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The Secret House of Death

But elsewhere, at this time, the experience of suicide was very different. In rural east Sussex, as in London, it was rarely the very poor who took their own lives. Yet among those who did destroy themselves, drink had virtually no part. On the contrary, in most cases, suicide was resorted to by the elderly as a means of deliverance from ill health, failing powers, and—less often—a loss of neighborly self-esteem. As a result, it tended to be more sturdy and deliberate, direct and resolute than in mid-Victorian London. By the end of the century, however, the pattern of metropolitan suicide had itself changed dramatically. Alcoholism, once of enormous importance, had all but disappeared. The number of men who killed themselves was now greatly in excess of the number of women. And it was among professionals and businessmen that self-destruction had become most widespread.

Above all, the growth of commuting meant that suicide increasingly took place at work rather than at home or out of doors. The coroners’ reports suggest that suicide in Edwardian London was increasingly an introspective agony over private fears and feelings, a solution to worry, depression, and disappointment. Suicide notes were far more common, and a slow and painful death from poison was more likely than the sudden jerk of the rope.

Of course, these individual experiences took place within the setting of general attitudes toward suicide, and it is with the ways of thinking and feeling about self-destruction that these people had subconsciously absorbed since childhood that Anderson next concerns herself. As revealed in the ballads, stories, plays, visual images, and newspaper reports, suicide in early Victorian London was one of the basic facts of life: it was not a taboo subject nor did it evoke primitive feelings of folkloric horror. There were essentially four suicidal stereotypes: the wicked man (classically exemplified in Dickens’s Jonas Chuzzlewit), the sad woman (as in “Suicide of the Drunkard’s Daughter,” drawn by Cruikshank), the romantic victim (such as the woman depicted in Lord Gerald Fitzgerald’s etching “The Bridge of Sighs”), and the comic (so well evoked in the street ballad “The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter”).

Suicide was regularly the stuff of sentimental moralizing, and was also frequently joked about. But it was never seen as glamorous and heroic, and was only rarely viewed as terrifying or disgusting. On the contrary, Anderson insists, most Londoners commonly regarded it as abnormal behavior in extenuating circumstances, as a sad ending deserving sympathy and forgiveness, and only very occasionally as something bizarre or criminal. So, when they sat on juries, they were most inclined to return verdicts of “state of mind unknown” or “mind unsound.” Sympathy was only forfeit—and a verdict of felo-de-se returned—if there was damning evidence of deliberate suicide in cold blood.

But attitudes, like experiences, varied greatly in place and time. In the rural parts of Sussex, old folkloric beliefs about suicide—that it was the work of the Devil, and that a suicide’s corpse was unlucky—apparently lingered on. Yet they coexisted with attitudes that were more harsh and less sympathetic than those prevailing among Londoners during the early 1860s. On the whole, the coroners, juries, and magistrates seem to have been readier than the metropolitan authorities to reach unsympathetic verdicts, and to assign responsibility to the surviving relatives. But in early-twentieth-century London, attitudes had changed again, although they represented the adaptation, rather than the abandonment, of mid-Victorian conventional wisdoms.

The fashionable fin de siècle romanticization of suicide, associated with artists like Aubrey Beardsley, seems to have made no impact on popular attitudes, and most people continued to believe that ordinary well-balanced folk did not do away with themselves. Nevertheless, there was one major change, in that suicide was gradually removed from everyday experience, as the official procedures connected with it became increasingly arcane and remote. Coroners were by now full-time professional appointees, increasingly separated from the community, rather than part-time holders of an office elected by mass franchise. And purposely built courtrooms and mortuaries superseded pubs and other makeshift buildings as the setting for official inquiries. As a result, suicide increasingly became an unfamiliar and embarrassing subject, a social disgrace of which suburban dwellers in particular became ever more frightened and ashamed.

Since suicide was both a sin and a crime, the sanctions of the civil, criminal, and ecclesiastical law were in theory very great. But in practice they were weak—and getting weaker. In the case of successful suicides, juries rarely returned verdicts that brought the matter within the jurisdiction of state law, and the Church of England’s intransigent position on burials was gradually modified by a combination of ecclesiastical reform and the loss of its monopoly on cemeteries. The advent of professional police forces meant that arrests for attempted suicide became more common. But the constabularies were mainly interested in preserving public order, few of those apprehended while trying to commit suicide were sent for trial, convictions were rare, and sentences were light. Suicide prevention was thus mainly left in the hands of charitable organizations and urban missionaries, who displayed great zeal and resourcefulness. But their religious preoccupations meant that their appeal and their impact were necessarily limited. Only in 1907 did the Salvation Army set up its Anti-Suicide Bureau. It was open to anyone seeking help; it provided advice, comfort, and a ready ear; and it took an essentially secular view of the problem. As such, it was the direct forerunner of modern treatment such as therapies or counseling.

Other experts, such as the reformer William Farr, saw the will to suicide not as the byproduct of poverty or sin but as the outcome of a defective environment. Some attempts were made to lessen the temptations to self-destruction by pressing successive governments to restrict the availability of firearms and poisons. But although they met with some success, these measures were soon rendered irrelevant by the widespread proliferation of the railway train and the gas oven. More significant were the efforts at prevention by medical men. General practitioners were probably the least important, because most lacked the knowledge and the opportunity to treat attempted suicides, and their usual response was to commit such people to an asylum. Medical officers in large remand prisons examined those who had been convicted of attempted suicide, but since they were rarely detained for longer than one week, little could be achieved. The greatest contribution to suicide prevention thus came from the asylum doctors. They were able to monitor attempted suicides who had been admitted to their care; they seem to have been generally successful in stopping further attempts, and their labors apparently resulted in a high rate of discharge.

