By Freya Johnston
On September 9, 1756, Edward Moore’s journal The World published an eight-page letter from a gentleman in distress. Having abandoned legal, military, and authorial careers, encumbered with debts and much-loved dependants, “John Tristman” now found himself “daily contending betwixt pride and poverty; a mournful relict of misspent youth; a walking dial, with two hands pointing to the lost hours”. This melancholy account takes a surprising turn when the writer begins to divulge his bold new money-making scheme. Tristman is convinced he can put a stop to the vulgar, messy suicides for which the English have become infamous. People who live in London but have somehow tired of life need no longer trust to chance. Now, they may repair to his stylish, centrally located suite of apartments and end their lives “decently as well as suddenly”. For the disappointed lady, Tristman offers a spacious bath in which to drown “with the utmost privacy and elegance”. Despairing actors can take their pick of daggers and poison. Soldiers will conveniently discover “swords fixed obliquely in the floor with their points upwards”.
“The Receptacle for Suicides”, as Tristman dubs his voguish idea, is a Swiftian institution: utterly outrageous and thoroughly plausible. In offering to make the business of self-destruction both private and classy, Tristman takes it indoors and smothers it with euphemisms, of which “sudden death” was among the most popular in the mid-eighteenth century. It befits a cutting-edge projector to refer, in conclusion, to his would-be clients as “suicides”, a fairly unusual term when The World’s satire was published. The Oxford English Dictionary dates “suicide”, in Tristman’s sense of “One who dies by his own hand”, back to 1732, again in a journalistic context. “Suicide” in the sense of “self-murder” is in use decades earlier, and appears to be Thomas Browne’s coinage.
As Kelly McGuire points out in Dying To Be English: Suicide narratives and national identity, 1721–1814, the word has a vexed history. Deploying a pronoun as a prefix in order to describe both an action and a person (a person who is at once victim and perpetrator), it is something of a botched job. The convolutions and impenetrability of the term seem appropriate to a deed which many understand as the consummate rejection – of life, family and community, as of social and religious obligations – although one lesson of all the books under review is that suicides themselves, actual and imagined, tend not to see it that way. Many of the ballads reproduced in The History of Suicide in England, 1650–1850 depict lovers killing themselves in the confident hope of forgiveness and a place in heaven, as of avoiding shame and misery on earth. And even the most hard-line of religious commentators will hesitate to condemn all suicides to hell: as the Calvinist preacher Thomas Beard wrote in 1631, “the mercie of God is incomprehensible”. Overall, there is much evidence of what John Donne called “a perplexitie and flexibilitie in the doctrine” of suicide.
Gradually replacing more overtly judgemental epithets such as “self-murder”, “suicide” became a familiar word in England in the later eighteenth century. Perhaps the availability of a neutral form of language influenced how people thought about voluntary death; there is a relic of the older way of describing it in current references to “self-harm”. It is sometimes argued that apparently more tolerant and sympathetic attitudes to suicide, as to other infractions of the moral law, developed in the eighteenth century as the result of a progressive secularization. But religious as well as civil sanctions against the act persisted, in Britain and in the American colonies – only in Pennsylvania was voluntary death not criminalized – and those official sanctions are not incompatible with sympathy.
No longer construed as a demonic temptation, suicide came instead to be viewed as a symptom of lunacy
A coroner’s pronouncement of suicide (felo da se) resulted in forfeiture of the deceased’s goods and property to the state, often leaving any surviving relatives destitute. So the increasingly common verdict of temporary insanity (non compos mentis) may suggest a change in how people understood the act of self-destruction: no longer construed as a demonic temptation, it came instead to be viewed as a symptom of lunacy. On the other hand, the prevalence of non compos mentis determinations in the coroner’s courts may reveal a pragmatic wish to safeguard cash and property for the living. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive; it seems likely that people have always been in more than one mind about suicide.
In “Frederic and Elfrida”, Jane Austen’s early novelistic skit (dating from the late 1780s or early 90s), “the lovely Charlotte” finds herself agreeing to marry a handsome stranger within moments of having consented to become the wife of a rich old man. The next day, “the reflection of her past folly, operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, and to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran thro’ her Aunts pleasure Grounds in Portland Place”. The combination of a suggested mental disorder (folly operating strongly on the mind) and cool calculation (“she resolved . . . to that end”) is characteristic of a period in which suicides are presented, by turns, as helpless lunatics and rational agents. The first view makes them not responsible for their actions; the second renders them potentially culpable. After 1823, the bodies of suicides could be interred in consecrated ground and the ritual humiliation of their corpses was officially prohibited. But suicide remained a crime in England until 1961.
