- Dying to Be English: Suicide Narratives and National Identity, 1721–1814 by Kelly McGuire
In his autobiography, Johann von Goethe—the creator of one of literature’s most famous suicides, the thwarted lover Werther—calls suicide “an event of human nature, which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew” (Goethe’s Works [Google Books; 1882], 2:163). A spate of recent scholarship suggests that the time is ripe for our own epoch’s reconsideration of suicide, and in particular for historicized and interdisciplinary approaches to the subject. Kelly McGuire’s 2012 monograph draws from fields of psychology, philosophy, and political theory in order to study how representations of female suicide in eighteenth-century novels helped create an English national identity. McGuire observes that in this period the emergence of a recognizable—albeit fluid, heterogeneous, and contradictory—discourse of suicide coincides with the rise of the novel as the dominant literary genre and with the increasing significance of the nation as both an imaginative construct and a social reality. Suicide came to be known as an “English Malady,” a condition stemming from a range of physical and psychological causes unique to England and to Englishness. McGuire contends that in novels, the prose genre best suited to plumb suicide’s “representational capacity” (15), suicide can grant dispossessed, disenfranchised characters—and in particular female characters—autonomy and agency where these had been denied previously. Ironically, however, these same novels often shift any agency conferred through suicide from the individual to the communal, in this way constructing female suicide as a form of martyrdom, a nation-defining sacrifice (4). [End Page 163]
The introduction to this book provides a useful “genealogy of suicide” that traces the history of the word and situates eighteenth-century England’s understanding of the phenomenon within discourses of medicine, property rights, natural law, commodity culture, Protestantism, nationalism, and gender (xiv). Revising the “secularization thesis” that has come to dominate historical studies of suicide, McGuire contends that religious superstitions about suicide persisted in popular culture through the long eighteenth century, and that the slippage between suicide and sacrifice or martyrdom made it difficult to fully detach suicide from religious practice and doctrine (16). McGuire also importantly redresses the tendency, evinced in treatments of suicide from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, either to ignore gender difference (positing a universal male suicide) or to deny the full range of female suicide’s signification.
In chapter 1, McGuire studies Eliza Haywood’s amatory fiction in order to show how national identity is established through the sacrifice of women’s individual identities (50). In Haywood’s novels, excessively desiring women kill themselves, or attempt to, over the men who will not love them; suicide grants agency in that it corroborates their desire and “recuperates the transformative potential” of their life stories (32–33). Suicide becomes a national affair when, as in The British Recluse (1722), Haywood constructs the idea of Britishness in relation to an isolated, exilic community of women who have been disappointed both in love and in their attempts to end their lives. Voluntary death and voluntary exile expose the “spectral aspect” of women’s roles within an “emergent idea of the nation” (xv, xiv).
The second chapter details the significance of the classical Lucretia story to the suicidal behaviours of Samuel Richardson’s eponymous heroine Clarissa. The novel’s references to Lucretia both grant Clarissa a measure of autonomy and situate her death in relation to the larger community. Clarissa’s death comes to equal a form of martyrdom (55), a sacrifice that shapes national identity through a sense of collective guilt (at having failed to save her) and through the collective “expulsion of Lovelacean libertinism” by the novel’s end (71, 79).
From here McGuire turns to a similarly besieged woman, the eponymous heroine of John Shebbeare’s Lydia; Or, Filial Piety (1755). Shebbeare presents the “English Malady” as originating not...