ccording to William Knighton, whose essay on suicide appeared in the 1881 Contemporary Review, "Men everywhere are becoming more weary of the burden of life" (82). By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, simply being alive had become a severe trial to many. Hopelessness beset the dispossessed and sensitive alike, and vitality seemed to be eroding away with the century. Men, especially, seemed to find it harder to displace anxiety and death. They felt out of control, powerless against the force of their own inventions, runaway science, runaway technology, runaway urbanism. Lost and homeless in an alien universe, the articulate among them spun eloquent metaphors to define their plight. Looking back to the 1870s and 1880s, Havelock Ellis recalled that he "had the feeling that the universe was represented as a sort of factory filled by an inextricable web of wheels and looms and flying shuttles, in a deafening din. That, it seemed, was the world as the most competent scientific authorities declared it to be made. It was a world I was prepared to accept and yet a world in which, I felt, I could only wander restlessly, an ignorant and homeless child" (199). John Ruskin in 1884 found that "harmony is now broken, and broken the world round: fragments, indeed, of what existed still exist, and hours of what is past still return; but month by month the darkness gains upon the day, and the ashes of the antipodes glare through the night" (78-79). A disillusioned Arthur Balfour referred to human life as "an accident, [man's] story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets (30). And Francis Adams's hero in A Child of the Age (1884; 1894) seems to have spoken both for his creator and for his age when he exclaimed:
"Was I never to have rest, peace, comfort, self-sufficiency, call it what you please, — that spiritual sailing with spread canvas before a full and unvarying wind? Why was it, why? Was it really because the strange shadow of Purposelessness is played the perpetual-rising Banquo at Life's feast for me? . . . I didn't know, I didn't know! I wished I were dead" (212)
Adams made good his own and his hero's wish when he killed himself in 1893. By century's end, with everything else in flux and with death [151/152] harder to distance, suicide seemed more often courted and was more often condoned.
Throughout the Victorian era, compassion for suicides and for their families had certainly grown. Late in the century, coroner's juries most often brought in verdicts of "temporary insanity" in cases of suicide. In an 1885 pamphlet, The Right to Die, T. O. Bonser asked for two things from his contemporaries: "(1) A legalization of suicide in extreme cases. (2) A mitigation of the harsh prejudice with which it is regarded (Bonser, 8). Many Victorians were on the way to granting both of these requests in Bonser's day. By 1870 public opinion about suicide had already liberalized sufficiently to allow for the abolition of forfeiture, and the bodies of suicides were no longer sent to anatomy classes for dissection. Then in 1879 and 1882 came two further legal revisions. Suicide was no longer classed as homicide, so that the maximum sentence for attempted suicide would be reduced to just two years; and suicides were at last granted the right of burial in daylight hours, although the clergy were to decide on the question of allowing Christian rites. Also by the last quarter of the century, public records and statistics on suicide were far more reliable than they had ever been, so that more suicides were recorded and rates seemed higher. W. Knighton's 1881 article "Suicidal Mania" drew upon Morselli's statistics to show how much more common suicide was becoming, "not in England only, but all over the civilized world" (81). The implications of this seemingly indisputable statement were beginning to gnaw at the Victorians, and throughout the latter part of the century, essays in periodicals began to speculate as to just what this increase meant in terms of Victorian civilization and ethics.
One of the most comprehensive of these essays on suicide appeared in Blackwood's in June of 1880 (Marshall, 719-735). Called simply "Suicide," it aimed to explain the increase in self-destruction by correlating the suicide rate with changes in the quality of life. In it, the interests of the statisticians were reviewed — incidence of suicide, method of self-destruction, and the influence of climate and culture — but the author was far more interested in just what it was about his era that caused the frequency shown in the statistics. He found that the intensity of agitation and disillusionment over life had made suicide appear like an antidote, "an outburst of the universal appetite for calm; because every man who wilfully terminates his life does so, necessarily, with the idea of improving his condition" (720). He also speculated that the growth of cities had led to more suicide, for there was, said the author, a greater sense of solitude in cities than in smaller towns and also "more misery and more despondency, with less encouragement of restraint" (725) Like many another [152/153] writer who would enter what became a Victorian debate about suicide, this anonymous author also doubted that morals without religion would ever be sufficient deterrents to suicide.
This type of concern had become the crux of the most heated argument over suicide to occur in the last quarter of the century, and nowhere was more heat generated in this controversy than in the pages of Nineteenth Century. Edited by Tennyson's friend James Knowles, this periodical sponsored several symposia on questions of belief. For example, in Volume I, the issue for April and May 1877, included "The Influence upon Morality of a Decline in Religious Belief," a symposium that opened and closed with remarks by James Fitzjames Stephen. Then, in September 1877, it printed an article that posed the ultimate question: "Is Life Worth Living?" The author W. H. Mallock, a young Oxford graduate, approached his question by directly attacking atheists. To his mind modern atheism was grounded in research, experiment, and proof. Its god was Nature, an immoral god incapable of correcting the malaise of the age or enspiritirig humankind with a sense of morality or of life's meaning. This became the heart of his argument: Could such contemporary secularism give contemporary human beings "something worth living for, some goal to work towards when the very notions of a God and a future life have left us, and have evapourated even out of our imaginations?" (rpt in Burlingame, II, 332) Mallock's answer was that it could not, since its morality was founded upon a vague sense of human betterment rather than upon time-tested doctrine.