As Dignitas, the Swiss right-to-die association, notes on its website, the majority of suicide attempts fail – although a failure in this context might also be counted a success. It is odd to think how many people were, and are, survivors of themselves: part of the OED’s definition of “suicide” is “One who . . . has a tendency to commit suicide”. If you try and fail to perpetrate self-murder you are, technically speaking, a “suicide”. By contrast, in order to qualify as any other kind of murderer, you need to have killed someone outright. In We Shall Be No More: Suicide and self-government in the newly United States, Richard Bell movingly emphasizes the sometimes clumsy efforts of American asylums and humanitarian societies to care for those who tried to kill themselves, but who lived on for days, weeks, or years afterwards. Bell never forgets that suicide is about individuals and the persistence or recovery of their stories. His arresting, involving work on the young American republic brings out the farcical and tragic aspects of suicide. It also reveals a healthy suspicion of commentators in all periods who lament the helter-skelter decline of manners and morals, whether due to changes in legislation or reading habits.
Young, romantic, foolish and idle, consumers of prose fiction in eighteenth-century Britain and America were thought especially vulnerable to suicide; McGuire and Bell chart their sometimes fatal adventures in the realms of sensibility. Critics in both nations liked to whip up alarm at novelists’ apparent contempt of familial and social duties. But fictional tales of unguarded passion, culminating in suicide, may or may not demonstrate what McGuire identifies as “a death drive at work at the level of narrative”. After all, to kill your characters off is one handy way to wind up a plot, especially if you’re trying to avoid the stock conclusion of marriage.
Do human beings instinctively seek to preserve their own lives? Or is the desire to terminate our existence native to our character?
Disputes about suicide have always turned on conceptions of what is natural and unnatural. Do human beings instinctively seek to preserve their own lives? Or is the desire to terminate our existence native to our character? We live in a tangled and immoral world full of death, the most definitive of many injurious agents working against our survival and well-being. How is it possible to insinuate sense and meaning into such a realm? In the attempt to do so, suicide may seem in one mood or context absurd; in another, the only sane way out. John Donne’s Biathanatos, a seminal, heterodox text in the history of voluntary death, was written in 1608 and first published posthumously in 1644 (the work later inspired both Thomas De Quincey and Jorge Luis Borges). Because The History of Suicide in England takes as its start date 1650, it does not include Biathanatos, although the work was reprinted several times after 1644 and many of the authors included here are rebutting, sometimes point by point, what Donne says (or appears to say) in qualified vindication of self-homicide. This arrangement leads to awkwardness: the General Introduction, by Mark Robson, and the introduction to Volume One have to offer a synopsis of Donne’s argument, and substantial quotations from it, in order to make sense of much of what follows.
The problem with Donne’s omission raises a more serious issue with The History of Suicide. What are its basic principles of selection and rejection? Why are the dates 1650–1850 chosen? The General Introduction is hard to follow on this score, arguing that the “years around 1650 do broadly represent a change in thinking about suicide . . . at least in terminology”. The main reason for deciding to begin in 1650 appears to have been that the OED offers a text from that decade as the first known example of the word “suicide” in English. Yet the editors of The History of Suicide have themselves found earlier instances than this, and the terminology is susceptible of many different interpretations, one of which would be that no real change occurs in thinking about voluntary death, even if a new word comes into play.
The History of Suicide is a generically wide-ranging collection, embracing letters, ballads, tracts, depositions, refutations, broadsheets, statistical inquiries, social criticism, individual case studies, and so on. Texts are reproduced in typeset rather than in facsimile form; there is a general essay introducing the edition as a whole, and each document is supplied with a headnote and some annotation at the back of the book. The editors seem, as far as it is possible to judge from the introductions to each volume, to have imagined their work primarily as a storehouse for cultural historians. But those researching the history of suicide would be better off foraging in libraries and electronic databases for themselves. Nothing is said in the preliminary matter about textual or editorial policy. Original page breaks within the copy-texts seem to be indicated by a slash (/), although this is not stated anywhere.
