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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 poverty, and big-city living.

As such, these famous examples of suicidal behavior, and these varied explanations of suicidal activity, merely echo the long-running academic debate in the literature on suicide between those who favor a psychological explanation and those who prefer a sociological one. Where does a person’s responsibility for self-destruction end, and where does society’s responsibility begin? Among sociologists, it was Durkheim who most influentially argued that while suicide might appear to be the result of many private, unconnected, individual acts, it should be better understood as a collective phenomenon, the outcome of deeply rooted social forces. Indeed, he regarded official suicide statistics as the best measure of the health (or sickness) of society: the higher the incidence of suicide, the weaker were the ties that held the community together. Accordingly, he was much alarmed by the rise in suicide that the statistics appeared to show in many Western nations during the nineteenth century. Judged by this criterion, contemporary Europe was a society in decay and disintegration. Under the destabilizing impact of industrial development and urban growth, traditional bonds of social cohesion had dissolved, leaving many people estranged, lonely, insecure, and afraid. And this, he insisted, was the real reason why they took—and were taking—their own lives in ever-increasing numbers.

For Durkheim and the sociologists, the correct way to understand suicide was therefore to measure and analyze national data.1 But for Freud and the psychoanalysts, it was—predictably—the collection of individual case studies that seemed the more appropriate method.2 They argued that Durkheim accepted official statistics too uncritically, and that he never really explored (or explained) how these broad social trends became actual in individual instances. More positively, they suggested that suicidal tendencies were most common among those of a certain depressive temperament, and that the urge to self-destruction lay deeply rooted not in society in general but in a person’s particular psychology. Thus joined, the debate between the sociological and the psychoanalytical approaches to suicide has gone on for over half a century. By now it seems generally agreed that both the environment and the individual must be taken into account, since the social isolation that so often accompanies suicide may be either the cause or the consequence of depression and loneliness. But beyond reaching that measured yet bland conclusion, the huge outpouring of writing on suicide since the Second World War3 has often seemed to outsiders to be inaccessible, unrewarding—and entirely ahistorical.

Like childhood and adolescence, sexuality and homosexuality, madness and old age, suicide is undeniably one of the central moral and medical issues in our society today. But, like them again, it is also as much a historical as a contemporary phenomenon. Yet compared with these other subjects, very little attempt has been made to understand suicide in time or over time. We are all vaguely aware that ancient Greece, imperial Rome, feudal Japan, Christian Europe, and premodern India had their own customs and cultures of self-destruction. But almost nothing is known about the history of suicide, even in the post-Enlightenment West.

Olive Anderson’s book is thus much to be welcomed, as the first major historical study of this central human problem. Because it is—like death generally—so protean a subject, she has adopted a variety of approaches to nineteenth-century suicide that display an unusual range of scholarly accomplishments. Her first section is an exercise in quantitative history, which examines and interprets the official data: The second is an example of people’s history, which recovers the individual experiences of those who actually ended their lives. The third is an essay in the history of mentalités, which explores the general social attitudes that prevailed at the time. And the final section is an example of history from above, as she turns to consider the efforts at punishment and prevention by those in authority.

As Anderson is at pains to point out, the main reason why suicide in Britain has been so little studied by historians is that the official statistics are so suspect that they have been dismissed in some quarters as totally unreliable. In any society, the narrow line between accident and suicide, and the widespread practice of concealment, means that the full extent of deliberate human self-destruction must inevitably remain uncertain. Moreover, in nineteenth-century England, the systematic compilation of government statistics only began in the 1850s, which was much later than in many European countries; the procedures whereby verdicts were returned and registered were subject to considerable local and temporal variation; and so the aggregate official figures can only be regarded at best as very—and varyingly—approximate. But Anderson is not deterred by this. As she rightly insists, all government statistics—even for the twentieth century—need very careful handling. But that is no reason for dismissing them. On the contrary, she argues that the suicide figures can be sensibly and rewardingly interpreted; that they do provide a reliable guide to overall national changes; and that they can be supplemented with more precise data to yield further important insights about the significance of place and time, of age and gender, of work and occupation.

Inevitably, this means that Anderson’s early chapters are dense with tables and calculations. But they yield some remarkably original conclusions. Both gender and age counted a great deal in suicide among the Victorians. Men preferred to use the razor or the rope, while most women preferred drowning or poison. And it was men, much more than women, who chose suicide rather than endure the burdens of enfeebled old age.

In the same way, location was also very important. Contrary to widespread assumptions—both at the time and since—there seems no evidence to support the view that more people were driven to self-destruction by the pressures of urbanization and industrialization. The most that can be said is that suicide rates were higher in the southeast of England and the east midlands (in counties like Sussex and Northampton), and lower in the southwest and the northeast (in such counties as Devon and Durham). But suicide rates actually rose in some rural areas (like Cornwall and North Wales), and were at their highest in historic county towns (like Worcester or Exeter) and in residential centers (like Bath or Croydon). In small and medium-sized industrial centers (like Dudley or Huddersfield), the suicide rate was relatively low, and it actually fell among young people in big towns and cities, most noticeably in London itself.

Nor should this be a great surprise. For occupation mattered, too. Suicide was most common among soldiers, lawyers, doctors, publicans, and domestic servants, yet was rarest among miners and industrial workers. In short, in Victorian England, self-destruction was relatively infrequent in the Coketown of Dickens or the London of Mayhew, and was more typical of Trollope’s Barset or the Hardy country.

But what were the most common paths to self-destruction, and what were the thoughts and feelings of those who took this course? By examining the case histories kept by three London coroners for the early 1860s, Anderson shows that even in the great metropolis, patterns of suicide varied very considerably, from Southwark to the City to Westminster to central north London. This is partly to be explained by the different economic and occupational patterns of neighboring districts, and partly by the presence (or absence) of railway stations and the river (where suicides could be most easily attempted) and hospitals (where attempted suicides could be treated).

Nevertheless, some generalizations do emerge. Most of the victims—both men and women—were middle-aged, and were neither very rich nor very poor. According to the coroners, they rarely did away with themselves because of poverty, loneliness, family tensions, emotional distress, sexual misadventure, or business failure. On the contrary, in the great majority of cases, it was alcoholism that seemed to be the overriding explanation—not only for their eventual suicide, but also for the form it actually took. (Whether the alcoholism they point to could have been the result of, for example, loneliness or failure, the coroners did not say.) In their last moments, many people attempting suicide were so confused that they rarely knew exactly what they were doing. More often than not, Anderson insists, their deaths were squalid and almost casual.

  1. 1

    See, for example, J.D. Douglas, The Social Meanings of Suicide (Princeton University Press, 1967); A. Giddens, ed., The Sociology of Suicide: A Selection of Readings (London: Frank Cass, 1971); and S. Taylor, Durkheim and the Study of Suicide (St. Martin’s, 1982).

  2. 2

    See, in particular, E.S. Shneidman, N.L. Farberow, and R.E. Litman, eds., The Psychology of Suicide (Science House, 1970; Aronson reprint, 1983).

  3. 3

    Ann E. Prentice, Suicide: A Selective Bibliography of Over 2,200 Items (Scarecrow Press, 1974); John C. McIntosh, Research on Suicide: A Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1985).

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