he English have been accused by foreigners of being the beau-ideal of a suicidal people, The charge is almost too ridiculous to merit serious refutation. It has clearly been established that where there is one suicide in London, there are five in Paris,"1 Forbes Winslow's words typify Victorian defensiveness over England's seemingly undeserved reputation as "la terre classique du suicide." England's fogs, her earnestness, her graveyard school and poetry of melancholy had given rise to a French myth that was difficult to dispel. By 1800, England had become known as the European center of suicide: home of Edward Young who had cried "O Britain, infamous for suicide" (Young, 5.442) home of Robert Blair who had exclaimed "Self-murder! name it not: Our island's shame/ That makes her the reproach of neighbouring stares"(Blair, 2.403-4) and home of Chatterton, boy wonder and romantic suicide par excellence, whose celebrated early death seemed a glorious martyrdom to Europe's artists. It was a land of black, dark Novembers, dripping with mists of self-destruction. On the continent this myth persisted, provoking an angry English response throughout the nineteenth century. As late as 1878, Thomas Hardy was continuing Winslow's battle by undercutting the French. In The Return of the Native he says of Gym Yeobright: "He had reached the stage in a young man's life when the grimness of the general human situation first becomes clear; and the realization of this causes ambition to halt awhile. In France it is not uncustomary to commit suicide at this stage; in England we do much better, or touch worse, as the case may be (Hardy, 149).
The French were not alone in advancing England's reputation as the classic land of suicide. In Dichtung und Wahrheit Goethe recalled the story of an Englishman who had hanged himself to be rid of the trouble of dressing and undressing each day. This was possible, he said, because the English took hanging lightly, observing it so frequently as a form of public punishment. (Hanging in public was legal in England until 1868). Yet according to Goethe, English poetical literature was characterized by an "earnest melancholy" that deeply marked the English character as suicidal. He convinced himself that England and English literature had prepared the way for the craze that followed the publication of his Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 — the [23/24] epidemic of Wertherism that swept Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Werther's love-lornness, his clothes, his sensibility, and even his death were imitated. Thus, through Goethe's Werther, suicide became fashionable in Germany, just as through Vigny's Chatterton (1835) it would in France some half a century later. One young man committed suicide while watching Vigny play; another killed himself with his hand resting on the last page of Chatterton" (see Steegmuller, 20-21).
Ironically, at no time did the English embrace Wertherism or fashionable suicide as wholeheartedly as did the Continentals. Quite the contrary, people like the Reverend Solomon Piggott abhorred such dangerous fads. "I would," said Piggott in 1824,
most strongly reprobate the sickly notions, the sentimental nonsense, the false morality, the infidel opinions, the immoral precepts, contained in many of our popular novels, romances and plays, which the idle and dissipated waste their hours in persuing [sic]. There is not a book of a more dangerous tendency in many of these respects than the undeservedly admired "Sorrows of Werther," a book which should be forbidden and proscribed, as having largely contributed to diffuse licentiousness, to encourage effeminacy, and to seduce the weak and the agitated to suicide. [Piggott, 130-31]
Less vehement critics also had doubts about Werther and the kind of suicide he represented. In romantic suicide the individual hopes that consciousness will be absorbed by the infinite, but few British ever fully accepted this romantic illusion, English romantics like Wordsworth instead tried to expand and transcend the self through acts of imagination, not self-murder. By the transforming power of mind, mountains, mists, and sea might appear to merge for a moment, yielding intimations of immortality and a respite from entrapment in self. But by Byron's day both Werther's suicide and Wordsworth's imaginative transcendence were all but passé in England.
According to Thomas Carlyle, Byron himself was the most Wertherlike of the English romantics, their "Sentimentalist and Power Man, the strongest of his kind in Europe" (1899; 218). Certainly Byron's characters wanted to lay aside the claims of human identity. Childe Harold yearns to belong to mountains and sea. Nevertheless his creator can neither wholly recapture the Wordsworthian vision nor kill Harold as Goethe killed Werther. Like Lord Byron himself, most of Byron's heroes live on in existential exile. For all his romantic posturing, Byron led the English into the Victorian period, disdainfully branding Castlereagh "the Werther of politics." Byron was on the way to realizing that to create all things, including death, out of the self is neither to transcend [24/25] the human lot nor to confront death. It is only to know the time of dying. Ruefully, his Manfred and Cain front their painful destinies.
