published in 1988.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5956-6
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    Camus reminded usthat 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.¹ 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...

    (pp. xvii-2)
  7. I Verdicts
    (pp. 3-22)

    Consider the dilemmaof a coroner’s juryman in North Cray, Kent, on the afternoon of 13 August 1822. The previous morning, Lord Londonderry, Viscount Castlereagh—architect of the Grand Alliance, shaper of post-Napoleonic Europe, Foreign Secretary, and leader of the House of Commons—got up from his bed, complained of his breakfast, walked to his dressing room, summoned his physician, and then slashed deeply into his own neck with a pen knife. The doctor arrived only in time to catch the sinking lord, who had severed his carotid artery, and to hear him murmur, “Bankhead let me fall upon your...

  8. II Willing to Be
    (pp. 23-37)

    The Englishhave been accused by foreigners of being thebeau-idealof a suicidal people. The charge is almost too ridiculous to merit serious refutation. It has clearly been established that where there is one suicide in London, there are five in Paris.”¹ Forbes Winslow’s words typify Victorian defensiveness over England’s seemingly undeserved reputation as “la terre classique du suicide.” England’s fogs, her earnestness, her graveyard school and poetry of melancholy had given rise to a French myth that was difficult to dispel. By 1800, England had become known as the European center of suicide: home of Edward Young who...

  9. III Cases and Classes: Sensational Suicides and Their Interpreters
    (pp. 38-60)

    In the autumn of 1838, not long after Florence Nightingale had returned to Embley from a busy if unfulfilling London season, another young woman mounted the stairs of London’s Monument, hoisted herself to the top of the rail, and swiftly dropped to a bloody death below. Margaret Moyes’s human predicament was nearly the opposite of Florence Nightingale’s: her mother was dead and her father lay dying. Because her own sensational death became a favored subject of broadsides and newspaper accounts, “authentic particulars” of Miss Moyes’s “extraordinary suicide” abound. Just before ten on Wednesday morning, 11 September, Margaret Moyes, twenty-three, arrived...

  10. IV Bad and Far Better Things
    (pp. 61-81)

    If poverty was disgracefulto 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.”¹ 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...

  11. V Other Times, Other Cultures, Other Selves
    (pp. 82-100)

    Victorians masteredthe fine art of displacement, and the taboos associated with suicide helped them along. The threat of suicide might be shifted away from the self by sensationalizing suicides or by retrospectively writing about one’s own youthful conquest of suicidal melancholy, as did Mill and Nightingale, but subversive subjects like sex and self-murder could best be discussed indirectly, by distancing. A deeply entrenched sense of history and a growing familiarity with other cultures helped the Victorians distance the fearful. If their culture condemned suicide and prevented full discussion of its contemporary insidiousness, it nevertheless encouraged a close look at...

  12. VI Monsters of Self-Destruction
    (pp. 101-124)

    This is a chapterabout fictions and fantasies, about projections of freakish creatures who will to die. Such projections show the dark side of the Victorian psyche, coupling deep-seated fear of violent and willful death with irrational terror of hidden bogeys that may lurk within the mind. With its horrid and ultimately vengeful monster,Frankenstein(1818) is the romantic prototype of this sort of literature. Frankenstein’s monster gradually evolves an immoral interior to match his hideous frame and eventually builds his own blazing funeral pyre to consume his own desolate life. This kind of fantasy took hold in the Victorian...

  13. VII Suicidal Women: Fact or Fiction?
    (pp. 125-150)

    Women were fictionalizedand mythologized much as were monsters in Victorian England. They too were made into “others”—weaker vessels or demons, angels in the house or fallen angels¹—and suicide was displaced to them much as it was to demonic alter egos. For the most part, fictions about women and suicide became more prevalent and seemed more credible than did facts. The facts themselves were clear: throughout the nineteenth century women consistently had a suicide rate lower than that of men.² Consistent too were the means of suicide. In most cases, women chose poison or drowning over bloodier deaths...

  14. VIII Century’s End: “The Coming Universal Wish Not to Live”
    (pp. 151-168)

    Men everywhereare becoming more weary of the burden of life,”¹ wrote an essayist for theContemporary Reviewin 1881. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, simply being alive had become a severe trial to many. Hopelessness beset the dispossessed and sensitive alike, and vitality seemed to be eroding away with the century. Men, especially, seemed to find it harder to displace anxiety and death. They felt out of control, powerless against the force of their own inventions—runaway science, runaway technology, runaway urbanism. Lost and homeless in an alien universe, the articulate among them spun eloquent metaphors...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 169-184)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 185-190)