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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.

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.

  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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