Henry Wallis. The Death of Chatterton. 1856. Oil on canvas, 24 l/2 x 36 3/4 in. Tate Gallery, London
Byron's successors in Victorian England also felt that self-created death could not control the fact of death and, far from perpetuating Wertherism, they actually took the lead in drawing Europe out of the era of romantic suicide. In part theirs was a bourgeois reaction to dashing anti-bourgeois figures like Werther and the mythological version of Chatterton. When Henry Wallis painted his dramatic Chatterton in 1855-56, with George Meredith posing as the dead boy-wonder, reactions to the painting were mixed. It was praised by Ruskin and others for its artistic realism, color and drama, and it catapulted Wallis to instant fame. But it was also viewed as an example of how not to die. The Saturday Review thought the painting represented a "mad deed," the sorry end to the "sad history of Chatterton's misdirected genius and boyish vanity,"(17 May 1856: 58) the Handbook to the Gallery of British Paintings in 1857 concurred: "never was the moral of a wasted life better pointed in [25/26] painting." (144). When Robert Browning wrote his "Essay on Chatterton" (1842), (Smalley, 127-128) he focused upon Chatterton's pride, which allowed boy-wonder the illusion of leaving no alternative but to die. Browning found both this pride and this illusion tragic, but his own tone and perspective are those of an older, wiser poet. Browning kept a compassionate distance from Chatterton.
Thus as the Victorians set about reviewing romantic notions about men like Chatterton and Goethe's hero, they took a closer look at themselves. In an 1861 essay in The Psychological Journal, aptly called "The Classic Land of Suicide," the writer first castigates the British collaboration in their reputation for suicide: "With the happy facility for parading our short-comings which is so incomprehensible to other nations, we, before the era of statistics, succeeded in imposing as well upon our neighbours as ourselves the belief that suicide was in an especial manner a bane of this kingdom." (rpt. in Littel's Living Age 3.14; 1861: 195.). He then works his way back to Goethe's view of English literature to see whether it is just. Melancholy the national literature may be, but not suicidal, he decides. Hamlet did not beget Werther; Werther was the first of his kind, a confirmation that the Victorians would make over and over again. Goethe misperceived the British and misconceived his own arguments. Fortunately Wertherism "was comparatively short-lived in England, and at the present day, perhaps, only to be found in France where it still flourishes with considerable vigour." (204). Winslow's war wages on in the pages of this essay, which is also firmly against suicide. The writer wants to destroy the image of England as suicidal because suicide is "revolting," caused by "self-cultivated self-indulged life-weariness."(196)
This view was typical of those Victorians who strongly believed suicide to be immoral even after the laws against felonia-de-se were modified. If both religious and non-religious people condemned suicide, their condemnation was tied to the Victorian question of the will. Romantics like Wordsworth and the fictional Werther in one way or another used willpower to destroy the boundary of self and other-whether that other was nature, a lover, or an idea of God. The Victorians, on the other hand, employed will for self-discipline. Again and again the personae in Emily Brontë's poetry move toward release from selfhood through union with earth and sky or with a beloved person, or through short-lived flights of fancy and mystical moments. Each flight is, however, met with a corresponding return to a self still caught in a world of flux. This entrapment is as much Catherine's and Heathcliff's problem in Wuthering Heights as it is the problem of the personae of Brontë's poems. But in the poems, Brontë offers a solution other than suicide or Byronic desperation: the Victorian solution of endurance. In [26/27] the later poems the central narrator of the non-Gondal poems realizes that she has no cowardly soul and wills to live on to a natural death: "Then did I learn how existence could be cherished, / Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy" (223).
Thus if the romantics and the romantic side of the Victorians favored expanding the self into infinity, a more typically Victorian stance was self-defensive." (In my discussion of romantic and Victorian will, I am indebted to John R. Reed, 1978: 335-366). The Victorians imagined the self as something like a fortified castle and prepared themselves to endure a siege. The chains the romantics wished to break became the necessary walls of a wellprotected self, safeguards to be tended, kept up, and repaired. In this stalwart frame of mind, suicide looked less like release than defeat. Selfmurder became externalized, like murder, an alien force to be feared and resisted. Against this force, the human will became the first and last line of defense, but fractured selves, fabricated enemies, and visions of Armageddon were part of the outcome of battle.