Mallock's views were soon challenged, again in the pages of Nineteenth Century. In the December 1879 issue, L. S. Bevington concluded a two-part essay, "Modern Atheism and Mr. Mallock," in which she vehemently defended the secular morality that he had attacked. "So far as human life is worth living," she argued, " so far is it worth protecting. So far as it is not worth living, so far is it needful to ameliorate it. Duty, on secular principles, consists in the summarized conduct conducive to the permanent protection and progressive amelioration of the human lot" (1001). Bevington doubted both Mallock's logic and his heart. She could not be convinced that what she called "the felt value of life" was dependent upon believing that life would last forever, and she would not be convinced that any belief in Jife's worth could come from reasoned demonstrations of morality such as Mallock's. Bevington believed that secular moralists like George Eliot, whom Mallock denigrated, based their ethics in feeling and compassion, not in dogma or argumentation. Such social thinkers would do what they could to improve the human condition on earth. If religion was in fact losing its hold on the nineteenth century, then "Religion's foster-child, Society, must eventually learn to trust her own two feet of civil and moral law, and run alone" (1015). It was of course this sort of positivism that had originally goaded Mallock into writing his own article. So the wheel turned round and round [153/1545] in the late 1870s. The suicide rate appeared to be up, and no one really knew why — except that something fearful was undermining even the will to live.
By 1880, Victorian artists too felt both the pervasiveness of suicidal mania and the weight of hopelessness. No longer could poets like Tennyson as readily subdue their dream-worlds to the call of duty or action. Now one of their tasks was to describe both the empty universe and the psyches of those who were deterministically caught in its grip. Mid-Victorian morality had slipped into a void, with its religious groundwork washed out from under it. In November of 1881, Tennyson published a dark dramatic monologue, "Despair," in which he "hypothesized the feelings of a would-be suicide in the latter half of our nineteenth century" (Qtd. by Ricks in Poems, p. 1299). Narrated by the would-be suicide himself, this melodramatic poem depicts total disillusionment with life, hope, God, and the promise of an afterlife. Both the narrator and his wife have attempted self-destruction by walking into the sea. Although the wife has been drowned, the narrator has been rescued by a minister of the Calvinistic sect to which the couple had once stoutly belonged. Before their suicide attempt, the two had become thoroughly desperate over their loss of faith and hope and as thoroughly contemptuous of the Calvinism that they believed had led them to their pass. Tennyson's narrator castigates the minister for having saved him, fiercely and directly asserting his right to die to a world so harsh and comfortless.
This grim tale was based on an account taken from a newspaper and suggested to Tennyson by Mary Gladstone, and it was just the sort of subject to attract Tennyson at this time. Sir Charles Tennyson tells us that late in 1881 the Laureate was deeply depressed — both personally and morally (460-461). He had recently suffered profoundly over the loss of James Spedding, a friend from his Cambridge days, and had been affected, too, by the deaths of Dean Stanley and Carlyle. He had consequently been brooding over questions of death and immortality. In 1881 he went so far as to join in the founding of the Society of Psychical Research, hoping for, but not finding, clues to the secret of life after death. Meanwhile he too felt bleak over what he thought were a growing loss of faith and a tendency toward evil in the world; what was needed, he deduced, was the advocacy of feeling and spirit over against both rationalism and darkness. Yet the dramatic monologue that flowed from the Laureate's pen in late 1881 was ambiguous, not reaffirming. In "Despair," Tennyson's narrator is weak and self-pitying, so that the reader is invited to condemn both his viewpoint and his attempt at suicide. Like Tennyson, however, this narrator is deeply affected by the ills of his day so that he also gains the sympathy of the reader. [154/155]
We do not know whether Tennyson had read and pondered Bevington's 1879 essay before writing "Despair," or James Thomson's powerful City of Dreadful Night (1870-74), which appeared in volume-form for the first time in 1880. But Thomson's long poem shows the same concern with suicide and the meaning of life in a godless world as do Mallock's and Bevington's essays and Tennyson's poem. Thomson's narrator poses the question that is posed by the essayists
When Faith and Love and Hope are dead indeed,
Can Life still live? By what doth it proceed? [I, 129]
His answer is that it does not proceed. Thomson's Necessity suggests that
'if you would not this poor life fulfill,
Lo, you are free to end it when you will,
Without the fear of waking after death... [PW, 14.767-69]
Here, as in Tennyson's poem and in so much late Victorian literature, the universe is a vast stranger, an abyss dotted with widely separated stars. In such a universe, a river like the Thames begins to seem like a refuge, much as does the salty sea in Tennyson's "Despair." This "River of the Suicides" beckons humans to
perish from their suffering surely thus,
For none beholding them attempts to save,
He may seek refuge in the selfsame wave" (PW, 19-97 1-74]
Indifference to all but the death-wish devours those who people the City of Dreadful Night. The English despair of the i87os and 188os had found one of its most despondent voices in James Thomson, and self-destruction was on its way to becoming a central metaphor for fin de siécle England.