Spot-checks of the primary material against printed and online copies of early editions are discouraging, and suggest that mistakes have been introduced. There are recurrent glitches in punctuation, and a difficulty with apostrophes used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters, which routinely appear the wrong way around (thus ’tis is wrongly rendered ‘tis, ’mongst as ‘mongst and so on). In the course of ten pages of the first volume’s excerpt from Owen Stockton’s Counsel to the Afflicted (1667), the full-text version of which can be downloaded from Early English Books Online, a misprint in the copy-text (“aj” for “a”) has been retained, and new errors have been added, all of which introduce some degree of interpretative confusion. It is hard to see how the high price of The History of Suicide can be justified – given its limited explanatory apparatus, and the ease and speed with which most of its texts may be consulted online, for free or through institutional subscription – if it does not even reproduce its source material accurately.
Suicide can seem to express a heroic self-sufficiency. Cultivating immunity to the ills of this world is bound up with the freedom to destroy oneself when those ills nonetheless, inevitably, attack. David Hume’s chilly essay “On Suicide” (1783) justifies self-destruction on the basis that duty to ourselves supersedes all other obligations. No man would kill himself if his life were worth living, argues Hume, and those who elect to commit suicide when they have become a burden to others set an example that is worthy of imitation. Besides, the natural world is resilient and adaptable: accidents happen, and suicide is one of countless temporary disruptions to the order of things. Seen from this perspective (but what human being really can see from this perspective?), the loss of an individual life “is of no greater importance than an oyster”. To speak and think thus is to ignore the counterargument of the faithful that suicide constitutes a sin, an act of rebellion against God’s sovereignty and those around us: as is said in Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet (1824), “Despair is treason towards man, / And blasphemy to Heaven”. Human beings are created by and dependent on a non-human maker. The Christian virtue of prudence therefore involves guarding the life that does not belong to you, and cannot be yours to dispose of. Voluntarily severing the bond that joins soul with body is to sever a tie with God. As for oysters, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10.29–31).
Numerous believers have made themselves desperate by nursing a sense of their own unique culpability. This kind of suicidal despair – convincing oneself that one is permanently cast out from the possibility of forgiveness – is terrible to read about. Take William Cowper. He was destined for the law, a profession for which, due to his morbid fear of public speaking, he was wholly unsuited. The prospect of being examined in 1763 at the bar of the House of Lords drove him to a series of frantic measures. About a week before the examination he bought a half-ounce of laudanum. Unable to consume the fatal dose, he thought of escaping to France. He resolved to drown himself, then tried to stab himself with his penknife, and finally hanged himself with a scarlet garter which broke just as he lost consciousness. On coming to, he heard the sound of his own groans and assumed he was in hell. A period of bitter misery ensued; Cowper attempted suicide on at least one further occasion. But conversations with his brother and chance readings in the Bible began to chip away at his certainty that he was the helpless prey of a furious, vengeful God. On July 26, 1764 he picked up a Bible and opened it, randomly, at Romans 3.25: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God”. In an instant, Cowper found strength to believe in the redeeming power of Christ, and was lost in tears of grateful ecstasy.
Cowper regretted his birth “in a country where melancholy is the national characteristic”, and admitted he had often wished himself a Frenchman. The French themselves apparently referred to suicide as death “à l’Anglaise – according to the English fashion”. The World’s John Tristman was one of many writers at home and abroad to link the English temperament with suicidal tendencies. In 1738, a journalist (possibly Samuel Richardson) claimed that suicide was England’s “new Religion”. Melancholy seemed to infect everyone and everything: even a sedan chair, narrating the history of its life and adventures in London in 1757, admits that it has flirted with self-destruction: “Since my reparation, I have . . . had a very particular dejection of spirits. Whether I am almost tired of a foolish and ridiculous world, I can’t tell . . .”. Two decades later, the Abbé Millot could still remark on “that rage of suicide, whereof England affords so many examples”. The English, he claimed, grow weary of existence “upon principle”. A national proclivity for self-murder was, perhaps, the inescapable counterpart of wealth, leisure, liberty and refinement. Spending power, and the freedom to think, generated variety and originality – hence, the argument ran, the surfeit of excellent English authors. But such benefits also encouraged, as in ancient Rome, effeminacy and madness. And then there was the weather, often presented as a fatal agent in the “English Malady”.