The Victorian revision of Goethe put him in the vanguard of the battle, the captain of willpower. The favored Goethe was the author of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeships, the man who "became king over himself." (Lewes, 151). 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 to the direct path which their wills have prescribed." (151-52) 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 and temperament, Carlyle had written his essay on Goethe in 1828 and felt called upon not only to prove Goethe the master of willpower but to show him free from suicidal taint. In his essay lie quotes extensively from Dichtung und Wahrheit, here focusing on a passage revealing Goethe's resistance to suicide:
I saved myself from the purpose, or indeed mom properly speaking, from the whim, of suicide, which in those fair peaceful times had insinuated self into the mind of indolent youth. Among a considerable collection of arms, I possessed a costly well-ground dagger. This I laid down tightly beside my bed; and before extinguishing the light, I cried whether I could succeed in sending the sharp point an inch or two deep into my breast. But as I truly never could succeed, I at last took to laughing at myself; threw away all these hypochondriacal crotchets, and determined to live (Carlyle, 1899; 223.) [27/28]
Carlyle was fascinated by Goethe's abandonment of "hypochondriacal crotchets" because he had such crotchets himself. Goethe became an exemplar for him, a kind of benign father-figure who had purged his childish thoughts of suicide by writing about them in Werther. This prepared him for a second and "sounder" period in his life when the despair of Werther give way to the "peace" of Meister. Carlyle too would try to write away despair while writing his own way into maturity.
In the early 1820s, about the time of Castlereagh's death and the passage of the new suicide law, Carlyle reached the stage that Hardy attributes to Clym Yeobright. "Grimness of the general human situation" had become all too clear, but being British, Carlyle was ready to do "much better, or much worse" than commit suicide. He would become the first eminent Victorian to pose a cure for Wertherism. In the early twenties, however, he was still in the throes of depression, a kind of alien in the universe. His letters show a young man rife with contradictions: he wants a vocation and feels worthy of one, but is "full of inquietude and chagrin"; he wants independence, yet is afraid to lose the love of his parents; he is "timid yet not humble, weak yet enthusiastic." Most of all he feels unwell to the point that
the gloom of external things seemed to extend itself to the very centre of the mind, till I could remember nothing, observe nothing! All this magnificent nature appeared as if blotted out, and a grey, dirty, dismal vapour filled the immensity of space; I stood alone in the universe — alone, and as it were a circle of burning iron enveloped the soul — excluding from it every feeling but a stony-hearted, dead obduracy, more befitting a demon in its place of woe than a man in the land of the living! [Sanders and Fielding, 378]
In 1821 Carlyle is already a victim of the Victorian view of will — encircled in iron walls, well defended but trapped in himself. By 1822 things begin to open up. Then on Leith Walk he encounters his famous moment of illumination. He will use volition to spring the trap and write a work that both creates and demonstrates a new self. Yet the notebooks Of 1823 show him blocked on this course, self-consciously asking about suicide: " 'Then why don't you kill yourself Sir? Is there not arsenic? Is there not ratsbane of various kinds, and hemp and steel?' Most true, Sathanas, all these things are: but it will be time enough to use them when I have lost the game, which I am as yet but losing." (Norton, 1972; 56). Carlyle persisted, bid farewell to poisonous 1823 in a scathing poem, and eventually got on to 1830 and Sartor Resartus, retailoring himself as he wrote. What he did write was "an inner history of the will," as Wilhelm Dilthey so clearly discerned from his own perspective in the [28/29] nineteenth century (Dilthey, 54). It is mother paean to endurance, an affront to ratsbane, hemp and steel.
