- "I leave thee not":Felicia Hemans and Maternal Suicide
The history of suicide, as Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy maintain, is the "history of illusions," distorted by modern assumptions and faulty record keeping (247). The fact that these records indicate a significant gender imbalance, with men "returned as suicides twice as often as women in almost every sample of inquisitions that survive," has contributed to the gendering of suicide as a masculine act (247). Building on these preconceptions, Emile Durkheim's late nineteenth-century sociology of suicide further popularized the notion that "women were insulated from suicide to the extent that they were subsumed within the bounds of traditional family life" (Kushner 38–39). However, the stories that women tell about their capacity for suicide differ markedly from these dominant accounts. Most notably, the late Romantic British poet, Felicia Hemans, represents a starkly different portrait of suicidal women whose domestic situations pose no obstacle to their yearning for self-annihilation.
The major poet of what might be termed "Romantic death," Hemans espouses a sensibility that in some ways harks back to the graveyard school of the century prior (Kelly 27). Her preoccupation with death evokes an eighteenth-century gloom, but rather than wandering amongst the tombs like Gray's speaker or Romantic ruins in the spirit of her more immediate contemporary, Lord Byron, Hemans's poetic personae are active figures who seek out and embrace death in acts framed as heroic defiance. In this sense, they align themselves with Romanticism's openness to voluntary death, which, as a solitary and individual act, seemed to many to epitomize the sovereignty of the will celebrated by writers of this period. As Gary Kelly notes in his introduction to Hemans's poetry, "post-Revolutionary and Romantic culture assigned meaning to death by individualizing it, locating it in the individual subject, in contrast to Revolutionary death which was seen to annihilate the individual in an abyss of mass death and oblivion. . . . Romantic death served the liberal ideology of the autonomous sovereign subject" (28). However, for some Romantic writers like Hemans, suicide reflects both women's autonomy and the indissoluble nature of the maternal bond as she significantly transfigures this paradigm by rendering [End Page 121] suicide an interpersonal event insofar as it is often accompanied by infanticide in her writing.
Hemans's early nineteenth-century poems contest assumptions about the "nature of women" and their supposed immunity to self-destruction in their repeated representation of maternal suicide (Kushner 33). Contrary to Durkheim's claim that "Where the family exists, it protects against suicide," suicide in many of Hemans's poems in fact arises directly from domestic concerns, and is typically read as expressive of the poet's own melancholic reflections on her personal circumstances (462).1 Although I am not suggesting that Hemans's poetic personae are necessarily autobiographical, her work appears especially preoccupied with suicide in foregrounding the deaths of women, specifically maternal figures who choose to expire with their children in poems such as "The Suliote Mother," "The Wife of Asdrubal," and "The Indian Woman's Death Song," among others. As such, the identities of these figures remain contingent and relational, with their deaths countering the understanding of suicide in the Western imagination as a solitary, individual, or gendered act.
The fact that the mothers of Hemans's poems insist upon sharing their fate with their children does validate one aspect of Durkheim's claim: in suiciding with their children, the women seem to preserve their connections to the domestic sphere in their inability or refusal to accept separation from their children. In the vast majority of Hemans's suicide/filicide poems, this dual act preserves the structure of the family against a threat from the outside or, in some cases, from a paternal figure whose infidelity or cowardice threaten its integrity. Hemans dramatizes this scenario in her rendering of a scene from the 146 BCE sacking of Carthage, which, like so many of her other historical "siege poems," highlights the experience of women and children in times of war. Appearing on the roof of a burning temple, the wife of General Asdrubal,2 who had surrendered to the...