Suicide took on the status of trope quite readily. Discussion of self-destruction, so much more open by the end of the century, had become an important form of social criticism as suicide was more directly related to the evils of the day. According to the Reverend J. Gurnhill in 1900, "the causes which lead to suicide are many of them of a social character, that is, they take their rise in the unsatisfactory condition of those social problems, whether industrial, civil, or domestic, on the well-ordering of which the contentment, welfare, and happiness of the people so greatly depend" (180). Suicide, then, first became an indicator of social illness, a measure of what was wrong with late Victorian Britain and her institutions. It next became a symbol of social malaise. Take suicide and the city, for example. Like Thomson, many Victorians forged links between London and self-destructiveness, but Olive Anderson has shown the erroneousness of arguing that London was sui generis in terms of suicide (155). The 1880 writer for Blackwood's contended that the preponderance of urban suicides was not so much attributable to greater suffering in cities as to "the lesser disposition to support that suffering" (Marshall, 725) In 1892, W. R. Lethaby called the capital city a place where men "grow sickly like grass under stone, "(Lethaby, 99) a place of withering, dying, and burial — the appropriate site for suicides. When Jack London visited London at the turn of [155/156] the century, he found life there "cheap and suicide common," with suicide attempts rousing little more interest or compassion in police courts than did drunkenness" (23-73). He posited a loss of instinct for life as the cause for this indifference. The great western metropolis had become a necropolis; it was suicidal, an emblem of emotional deadness.
George Gissing's New Grub Street
Near the heart of this symbolic necropolis lay George Gissing's New Grub Street, fictional last outpost of the literary world. If, early in our era, Carlyle, Mill and Nightingale wrote themselves back toward affirming life, Gissing's earnest characters in New Grub Street (1891) write themselves toward death at its end. Old Grub Street, the haunt of Dr. Johnson, knew failures and poverty, but Gissing's new Grub Street, haunt of Harold Biffen and Edwin Reardon, knows total hopelessness as well. Setting his novel in the early 1880s, just after the article on "Suicide" in Blackwood's, Gissing wrote of a city so joyless that suicide for some seemed an improvement over life.
Central to Gissing's book is the conflict between writing as trade and writing as art. Survivors like Jasper Milvain write to grub for money; self-destructives like Reardon and Biffen want to write good three-volume novels or innovative neo-realism but are doomed from the start. Gissing makes this clear in his very first chapter through the mouthpiece of Milvain. A pragmatist himself, Milvain expects the idealistic Reardon to become a suicide, for "he is just the kind of fellow to end by poisoning or shooting himself." Milvain's Reardon cannot "keep up literary production as a paying business,"(Gissing, 36) and certainly that much is true. Saddled with an ambitious wife and an exacting conscientiousness, he exhausts himself in an attempt to satisfy both. The wife, Amy, proves more prophetic than Milvain when she points out to her husband that "if one refuses to be of one's time and yet hasn't the means to live independently, what can result but break-down and wretchedness?" (NGS, 81). Yet Reardon plugs on, continues to write triple-deckers — an increasingly less popular art form — and to spin daydream fantasies about ancient and modern Greece with his friend, Biffen. A man following the dictates of an earlier Victorian time, Reardon anachronistically drudges away at his painstakingly long novels and at the same time uses willpower to sustain his life. In Gissing's late Victorian London, however, this kind of integrity is no road to salvation. Because Reardon does not play their game, those fellow Grub Streeters who review Reardon's work take it to task. And because he refuses to bend, Reardon becomes brittle in health, haunted by despair and nightmares, and enfeebled in body, much as Amy predicted he would.