Thoughts of self-destruction enter Sartor Resartus with Chapter 6, "Sorrows of Teufelsdröckh." Like Werther, Teufelsdröckh has been miserably disappointed in love and feels himself an alien in a ruined universe. Carlyle's fictional editor brashly declares that Teufelsdröckh has but three courses open to him, "Establish himself in Bedlam; begin writing Satanic Poetry; or blow-out his brains." (Carlyle 1937; 146. All future references are from this edition and appear in my text). The last two were once fashionable courses but will not be those of Carlyle's hero. In the language of Victorian self-defensiveness, Carlyle describes Teufelsdröckh's stance, which is very like his own in 1823." "Thus, if his sudden bereavement, in this matter of the Flower-goddess, is talked of as a real Doomsday and Dissolution of Nature, in which light doubtless it partly appeared to himself. his own nature is nowise dissolved there by; but rather is compressed closer" (SR, 147). Teufelsdröckh internalizes his woe, consumes his choler, and keeps his own Satanic School spouting "inaudibly." He thus becomes the archetypal Victorian male: not a voluble Byronic here but a stoical person who can control himself, if not outward circumstance. Whereas "worldlings puke up their sick existence by suicide" (SR, 159), Teufelsdröckh, the Carlylean hero, endures and moves into the dark world of "The Everlasting No."
There he simmers away like a pressure cooker, existing but not living, eventually becoming limp and sodden — impotent. Already nearly dead within, he nonetheless fears death and refuses suicide.
From Suicide a certain aftershine (Nachschein) of Christianity withheld me: perhaps also a certain indolence of character; for, was not that a remedy I had at anytime within reach? Often, however, was there a question present to me: Should some one now, at the turning of that corner, blow thee suddenly out of Space, into the other World, or other No-world, by pistol-shot, — how were it? On which ground, too, I often, in seastorms and sieged cities and other death-scenes, exhibited an imperturbability, which passed, falsely enough, for courage. [SR, 165]
Such imperturbability could not mask dread. Teuftesdröckh still feels passive, an unwilling victim of outside forces: "I lived in a continual, indefinite, pining fear; tremulous, pusillanimous, apprehensive of I knew not what; it seemed as if all things in the Heavens above and the Earth beneath would hurt me; as if the Heavens and the Earth were but boundless jaws of a devouring monster, wherein I, palpitating, waited to be devoured" (SR, 166). Only when he acknowledges that death is his chief fear and then confronts it, not through succumbing to it by suicide but through defiance, does he feel free to become a man. Growing [29/30] up for this first-generation Victorian involves putting aside childish wishes both for the happiness of perfect love and for death.
Armed with these insights, Teufelsdröckh passes through his "centre of indifference." He turns outward, looks toward, and wanders through the world. What he finds are spectres, with his own spectral self a part of this ghostliness. What is wanted, however, is substance both in self and other so that there can be conflict or warfare, a testing of the embattled self. Weary with world-wandering, he becomes indifferent alike to life and death. For Carlyle's editor, as for Carlyle himself, this indifference constitutes the "first preliminary moral Act, Annihilation of Self (Selbst-todtung)" (SR, 186) and leads to relief. The universe now becomes not spectral but "godlike and my Father's." Here, then, is the legitimate form of Victorian suicide; not literal death but renunciation of self. Carlyle's hero gives Lip his "whims" of personal happiness and frees himself by self-imposing his very chains. Paradoxically he wills the death of self. ". . . the Self in thee needed to be annihilated. By benignant fever-paroxysms is Life rooting out the deep-seated chronic Disease, and triumphs over Death" (SR, 192). Teufelsdröckh is now at liberty to work and most of all to work just where he is. With selfish needs annihilated, the duty nearest to hand serves as sufficient reason for being.
Through the mental and physical peregrinations of Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle clarifies, structures, and fictionalizes his own journey toward suicide and back. This fabrication becomes Carlyle's "work," his own raison d'être. His will and imagination have fashioned a parable of self-defense, self-repression and self-renunciation that will in turn become a paradigm of Victorian thinking. Teufelsdröckh's reflections are certainly representative of Victorian views of self-destruction. The Christian sanctions against suicide that lingered in the mind of the once-Calvinistic Carlyle and are projected into Teufelsdröck remained powerful in Britain up through the 1880s; and Teufelsdröckh's imperturbability in the face of death would pass for courage throughout the era. Like Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle had closed his Byron and opened the Goethe of Wilhelm Meister, had killed the devil despair, and had found a father in the bargain. Whereas for Goethe in Meister renunciation had been a part of Bildung, self-development, and a form of integration, for Carlyle and for many Victorians renunciation would instead become a dying to the self. Carlyle had toward Goethe "the feeling of a Disciple to his Master, nay of a son to his Spiritual Father," (Norton, 1970; 7) but Carlyle was no clone. With his own British version of renunciation, Carlyle himself became a kind of spiritual father to his age. Thus for R. H. Hutton, writing in 1887, "Carlyle was to England what his great hero, Goethe, [30/31] long was to Germany, — the aged seer." (See Basil Willey, 102.) Sartor functioned as a sermon for eminent later Victorians like Froude; it became a work of salvation, like In Memoriam (see George Levine, 76). In both of these influential works, Victorian willpower and the will to write about personal anguish come to the aid of mystery and stage a momentary defeat of death. ln orchestrating this defeat, Carlyle projected a message that his own doubting and deathhaunted successors wanted to hear.
