Tuesday, January 29, 2013
The Times Literary Supplement takes a look at the prevalence of suicide in 18th century literature.
From the piece...
In “Frederic and Elfrida”, Jane Austen’s early novelistic skit (dating from the late 1780s or early 90s), “the lovely Charlotte” finds herself agreeing to marry a handsome stranger within moments of having consented to become the wife of a rich old man. The next day, “the reflection of her past folly, operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, and to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran thro’ her Aunts pleasure Grounds in Portland Place”. The combination of a suggested mental disorder (folly operating strongly on the mind) and cool calculation (“she resolved . . . to that end”) is characteristic of a period in which suicides are presented, by turns, as helpless lunatics and rational agents. The first view makes them not responsible for their actions; the second renders them potentially culpable. After 1823, the bodies of suicides could be interred in consecrated ground and the ritual humiliation of their corpses was officially prohibited. But suicide remained a crime in England until 1961.
As Dignitas, the Swiss right-to-die association, notes on its website, the majority of suicide attempts fail – although a failure in this context might also be counted a success. It is odd to think how many people were, and are, survivors of themselves: part of the OED’s definition of “suicide” is “One who . . . has a tendency to commit suicide”. If you try and fail to perpetrate self-murder you are, technically speaking, a “suicide”.