Still, Gissing does not permit suicide for poor Reardon and opens his own third volume with interesting reasons why: [156/157]
REFUGE from despair is often found in the passion of self-pity and that spirit of obstinate resistance which it engenders. In certain natures the extreme of self-pity is intolerable, and leads to self-destruction; but there are less fortunate beings whom the vehemence of their revolt against fate strengthens to endure in suffering. These latter are rather imaginative than passionate; the stages of their woe impress them as the acts of a drama, which they cannot bring themselves to cut short, so various are the possibilities of its dark motive. The intellectual man who kills himself is most often brought to that decision by conviction of his insignificance; self-pity merges in self-scorn, and the humiliated soul is intolerant of existence. He who survives under like conditions does so because misery magnifies him in his own estimate. (NGS, 373)
Reardon is one who lives on to natural death by virtue of his tolerable self-pity. He fights for life in the end. Not so his friend, Biffen, a near alter-ego to Reardon. While Edwin Reardon struggles with the vulgar by refusing to pander to crude tastes or to show vulgarity in his work, Harold Biffen "delights" in "vulgar circumstances" because his "life has been martyred by them" (NGS, 174) and opts to write a realistic novel about a grocer. At one point, a despairing Reardon is told by Biffen that he must not commit suicide because of his love for beautiful Amy. Although Reardon responds that she is precisely why he could kill himself, Biffen is right: Reardon cannot die mainly because of Amy, and Biffen does willfully die after he realizes he can never have a woman like the widowed Amy. Ultimately Reardon rejects both Amy and his vision of Greece, while Biffen embraces but renounces them to complete Reardon's destiny. Biffen's final moments come in a peaceful, parklike setting that is described with a lyricism usually reserved in this book for descriptions of the Greek fantasy.
Biffen's suicide by self-poisoning is carefully accounted for by Gissing, as is Reardon's psychology in not committing suicide. Biffen's sad bachelorhood and will to die evince a denial of egoism, a refusal to perpetuate the self. Gissing describes Biffen as winning a battle against turmoil, self-serving, and delusion. His death wish comes just after he hears a thoughtless colleague go on about his own hopes for love and marriage. Biffen now, says Gissing:
knew the actual desire of death, the simple longing for extinction. One must go far in suffering before the innate will-to-live is thus truly overcome; weariness of bodily anguish may induce this perversion of the instincts; less often, that despair of suppressed emotion which had fallen upon Harold. Through the night he kept his thoughts fixed on death in its aspect of repose, of eternal oblivion. And herein he had found solace. . . . A few more days, and he was possessed by a calm of spirit such as he had never known. His resolve was taken, not in a moment of supreme conflict, but as the result of a subtle process [157/158] by which his imagination had become in love with death. Turning from contemplation of life's one rapture, he looked with the same intensity of desire to a state that had neither fear nor hope. (NGS, 527-28)
Gissing clearly prefers Biffen's motives for suicide over Reardon's motives for living or Milvain's for getting on in life by dying to art. All three characters approximate types of men described and judged by Schopenhauer, whom Gissing had read and about whose work he wrote in an essay entitled "The Hope of Pessimism" (Coustillas, 45-64) Milvain dangerously embodies a pragmatic egoism that undermines art, Schopenhauer's one route to optimism. Reardon behaves like the suicides imagined by Schopenhauer; he "wills life, and is dissatisfied merely with the conditions on which it has come to him" (Schopenhauer, vol. 1 p. 398) Milvain is not really far off in expecting Reardon to kill himself-, he only misjudges Reardon's kind of self-pity. And Biffen acts more like the Schopenhauerean man who with eyes open to human suffering denies the will to live. Schopenhauer would probably have condoned Biffen's will not to live, but not his suicide. Biffen's way may be the hope of pessimism, but it is still the way to dusty death. Gissing, however, was gloomier than Schopenhauer. All Gissing's characters are planted in the valley of the shadow of death, renamed "the valley of the shadow of books" and symbolized in New Grub Street by the reading room of the British Museum. All touch or are in some way associated with this room, the origin or repository for so many of their writings and strugglings and the bookish source of the formula for the effective poison that will kill Biffen. Gissing's literary London is above all else a place where people are spent in service to the word. Among the characters in its purview, only Biffen wholly refuses either to join the hectic dance of money and death or to await nasty oblivion. He resigns himself to a quieter kind of deadly withdrawal.
The extent of Gissing's sympathy for Biffen was in part a sign of the relaxing taboos against suicide in the 1890s. Biffen's self-destruction is Gissing's version of what Blackwood's had called the "universal appetite for calm" in the early 1880s. But it is also a protest against materialism, a statement of despair in a loveless world, a cry of doom over the death of writing as art, and a blow to bourgeois disdain for and fear of suicide. Little of this was lost on Gissing's Victorian reviewers, one of whom saw "the motive forces" of the whole book as: "Life, which suffers so much, and has no respite until death steps in to help; faith, which dies hard, after an agonizing struggle against circumstance; love, which gives all, and gains nothing in return" (WH, 19) Gissing used suicide to symbolize the pain inherent in the loss of such "motive forces" and in doing [158/159] so would lead the way for a number of writers of the 1890s, the generation whom Yeats dubbed "tragic."
Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed
Another novel of 1891, Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed, also envisioned a bitter end for men who aspired to both art and love. Kipling's equivalent to Grub Street is the war-torn, imperialist Sudan, where his artist hero Dick Heldar and cohorts are vigorous and ambitious foreign correspondents. When Dick returns to England from the front, he finds his war pictures have made him popular, so much so that he begins to pander to public taste by subduing his gift for realism. But success breeds arrogance in Dick Heldar, an insecure man at best. Dick's early roots are in orphanhood and his early experiences in London have been bitter. Young and impoverished in the big city, he was once cheated of three pence he had been promised for carrying a man's bags. Bearing scars from such early wounds, Dick tries to make success compensatory, but Kipling will not let him off so easily. Dick's arrogance itself begins to fail as blindness from an old war-related injury sets in, along with bitterness and vulnerability. Dependent upon a cheating landlord and a scheming artist's model for his very existence, blind Dick makes one final gesture toward the days of comradeship and success. Alone, he goes back to Africa to seek out his old friends and this time is killed outright by a stray bullet. His is a fortuitous, sought-for end, an act of suicide. "Put me, I pray, in the forefront of the battle," (IX, 329) he beseeches his friend Torpenhow, and Kipling closes by telling us that "his luck had held to the last, even to the crowning mercy of a kindly bullet through his head" (WPRK, 328).
Dick Heldar's attitudes toward life and death echo the rise and fall of Victorian optimism. While he is winning — working as a special war correspondent, selling his artwork, living well — Dick believes in himself. Even when he first knows blindness, he feels equal to life: "Dick knew," says Kipling, "in his heart of hearts that only a lingering sense of humour and no special virtue had kept him alive. Suicide, he had persuaded himself, would be a ludicrous insult to the gravity of the situation as well as a weak-kneed confession of fear" (268). Here Dick adopts a Carlylean stance against self-destruction; he girds himself against it and moves on. But when his situation becomes still graver, he dresses himself in a spotless uniform like an "untired man, master of himself, setting out on an expedition, well-pleased" (310) and courts death as his only alternative. Like Biffen, he succeeds in failing to live. Thus Dick confronts mortality with money and success and loses the confrontation, then pits willpower against death and also realizes defeat, and finally joins forces with death and commits suicide. By that time, "the arrogance of the man had disappeared, and [159/160] in its place [had] settled despair" (218). Into the last volume of The Light That Failed marches the desperation of the late Victorian world, where suicide becomes preferable to a constant battle for recognition and even for existence.
It is not coincidental that Dick's blinding injury is sustained while Gordon is dying at Khartoum. Dick's fate signifies first the blindness and then the end of self-interested imperialism, an aggressive, combative course that might also have been suicidal from the start. The British attempt to master the world through talent and willpower would end like Dick's similar attempt to master loss — in a defeat whose only salvation lies in the acceptance of failure.28 Moreover, here in Kipling's first novel, where imperialism betokens superiority in the art of dying, it also leads to the death of art. The Dick we lose is a talented, if deluded, man, and Kipling seems to be saying that cultural arrogance, like personal arrogance, is a weakness that prohibits cultural flowering. Dick accepts the standards of his culture and is sacrificed to them. On the other hand, so is Biffen, who refuses to accept them and also dies. And Dorian Gray, who thought he could toy with them, is consumed in the attempt. In all three of these important novels of 1891 — The Light That Failed, New Grub Street, and Dorian Gray — a suicidal death of art inheres in the heart of falling darkness.
Art is not, however, the only "motive force" that keeps Dick Heldar alive for a time — love, too, motivates him. Unfortunately he also thinks of love as something he must control. Persistence and loyalty become his weapons in this contest, another he is doomed to lose. His choice in love is Maisie, a girl he has grown up with as an orphan who is now an emancipated "New Woman" and aspiring artist. With a mad infatuation that persists long beyond her disclaimers of love toward him, Dick pursues Maisie on and off through most of the book. He remains her friend by offering to help her with her painting, but he cannot win her deepest heart, even after he begins to go blind. Meanwhile their mutual struggle for dominance focusses in a competition to see who can paint a better representation of the figure of Melancholy from Thomson's City of Dreadful Night — a fitting emblem of a relationship which leads them both to despair. Dick's version will be his last work before total blindness descends, and it is destroyed by the model who poses for it and then tends to the blind artist. With the artifact Melancholy demolished, sightless Dick sets off for Africa and the death that will conquer real despair once and for all. He now woos Thanatos, not Eros.