As this summary should make plain, and as the author herself robustly insists, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England is unapologetically a historian’s book. In part this is because Anderson ranges with such impressive authority across a broad spectrum of social, religious, medical, urban, cultural, legal, and administrative history, and in part because her prime aim is to throw more light on the history of Victorian and Edwardian England. But it is also because the book’s research strategy and structure of exposition have been determined by the requirements of historical methodology rather than by the past or present debate on suicide. On the other hand, the four-fold historical approach she has adopted—official statistics, individual case studies, cultural backgrounds, prevention techniques, and crisis intervention—approximates very closely to the most widespread research strategies used by suicidologists today. As a result, we can ask two sets of questions. First: What light does the book throw on our general perception of Victorian and Edwardian England, and on the suicidal stereotypes of that era? Second: What contribution does this historical approach make to the suicidologists’ debates as they have evolved since the time of Durkheim and Freud?

Anderson’s vision of nineteenth-century England might best be labeled both atomistic and optimistic. Repeatedly her book stresses the differences between early and late Victorian England, between the country and the town, between one part of London and another. Despite the aggregate national suicide statistics, there was in fact no such thing as a “national”—or even a “Victorian”—suicide experience. But while her insistence on the diversity of Victorian civilization is a familiar feature of modern scholarship, her essentially upbeat and Whiggish interpretation is rather less fashionable—and thus all the more welcome. There is no nostalgia in her pages for the old world that was being lost, and little condemnation of the new world that was replacing it. For those who were young, and who lived in its expanding towns and cities, Victorian England was, she insists, a good place to be. Only for those who were becalmed and marooned in the small-town world of the countryside, or who suffered the infirmities of extreme old age, was it especially unappealing. At the same time, the sanctions of the civil and ecclesiastical law were applied sparingly and humanely, the juries were generally compassionate and the big-city coroners were efficient, and the growing efforts at suicide prevention were characterized by zeal and a real measure of success.

As the author readily admits, here is both a pioneering and a partial picture. Many gaps still need to be filled in. Her evidence is overwhelmingly drawn from London and the southeast; there is little detailed material from the north or the great industrial cities; Wales gets only the briefest discussion, Scotland an occasional mention, and Ireland not even that. There is no attempt to address upper-class suicide, except in the context of the discussion about the reliability of the data, from which it emerges—predictably—that many such cases simply went unrecorded. No consideration is given the wide gulf that seems to have existed between the popular contemporary suicidal stereotypes and the very different and diverse realities. And there are real difficulties in discussing alcoholism as a “cause” of suicide, since self-evidently many such people never tried—or try—to kill themselves, and we often don’t know what drove alcoholics to suicide.

Above all, we need to know much more about suicide during the first half of the nineteenth century, when social and economic circumstances seem to have been much more unsettled, and when suicide among the upper classes seems to have been unusually widespread. It may be that this period of soaring suicide rates was brought about by industrialization and urban growth, and that the improvement from the 1850s on was thus not so much part of a long-term trend as of a dramatic downturn after an earlier period of real distress.

Anderson’s book should find an equally appreciative and responsive audience among experts on suicide. It emphatically undermines the Durkheimian view that rising suicide rates were the product of the unstable nineteenth-century environment created by industrial growth and urban expansion. Moreover, it casts the greatest possible doubts on the entire notion of national suicide statistics and national suicide experiences. In the same way, it eloquently illustrates the limitations of the Freudian approach: the accumulation of particular case studies based on a specific and narrow set of psychoanalytic assumptions, but devoid of any of the broader perspectives of time, place, age, gender, and occupation.

More positively, Anderson does show, in support of Durkheim, that the official figures can be made to yield findings of real importance, provided that they are carefully and correctly interpreted. And, in support of Freud, she does demonstrate the advent of a new, more depressive mode of suicidal behavior in late nineteenth-century London. In short, her book may be read as offering partial historical validation for the currently accepted view among writers on suicide that the individual and the social milieu interact, and that the one cannot be studied without attention to the other.

But in fact, Anderson’s fundamental message to the professionals is far less reassuring. Again and again, she reminds us that “dying by suicide was an experience deeply affected by its specific historical context.” Ultimately, the ahistorical theories of the sociologists and the free-floating case studies of the psychoanalysts are equally suspect to her, since they never get beyond what seems to her to be “a superficial level of understanding.” “Only at a level of generalisation so broad as to be almost meaningless,” she insists, “is it right to portray as unchanging or universal either the experience of suicide or the circumstances which precipitated it.” The people who took their lives, the paths that led them to that end, and the experience of dying in this way were deeply influenced by specific historical circumstances. Like sex, poverty, and power, suicide may always be with us. But like them again, the actual form it takes is specific to a particular time and culture, not only in the past but—and this is Anderson’s clear and significant implication—in the present too.

As Goethe once put it, “suicide is an incident in human life which, however much disputed and discussed, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every age must be dealt with anew.” But we cannot hope to address the problem comprehensively today unless we know a great deal more about how past societies went about it. Only by making a greater effort at historical understanding can this most secret house of death be made to yield up more of its confidences.

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