John Stuart Mill
If Carlyle in many ways typifies the first generation of eminent Victorians, so does John Stuart Mill, whom Emery Neff saw as its other major representative. (Neff, 1964). Carlyle was a spokesman for religion — not for orthodoxy, surely, but for mystery and submission. His savior was Goethe. Mill, on the other hand, was the voice of reason, of utilitarianism made palatable, of liberty made tame. Yet from his very different perspective Mill, too, had undergone a conversion experience preceded by a wish not to be. His savior would be Wordsworth. Clinically and seemingly unselfconsciously, Mill relates the crisis "in his mental history" in the famous fifth chapter of his Autobiography. From an early age he had "an object in life: to be a reformer of the world." Nevertheless in 1826, in a "dull state of nerves," he asked himself whether he would be happy if all his social aims were fulfilled, if all the institutional changes and changes of opinion he hoped for were effected. "An irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, "No!", and Mill's "heart sank." "Dry, heavy dejection" and melancholy followed in the winter of 1826-27 (Mill, Autobiography; 90). Mill walked through that winter in a daze, deadened and mechanical, until life became unbearable. "I frequently asked myself," he says, "if I Could, or if I was bound to go on living, when life must be passed in this manner. I generally answered to myself, that I did not think I could possibly bear it beyond a year" (A, 91).
Mill makes it clear that he could not consult his father in his crisis because his father's famous educator — designed to make him a prodigy, a rationalist, and a Benthamite — did not allow for such a state of nerves. Instead, Mill found succor in two men of letters. Marmontel's Mémoires moved him to tears of relief when he read of the death of the father. This much-discussed gesture of Mill's is usually seen as a Freudian death-wish toward the repressive James Mill, a wish so undetected by the younger Mill that he was free to write openly about it. Yet it was also a move out of the entrapment of a limiting system of thought, quite as Mill says it was. Interestingly, the relief afforded by Marmontel leads Mill to the Carlylean realization that happiness is not to be found through watching for it; it appears along the way as one pursues some other end Mill would later term this realization Carlyle's theory of "anti-selfconsciousness." Thus Mill rejects the self-destructive constrictions [31/32] of Benthamism but, Victorian that he is, discovers a way of stilling yearnings without killing self. Wordsworth's poetry completes Mill's cure, convincing him that the cultivation of feelings can be coupled with concern for the "common destiny of human beings" (A, 96). Byron, on the contrary, had only exacerbated his depression, being of a state of mind too like his own.
Exactly why Mill reaches the impasse Of 1826 is never really made clear in the Autobiography. A. W. Levi is convinced that guilt over a death-wish for his father is the reason (86-101), and Gertrude Hiturnelfarb's insights into the "other John Stuart Mill" substantiate Levi's theory (Himmelfarb, ch. 4). Himmelfarb refers to a second mental crisis in 1835 when Mill suffers pain in the stomach and head, infection, and severe muscular twitches of the face. All these symptoms occurred after James Mill himself fell ill, and all of them disappeared when the elder Mill died. John Stuart Mill's second breakdown is not discussed in his Autobiography, which may indicate that youthful crises like those of Carlyle and Mill were more acceptable to the Victorians than were those of later life. The Victorians did not want to believe that conversion experiences did not solve life's crises once and for all.
