The Secret House of Death

Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England

by Olive Anderson
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 475 pp., $84.00

Only during the twentieth century have most people in the West (but not, alas, elsewhere) begun to die in old age and from natural causes, with the result that any death that does not conform to this comforting and conventional image now seems more than usually shocking. Since 1945, those who die young or in middle age, from incurable illness or by accidental violence, are seen as having drawn the short straw in the lottery of life. Even more atypical is the small minority of people who do away with themselves. Suicide, self-destruction, auto-annihilation: these are not pretty words. But then, the deed they describe is not pretty either. On the contrary, the willful (or irresponsible) act of entering what Shakespeare called “the secret house of death” is something to which that overused word “tragedy” may quite correctly be applied, since it arouses feelings of pity and terror among those many people for whom life is an infinitely precious thing.

Yet although committing suicide is a highly atypical way to die in the modern West, there are in fact many different reasons why people choose to terminate their existence. Some people kill themselves as a political act, to thwart their enemies, as did Hitler and Goebbels. Some take their own lives to avoid exposure, humiliation, and blackmail, as was reputedly the case with Lord Castlereagh and Tchaikovsky. Some choose to end it all because of professional anxieties and personal unhappiness or despair, like Thomas Chatterton and Marilyn Monroe. Some decide to exit because it seems the most rational thing to do in the face of illness or old age, as happened with Arthur Koestler. Some do away with themselves in complex states of mind that are still far from being clearly understood, as with Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf. And—especially in fiction—many women destroy themselves because of the intolerable burdens of romantic involvement: witness Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Anna Karenina, and Mrs. Tanqueray.

Famous fatalities like these seem so varied in motive, so diverse in meaning, and so eclectic in method that they defy reduction to a simplistic formula or single explanation. It can be argued that in some cases successful suicides had found the pace of life too much to bear, and that it was this broader circumstantial pressure, at least as much as their personal decisions, that actually forced them into killing themselves. Indeed, this same explanatory tension between individual impulses and general setting may also be seen lower down the social scale. During the nineteenth century, one favorite suicidal stereotype was the wicked man of business (like Ralph Nickleby), whose self-inflicted death seemed appropriate punishment for his misdeeds. Another was the fallen woman, seduced, dishonored, and abandoned (like Martha in David Copperfield), for whom there seemed no other way out. In both cases, the ultimate end may perhaps be explained by individual temperament and personal decisions. But it can also be put down to the intolerable pressures and adverse conditions of modern existence: entrepreneurial stress, urban …

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