Hardy's Jude the Obscure
In this fatal courtship, as in his final despair, Dick Heldar parallels other suicidal heroes of the 1890s — Jude Fawley, for example, in Hardy's [160/161] Jude the Obscure (1895). After the disappointment of his bitter and foolish first marriage, Jude hears of his mother's suicide by drowning and tries to imitate her. Stepping onto a large frozen pond, he jumps up and down on the ice, trying to crack it and plunge to a frigid death. When the ice refuses to yield, he wonders why he has been spared. Possibly, says the narrator, "he was not a sufficientiy dignified person for suicide. Peaceful death abhorred him as a subject" (Hardy, 117). Possibly, too, Jude thinks, he was meant to fulfill his original desire to be a student at Christminster, and he thrusts himself into the attempt. Jude thus counters the death-wish with a desire for learning and human betterment. In his first venture toward Christminster, he had mainly been thwarted by what he called "animal passion" (139) for his wife, Arabella. Inevitably, though, given his warmth toward women, Jude will once again be distracted, this time by Sue Bridehead, a highly complicated "New Woman" not unlike Maisie. As she tortures him endlessly in the name of what is right, Jude yields his whole life to Sue. And when, after many vacillations, many setbacks for them both, Sue turns her back on their long-term liaison, it is with suicidal self-mortification that she returns to her former husband. Suffering deeply from their separation and very ill, Jude determines to see Sue, "this time really to do for himself" (472). As he says to Arabella, "a fellow who had only two wishes left in the world, to see a particular woman and then to die, could neatly accomplish those two wishes at one stroke by taking this journey in the rain" (472). This journey and Sue's continued, painful ambivalence reward Jude with a lonely but willed death.
Both Kipling and Hardy resemble Freud in their belief that sexual energy is locked in painful, mortal combat with the death drive. Their heroes strive toward eros but are constantly restrained and pushed in the direction of death until they finally pursue death outright. In Jude's case even the children of his two unions are lost through suicide. Little Father Time, the son of Jude's marriage to Arabella, is certainly one of the most hopeless, death-embracing figures in literature. Convinced by rejection that there is "no laughable thing under the sun" (342), and further convinced by Sue in a weak moment that it is a "tragic thing to bring beings into the world" (382), young/old Father Time believes that "it would be better to be out of the world than in it" (406). With utter and desperate logic he proceeds to hang both of his younger siblings and then himself. His is the last resort in the struggle for survival. Commenting on this pitiful boy's terrible action, the attending doctor tells Jude that Father Time is a true child of the age, a boy "of a sort unknown in the last generation — the outcome of new [161/1162] views of life." He represents "the beginning of the coming universal wish not to live" (411).
The doctor's prediction invites speculation as to just what "new views of life" led to this coming universal wish. It is hard to believe that they are Jude's, for Jude holds out against failure and loss until the very end when he loses Sue, and even then calls for her on his deathbed. He possesses a kind of existential courage to be for the greater part of the book, constantly venturing himself against great odds in a world that eventually shows itself to be absurd. If Jude loses ambition, religious faith, love, and children — all "motive forces," everything — he endures, and not in the state of catatonia that some literary critics have attributed to him.30 Jude is no spectre who escapes pain by dying to life. More the romantic than the Victorian Schopenhauerean, he lives his pain to the fullest, leaving life only when he is worn out by it. For Hardy, as for Kipling, failing was living. Sue speaks for her creator when she reassures Jude that "if you have failed, fit] is to your credit rather than your blame . . . . Every successful man is more or less a selfish man" (438). Nor are most of Sue's other "new views on life" deathlike, except in their influence on Father Time. At the agricultural show she expresses a hope in "Greek joyousness" (366) that parallels the openness in love she thinks she wants to have with Jude. What makes Sue self-destructive and a suicidal influence on Jude is her conservative streak-her puritanical self-sacrifice, her flight back to outworn marriage vows, her insecurity in her own beliefs. These lead to her own misery, to Phillotson's love-starved existence, and to Jude's bitter death. Thus Jude and Sue are "beforehand" (354). only in their views of marriage, not suicide. Only Father Time's premature despair is really "beforehand" in terms of self-destruction. His is a stunting, suicidal despair that makes real tragedy impossible — the "new" and uncurable "view of life." Heralding it may have been enough for Hardy — even enough to silence his voice as tragic novelist.
Not all of Hardy's contemporaries agreed with Hardy's prophetic physician in his diagnosis of the future. An anonymous reviewer for the Illustrated London News found the "horror of the infant pessimist . . . changed in a moment to ghastly farce by this inopportune generation of the 'advanced' doctor." He/she went on to say:
We all know perfectly well that baby Schopenhauers are not coming into the world in shoals. Children whose lives, stunted by poverty or disease, have acquired a gravity beyond their years, may be found everywhere in the overcrowded centres of population; but such a portrait as little Jude Fawley, who advocates the annihilation of the species, and gives a practical example of it at a tender age, does not present itself as typical of a devouring philosophy. [rpt. in Hardy, 275] [162/163]
Nevertheless many late Victorians were deeply distressed by premature despair. Hopkins's leaden echo duplicated their feelings, finding that "wisdom [was] early to despair" and then resoundingly counselling: "Be beginning to despair, to despair / Despair, despair, despair, despair" (91). If Hopkins's other, golden echo answered that giving beauty back to God might end such deep sadness, Jesuit Hopkins himself knew hopelessness. In "Carrion Comfort," the poem's Hopkins-like narrator refuses to feed on Despair, opts not to "choose not to be," and yet desperately wrestles with his God. Although Hopkins won his contest, for others the intense agony he described often ended the other way, when faith as a motive force died "hard, after an agonizing struggle against circumstance."