Like Carlyle, Mill refers to the will in his discussion of dejection in the Autobiography. After recalling how his character seemed to have been formed by "antecedent circumstances" that crushed and smothered him, Mill says that he pondered
painfully on the subject, till gradually I saw light through it. I perceived, that the word Necessity, as a name for the doctrine of Cause and Effect applied to human artion, carried with it a misleading association; and that this association was the operative force in the depressing and paralysing influence which I had experienceit I saw that chough our character is formed by circumstances, our own desires can do much to shape those circumstances; and that what is really inspiriting and ennobling in the doctrine of free-will, is the conviction that we have real power over the formation of our own character; that our will, by influencing some of our circumstances, can modify our future habits or capabilities of willing. [A,T09]
The theory of necessity now ceased to oppress him, and he learned the difficult Victorian art of adhering faithfully to no single system. Like Carlyle, Mill went on to offer his insights to others through his writing. As he said, "the train of thought which had extricated me from this dilemma, seemed to me, in after years, fitted to render a similar service to others; and it now forms the chapter on Liberty and Necessity in the concluding Book of my 'System of Logic' " (A, 110). Suicide never became the subject of Mill's other writings. In On Liberty he totally [32/33] avoided the issue of the ultimate freedom to take one's own life. Arguing that one legitimaiely can do whatever does not harm another individual or the public, he carried his argument as far as to slavery. Since individual liberty is to be desired, Mill insists that if one were to sell oneself into slavery, one would be moving contrary to basic human desires. "The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free" (Mill, 1975; 95). Although he could logically have extended his argument to self-murder, Mill did not. He did, however, return to the question of happiness in his 1861 essay Utilitarianism and there gave an indication of why suicide was not a fitting subject for his essays. Even this later, revised version of utilitarianism is based on the pursuit of happiness, a happiness now conditioned by "anti-selfconsciousness." He points out that even if it were not so, utilitarianism would at the least espouse the "prevention or mitigation of unhappiness," greatly needed by humankind "so long at least as mankind think fit to live, and do not take refuge in the simultaneous act of suicide recommended under certain conditions by Novalis" (Mill, 1966; 164). Suicide, then, undermines utilitarianism, and Mill would remain a modified utilitarian to the end.
Frances Nightingale by Arthur George Walker, R.A. 1861-1936 (Part of the
Crimean War Memorial located at the junction of Lower Regent Street
and Pall Mall, London). Not in print version.
Mill and Carlyle both found in work — writing, reforming, and teaching — ways to overcome "the stage in a young man's life when the grimness of the human situation first comes clear." A young woman's life offered few such outlets. Half a generation later than Mill, Florence Nightingale would confront depression and suicide from a female vantage point. A mother, not a father, was her bête noire, and enforced idleness, not purposeful work, seemed her future. As a lady and member of a wealthy, upper-class family, Nightingale was expected to marry, to visit, and to entertain. She was accorded a role to play, not a vocation for which to live; and, detesting that role, she tried for years to break free from it. Throughout the 1840s, the decade of her twenties, she suffered intolerable frustration. By 1844 she had already settled on a metier — nursing — but she was barred access to it. Gentlewomen were not to put themselves in the way of dangers like exposure to dirt and disease, let alone warfare, nor were they to put aside Victorian modesty with regard to the human body. Nursing was a job for lower-class women or dedicated nuns. Nightingale's family strongly objected to her choice of nursing on such grounds and on the grounds that Florence might also be exposed to the flirtations and lechery of doctors. Nightingale's mother, Fanny, said as much and counselled marriage and travel as antidotes for Florence's "nursing fever."
Fanny's effect on her daughter was profound. Caught between her sense of duty to family and her desire for work, Nightingale fell victim to severe bouts of depression. Even recreational trips to the Continent [33/34] inflamed her thwarted need to work. Throughout 1850 and 1851 she experienced her worst frustration. An unpublished diary for 1850 and an "autobiography" and memoranda for 1850-51 self-document two years of awesome hopelessness and yearning for death.2 In May of 1850 Nightingale read Cowper and identified with his "deep despondency." In Greece by 7 June, she determined to go to the Eumenides cave to exorcise her Furies. Unlike Carlyle's devils, her demons resembled the women in her family. Nightingale felt guilty and sinful toward her mother and conformist sister, Parthe, and angry at what felt like their vengeful fury-like pursuit of her. Unfortunately, the cave was of no help to her. Alone inside, she still felt pursued and wondered 'who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" No Wordsworth, no Goethe came to her aid, only Richard Monkton Milnes, intellectual and philanthropist, who would ask for her hand in marriage in 1850. Much to her family's dismay, Nightingale refused. She thought her "active moral nature" would have been compromised even by this match. By Christmas eve, she lamented that "in my thirty first year, I can see nothing desirable but death.... I cannot understand it. I am ashamed to understand it" (NP, leaf f. 53).
