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Φ Not Choosing Not To Be: Victorian Literary Responses to Suicide Barbara T. Gates I have written elsewhere about Victorian medical opinion on suicide and about its relationship to English law and Victorian social and intellectual history.1 Briefly, throughout die Victorian era, suicide was illegal, considered "self-murder" by the courts; until 1870 the goods and chattels of a suicide were legally forfeited to the Crown. But by the 1830s, coroner's juries had begun heavily to utilize a loophole in the law: they found more and more suicides "temporarily insane," a verdict which negated forfeiture and thus saved already aggrieved families the further ignominy of poverty. There were a number of ramifications of this particular move toward tolerance. For one thing, physicians were consulted to aid in determining cases of "temporary insanity" and then found themselves embroiled in a controversy over die connection between suicide and insanity. In order to clarify their thinking, they pioneered in scientific studies of insanity and helped establish "mental science" as a province of medicine. From 1830 to 1900 in Britain, medical opinion of suicide itself underwent significant changes. In the 1830s and 1840s physicians, like most of the rest of the populace, saw suicide as a legal and moral question. However, with increased use of medical testimony in questions of suicide, alienists were forced to refine their view of what was still termed "selfmurder ." By the 1850s and 1860s such refinement continued, widi emphasis falling on categorization and physiology, while die 1870s and 1880s saw far more attention paid to die social factors determining suicide. Statistics became more reliable, and, increasingly, prevention and compassion were urged by a number of prominent practitioners. By die end of the century, earlier attitudes, particularly as to die criminal implications of suicide, were reviewed and mainly discarded. Emphasis was now placed on diagnosis and on die social significance of suicide. In the current essay, my concerns lie elsewhere. Throughout the Victorian period — but particularly at its dawn and in its early years (die 1820s Literature and Medicine 6 (1987) 77-91 © 1987 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 78 VICTORIAN RESPONSES TO SUICIDE to 1840s) — there was both a reverence for self-healing and an aversion to suicide as a misuse of the will. Victorians hoped to use willpower as an instrument to excise their own self-doubt and depression and hoped to stay free of the medical men by looking for healthy models of how to live courageously . Writers of the past offered keys to this kind of living, and writing itself seemed to provide an antidote for suicide. Thus men like Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill and women like Florence Nightingale found it efficacious to write autobiographical literature about selfdestruction , in the meantime saving themselves from that fate and ultimately instructing others in how to survive. This essay analyzes the literary responses of these three eminent Victorians to the threat of suicide. Among the writers of the past to whom Victorians turned when they thought about suicide, Goethe was foremost. Goethe (1749-1832) had written The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), the novel that had created what was known as the "Werther craze." Young men throughout Europe imitated Werther 's lovelornness, his clothes, his sensibility, and even his death by suicide. The Victorians disliked Werther but admired the later Goethe, a healer whom Matthew Arnold would dub "physician of the iron age."2 This favored Goethe was the author of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship , the man who became "'king over himself.'"3 George Henry Lewes took great pains to point out that Werther was not Goethe: Werther perishes because of weakness, whereas Goethe saw Werther's failings, wrenched himself from the woman he loved, and lived on. Volition mastered desire, for "Goethe was one of those who are wavering because impressionable , but whose wavering is not weakness; they oscillate, but they return into the direct path which their wills have prescribed."4 Lewes was writing in 1855, looking back at the Werther craze and confirming that Werther was no longer much read, especially in England where it suffered both from a bad name and a bad translation. Less far removed from Wertherism in time...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 77-91
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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