A national proclivity for self-murder was, perhaps, the inescapable counterpart of wealth, leisure, liberty and refinement.
Many eighteenth-century writers argue that trade supports human virtue. Yet trade, reliant on slavery, also generates luxury and the kind of enervation associated with melancholy. Poor people conveniently lacked the time and imagination to kindle suicidal thoughts into action; they were too busy working. A truly aristocratic temperament, on the other hand, was inherently proud and self-destructive, doomed to squander its tremendous gifts and resources. One “well born” correspondent summed the position up with exquisite absurdity in The World, again in 1756: “I grew to think that there was no living without killing oneself”.
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) condemns the act in its definition of “SUICIDE”: “Self-murder; the horrid crime of destroying one’s self”. Beneath this explanation Johnson cites, or rather slightly adapts, Samuel Richardson’s heroine Clarissa writing against voluntary death in the same morally offended register as Johnson’s: “To be cut off by the sword of injured friendship is the most dreadful of all deaths, next to suicide”. Clarissa seems to be assuring us that her own end couldn’t be further removed from such a fate. And yet, as McGuire points out, she also appears to be a textbook suicidal anorexic, persistently fasting after Lovelace’s rape and thereby conferring on herself a slow death that allows her to dispose of her property and execute her last wishes bit by bit. Clarissa persists in her resolve despite a warning from Lovelace’s former mistress, Sally, who says: “Your religion . . . should teach you that starving yourself is Self-Murder”. Yet Clarissa’s end is also that of an exemplary Christian, attended by many affirmations of faith and intimations of immortal glory. She murmurs “O death, where is thy sting?” and “come – blessed Lord – JESUS” as she dies. Richardson comments in the postscript that anyone “earnest in their profession of Christianity will rather envy than regret the triumphant death of CLARISSA”. But that triumph echoes the last days of Cicero’s friend and correspondent, Pomponius Atticus (110–32 BC), who “willingly famished himself to death”, in the words of one seventeenth-century pamphleteer, “and could not be disswaded from so doing by prayers and tears of his nearest and dearest allies and friends”.
Too keen an attachment to food might also amount to an appetite for death. Did Johnson’s friend, the gluttonous brewer Henry Thrale, kill himself through overindulgence? Johnson seems to have thought so, commenting shortly before Thrale’s death in 1781 that “such eating is little better than Suicide”. His wife, Hester Thrale, found these words “remarkable”, but judged it best to say no more. The physician George Cheyne, himself a lifelong dieter whose weight had peaked at 32 stone, argued in 1745 that “he that wantonly transgresseth the self-evident rules of health, is guilty of a degree of self-murder, and a habitual perseverance therein is direct suicide”. Thrale, like Clarissa, had persevered and defied the entreaties of friends and family.
Neither of these deaths is quite in line with the widespread modern aspiration to die with dignity (an aspiration often cited in debates about assisted suicide). But is a dignified exit from this world any more possible or desirable than John Tristman’s drawing-room vision of expiring decently and elegantly? Before the twentieth century, public discussions of voluntary death were not dominated by arguments about whether people ought to be kept alive for years in a condition such as that of locked-in syndrome, although the syndrome itself is nothing new: Noirtier de Villefort in The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) is described as a living corpse, and communicates via ocular movement alone. Yet it is immediately obvious from the painful narratives of love, madness, poverty, crime, violence, degradation and slavery included in the books under review that people have always longed to be allowed to do what they wanted with their own lives and bodies, and many have concluded (in Donne’s words) that: “I have the keyes of my prison in mine owne hand, and no remedy presents it selfe so soone to my heart, as mine own sword”. The suicidal desire for freedom whispers to us that we have the means in our power to end our own misery, perhaps even that it is a mark of courage and honour to do so.
Where, then, can we find comfort? What can we do to escape ourselves? Robert Burton recommended in the closing lines of his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) that we should “Be not solitary; be not idle”, advice which Samuel Johnson carefully adapted for “disordered” men such as James Boswell: “If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle”. The end of the Samaritans’ information page on self-harm urgently communicates the same message as that of the first full-length treatise on suicide published in English, John Sym’s Lifes Preservative Against Self-Killing (1637), and it can’t be said often enough: “There is always hope. There is always help”.