For a year and a half, Nightingale had tried to suppress her daydreams and prepare for a life of action but had failed. What she did not realize was that those dreams were in fact her salvation, since her life was already like death. She had confused the literal with the symbolic: she really wanted metaphorically to kill her old life in order to assume a new one, but she thought she simply wanted to die. Her diary entries are full of such confusion: "voluntarily to put it out of my power ever to be able to seize the chance of forming myself a . . . rich life would seem to me like suicide. And yet my present life is suicide" (NP, leaf f. 54).
Eventually the diaries focus on a metaphor that more clearly expresses Nightingale's state. Florence Nightingale is starving to death for want of work. Her suppressed rebellion against her family has left her a kind of emotional anorexic. She sees in her current scate an equivalent to murder: she is being starved by others' expectations. "I am perishing," she says, "for want of food. And what prospect have I of better? While I am in this position, I can expect nothing else. Therefore I spend my day in dreams of other situations which will afford me food" (NP, leaf f. 55). Hers, then, is a death-in-life; but she does nor really want to die, only to die to idleness and live through work:
Starvation does not lead a man to action-it only weakens him. Oh weary days-oh evenings chat seem never to end-for how many years I have watched [34/35] that drawing room clock . . . it is not the misery, the unhappiness that I feel is so insupportable, but I feel this habit, this disease gaining ground upon me and no hope, no help. This is the sting of death.
Why do I wish to leave this world? God knows I do not suspect a heaven beyond-but that He will set me down in St. Giles, at a Kmserswerth, there to find my work. (NP, leaf f. 55)
Once Nightingale really understands the nature of her problem, her diary entries alter. She has converted herself, although she is not yet fully aware of this. A kind of religious meditation follows on an overleaf of the last letter of 1850. In it she opens a casement and feels the night wind blow over her. Unlike the early English romantics for whom such wind was beneficial, a corresponding breeze answering the breaths of their voices, Nightingale experiences several winds from different directions. If some are benign, others are hostile. They indicate conflicting but invigorating movements in her life and thought by the end of 1850.
After this meditation come a new form of self-discipline and a new form of self-address in Nightingale's papers. She begins to command herself, her voice is imperative. "Let me not try to disguise these two facts from myself, Spirit of Truth, but let me honestly and with simplicity of purpose set to work not to complain, but to find the means to live" (NP, leaf f. 67). She asks to do God's will but determines to regiment her own. She must place intercourse with her family on a new footing; she must grow up; she must refuse to be treated as a child; she must give over the thoughts of real death; she must quit trying to be understood by her parents. She must also "take" the food she has been perishing for, "a nourishing life — that is happiness." Nightingale must feed herself in order not to become like the suicidal self-starvers of George Burrows's classic nineteenth-century work on insanity. (Burrows, 426). Such people show either a disgust for food or an obstinate rejection of it, whereas Nightingale wants to relieve her starvation.
By 1851, Nightingale turns more directly to the question of happiness. Once in her life she had been happy, at Kaiserswerth in Germany, where in 1848 she spent a fortnight at a model hospital staffed by a Protestant religious order. In the summer of 185 1 she would return there and experience similar happiness. To Fanny she wrote: "I find the deepest interest in everything here and am so well in body and mind...I really should be sorry now to leave life. I know you will be glad to hear, dearest mother, this" (NP, leaf f. 137). Nightingale did nor live happily ever after, however. Her depressions recurred, and her troubles with Fanny and Parthe were never really resolved until her mother's and sister's final illnesses when Florence gained absolute control over [35/36] her two weakened Furies. Maybe by then she realized that she herself was a Fury in their eyes, that they were all three the avengers.