Mary Augusta Ward
Many late Victorians destroyed themselves in this struggle. One late-century novelist who vividly imagined their plight was Mary Augusta Ward. Niece of the theologically liberal Matthew Arnold and daughter of his Roman Catholic brother, Thomas, Ward fell heir both to Arnoldian earnestness and to the great religious controversies of her day. For most of her life, her own parents staunchly adhered to separate faiths: Julia Arnold remained Protestant and was allowed to bring up her daughters in that faith, while Thomas Arnold, twice converted to Roman Catholicism, wanted his sons raised as Catholics. Intellectually curious and marked by the pain of this split but loving family, Ward evolved, pondered, and revised her own liberal religious beliefs. Twice in her fiction she would return to the dilemma of deeply committed lovers who differ over religion. In 1888 in Robert Elsmere, her increasingly liberal Elsmere — much like Ward herself — becomes sorely at odds with his devout, evangelical wife. Eventually he wears himself out in self-sacrificial service to others in East End London.
Then, in 1898 in Helbeck of Bannisdale, Ward presented a religious struggle so hopeless and tragic that it could be resolved only through the overt suicide of one of its two protagonists. Alan Helbeck and Laura Fountain are both powerless in the larger context of late nineteenth-century Britain. Helbeck's Roman Catholic family has no real outlet for its drive or talents. its women have been self-denying; its men, without conventional education, have been cut off from careers in politics, the army, or the established church. Helbeck's one power is the power of conversion, and throughout the novel this power is aimed primarily at Laura. She, on the other hand, is equally firm of conviction and equally dispossessed. She adheres to a passé religion of feeling and Wordsworthian love of nature. The daughter of a Cambridge don, she is also imbued with his free-thinking skepticism but has not been properly educated as to the grounds of her disbelief. Ignorant of her dead father's rationale, she [163/164] nonetheless remains loyal to his memory and torn between that memory and her love for Helbeck. Headstrong and heartstrong, she fights conversion and engages Helbeck in the battle they will both lose. Theirs, inevitably and ironically, becomes a battle to the death, terminating only with Laura's self-destruction.
Laura's suicide is both a sacrifice for the Catholic Helbeck and his sister and a romantic return to nature. Toward the end of the book, Laura's struggles with Helbeck intensify. She flees to Cambridge to her father's friends, returns to Bannisdale to tend Helbeck's sister — her dying stepmother — and then, back again near Helbeck, at last agrees to be converted and to marry him. A final pang of conscience, however, makes this impossible. Instead she gathers flowers from the bank of the swollen river Greet on Helbeck's estate and decks the bier of her stepmother. She then returns to the river and an Ophelia-like drowning, her body "beating against the gravelly bank, in a soft helplessness, her bright hair tangled among the drift of branch and leaf" (1983; 385). Helbeck believes her death an accident, just as she wished him to, for Laura does die partly to save Helbeck's illusions about her conversion. But her final surrender to him also stings; Helbeck cannot bring himself to enter the Protestant chapel in which she is buried. If Ward emphasizes Laura's compliance through her "soft helplessness" in the Greet — the river that Helbeck owns and where he wages "noble war" with salmon — she also emphasizes Laura's pyrrhic victory through the river. Both in her philosophy of nature and in her death, Laura comes closer to Bannisdale than does Helbeck. "The leaping river, the wide circuit of the fells . . . to them the girl gave back her soul, passionately resting in them. . . . The veil lifted between her and them. They became a sanctuary and a refuge with no exclusions, no conditions" (363-64). These offer Laura Fountain a confirmation of her ebullient nature far more than do Helbeck and his religion, and they help make her the new ghost of the Bannisdale lady, for whom she was once mistaken.
Laura's suicide is also an act of triumphant will, a deliberate, rational act on the part of a very emotional person. Early in the novel, Mr. Fountain tells Laura " 'you can't sacrifice your life. — It may be Christian . . . but it isn't sense' " (60). In Laura's case, however, although such an action is not Christian, it is the only sensible alternative available to a woman simultaneously loyal to father, self, and lover. Unlike Father Time's, Laura's suicide is tragic because it seems inevitable, the unavoidable exit from circumstances about which Laura is fully, truly cognizant. Laura is always stronger than her stepmother, and from the time of witnessing an industrial death from which "she recovered her power of action sooner than the men around her" (205), Laura has [164/165] real presence of mind. Helbeck's assertions of will only steel her own. " 'There is,' " she tells him, " 'something in me that fears nothing — not even the breaking of both our hearts' " (257). That this fearlessness received the ultimate test of suicide gives Laura's story the tragic power of few Victorian novels. Laura knew of herself and Helbeck that "she must have room to breathe, without making her struggle for liberty a hideous struggle with him, and with love" 343). She chose to die, as her suicide note says, "Because death puts an end" (387).