Throughout her life Nightingale would continue to long for death. To Mary Clarke Mehl in 1881 she wrote: "I cannot remember the time when I have not longed for death. After Sidney Herbert's death and Clough's death in 1861, 20 years ago, for years and years I used to watch for death as no sick man ever watched for the morning. It is strange that now bereft of all, I crave for it less" (Woodham-Smith, 341). Throughout her life, too, she put herself in the way of death and disease merely by exercising her profession. And when she was not directly in touch with danger, she underwent or contrived prolonged periods of invalidism when she controlled her mother, sister, and male associates by letter and directive sent out from her bedroom. These illnesses were both forms of selfdestruction and a means of survival. Yet Nightingale, like Carlyle and Mill, had one major suicidal crisis. When it passed she, too, wrote, offering others directives on how not to die. Still in her thirty-first year, she received a call from God to be a "saviour" and produced Suggestions for Thought to Searchers After Religious Truth. A ponderous work in three volumes, Suggestions aims at an audience of artisans, purporting to give them a theology to live by. Newly in contact with the working classes, Nightingale was appalled at their lack of religion. Her message for them would be her diary's message to herself. Individuals must use their own wills for human betterment and thus help to accomplish God's will on earth. "Many," she would say, "long intensely to die, to go to another world, which could not be worse and might be better than this. But is there any better world there to go into?" [Nightingale, MS45840].
Mill would be amused by Nightingale's missionary zeal in exhorting the working, class to live and work on in God's service (see F. B. Smith, 187). Nightingale, however, was utterly serious about her mission. In the notes for Suggestions she asks herself, "Can I will what I wish? Can I do what I will?" (MS45837, f. 28). What she would will in 1852 was to rewrite her diary in the service of humanity, careful to include not just working-class but also female humanity. In this light, the section of Volume 11 called "Cassandra" bears reexamination. Like Nightingale, middle-class women are starving for work. They sit down daily to large meals of food but lack spiritual and mental sustenance. Idleness and marriage stifle them to the point that "some are only deterred from suicide because it is the most distinct manner to say to an indifferent God: 'I will not, I will not do as Thou wouldst have me,' and because it is 'no use'" (MS45848, f. 239). And yet these women continue to wait for a palpable deliverer. Nightingale concludes this section of Suggestions with symbols and ambivalences. "The next Christ will perhaps be a female Christ," she hopes, and yet she asks, "Do we [36/37] see one woman who looks like a female Christ? or even like the messenger before her 'face,' to go before her and prepare the hearts and minds for her?" (MS45848, f. 240). Her answer to these questions is only implied: no, there is no such Christ unless she herself is to be one. There is only Cassandra, the dying and unheeded prophetess whose real death has already taken place in the thwarting of her talent, not in her ultimate physical end.
Suggestions was revised in 1859 and privately printed in 1860, after Florence Nightingale's return from Crimea. By then, Nightingale's personal and vocational crises had passed, and she had become less dedicated to philosophical and literary pursuit. Her mission lay elsewhere, in physically ministering to other lives. In doing so, she became both a literal saviour and a legendary figure: the "Lady with the Lamp," a living female counterpart of Holman Hunt's portrait of Christ as Light of the World. (Hunt was said to have used a female model, Annie Miller, for his Christ.) With no Goethes, nor Wordsworths, nor even James Mill, to show her the way, she transformed herself into her own and others' source of salvation from death — if not a kind of female Christ, then surely a kind of Virgin Florence. Unlike Carlyle and Mill and the women who left fathers only to marry, Nightingale did not want a change of masters. Instead she became one of the first Victorian women to point the way toward self-mastery as a road to female salvation.
Despite differences in temperament and sex, the sage of Ecclefechan, the great utilitarian and apostle of liberty, and the Lady of the Lamp all warred with suicidal despair in similar ways. Each had to metamorphose: to convert him or herself from youthful despair and desire for death to useful adulthood. All three had to grow up. For Carlyle, selfdenial, itself a kind of suicide, paradoxically offered the way. For Mill and Nightingale self-denial was hardly liberating but rather a kind of self-starvation. Yet each of these three eminent Victorians had metaphorically to kill a parent or bogey — a former self of sorts — in order to emerge rather than die. And because each had a mission, each had to write and then rewrite his or her story, shifting from the private world of letters, notebooks, and journals to a public voice in more formal prose. Thus personal crisis became public narrative for the greater good of community, so that their literature is strongly marked by morality and didacticism. All three girded themselves in perseverance, willpower, and work and battled their own suicidal despair. In doing so they became apostles of self-transformation and endurance, evidence that upper and middle-class Victorian Britain seemed determined not to be a "classic land of suicide" They laid legal issues and implications of insecurity aside, confronting suicide as a personal moral choice. Hard as it might seem, it was simply better to be than not to be.
Last modified 12 May 2023