Helbeck of Bannisdale instances Victorian concern with dilemmas, causes, nostalgia, and with the annihilation of eros through death of the self. It also reveals a sobering vision of life in 1898. Like so many Victorians, Ward looked two ways. Ward's sympathies lay with both protagonists — the conservative, landed, earnest Helbeck, whose world has eroded like his estate; and the lively, fresh Laura, who "might have made her Catholic respect her" (316). Ward seems to be saying that the best of the old is gone, that women without real education are doomed, that the new religions need intellectuals to apprehend them, and that energy and life now reside in the new cities. There rough men like Laura's cousin, Hubert, can carve out new lives, but there too steel mills devour workers without a thought for their children. Like many late Victorian novels, Helbeck of Bannisdale offers little hope. As in Charlotte Brontë's earlier Shirley (1849), which Ward admired, special religious interests, landed gentry, women, and workers all lose the struggle for significance and independence. In Helbeck, however, they also lose the struggle for existence.
Ward knew that her novel was tragic, and she treasured the notes of friends like George Wyndham who tried to decipher why its "crash is inevitable" (Ward, 1918; II, 185) But for her new friend, Sir Leslie Stephen, Ward had a special copy bound, omitting the last chapter. She felt that Laura's death might "depress one who had known so much sorrow" (184) Yet Stephen might have best understood Laura's suicide. His own Science of Ethics (1882) had given a penetrating look at deaths like hers. If, said Stephen, one's "life could not serve others, and was only giving useless pain to his attendants," should one not be free to commit suicide? He went on to query:
May we not say that he is acting on a superior moral principle, and that because he is clearly diminishing the sum of human misery? It is impossible to settle the case in concrete instances, because there is no fixed external test. The conduct may spring either from cowardice or from a loftier motive than the ordinary, and the merit of the action is therefore not determinable; but, assuming [165/166] the loftier motive, I can see no ground for disapproving the action which flows from it. 
Stephen's kind of arguing had become acceptable by 1898 when Ward published Helbeck. By then, the Victorian verdict on suicide was summarized in an 1897 paper from Oxford House: "The lenity of the law courts reflects the changed attitude of public opinion. Suicide is now regarded with sympathy rather than with abhorrence. It is spoken of as a 'misfortune' rather than a crime. Partly the change arises from a better understanding of the conditions of suicide; partly from that almost extravagant sympathy with wretchedness, as such, which characterizes an age at once selfish and sentimental (Henson, 67). Self-destruction had become one more way of dealing with loss, and in 1898 so very much seemed to be lost: the dominant Anglican faith; bourgeois morality; a settled sense of self, of love, of family; the power of the word; the hope of industrialism; the belief in progress; the empire. Even atheists and people in the vanguard of forward-looking political movements like Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx's spirited and dedicated socialist daughter, succumbed to suicide. Tussy Marx tested the atheist verse "If he be just who reigns on high, / Why should the Atheist fear to die?" (qtd. in Budd, 120) in 1898. On 31 March, she got up, washed, dressed herself in white, drank prussic acid, and lay down to die a death that recreated Emma Bovary's, whose story she had once translated into English. By 1898, many of Marx's contemporaries would not have found her actions sinful. That was the year when Perry-Coste's Ethics of Suicide asserted that "if it be still insisted that suicide is a sin of rebellion against those judgments of God which we are bound to endure humbly, then equally in kind — and in some cases even in degree — are obstetrics, fire insurance, and vaccination, acts of rebellion" (Perry-Coste, 9)
In Marx's day, entropy or death undermined even the life force of individualists like Marx, who opted to die. Marx seemed only one of many. Strahan believed that suicides were legion, well under-represented by the statisticians who may have uncovered fewer than fifty percent of them (Strahan, 185); while Gurnhill, a Christian Socialist, thought that anguished suicide notes reflected "the social experience of thousands" (Gurnhill, 125) And M. P. Shiel's story "The S. S." (1895) presented its detective hero, Prince Zaleski, with a case of apparent mass suicide and opened with the words: "To say that there are epidemics of suicide, is to give expression to what is now a mere commonplace of knowledge" (Shiel, 100) Zaleski solves the case by uncovering a murderous secret society that desires to exterminate diseased life, a kind of underground club of social Darwinists. [166/167]
And so denial — inherent in hushing, covering up, overpowering, or displacing suicide — gave way to openness and then by the 1890s to exaggeration. Throughout their era, Victorians had mourned excessively for their dead, placing great value on public displays of sadness like funerals and mourning dress. And throughout their era, they had feared excessively for their murdered and cried strongly for justice in condemning their murderers. Now, at the end of that era, they placed suicide alongside natural death and murder and responded excessively to it, too. Masses of people did not die by their own hands, but the Victorians had finally exposed suicide and wished to overestimate Its numbers and importance. By the end of Victoria's reign many wanted to believe in a "coming universal wish not to live."
Last modified 12 May 2023