Georgian Life and Literature

Suicide in the 18th Century

It has been suggested that in fiction and art, women who have been seduced and abandoned by men are driven to suicide. I haven't checked out The History of Suicide by Georges Minois, but my impression is that literary suicides are a literary genre that may not reflect life very closely. Randolph Trumbach in Sex and the Gender Revolution, Volume One reviews fallen women (women who were either raped or seduced by false promises of marriage) in very great detail. I don't think he mentions any suicides; fallen women were far more likely to throw their resulting child out the window or down the toilet. In most cases they gave their children to the Foundling Hospital. The lives of fallen women was quite appalling, but suicide doesn't figure in their stories.

From reading wide swathes of The Annual Register, I have the impression that the substantial majority of suicides in 18th-century England were committed by men rather than by women (I believe this has always been the case in the West). A number of these men killed themselves because of serious financial difficulties, or "ruin". Most of the suicides don't seem to have been motivated by a "rational" cause, but were the result of insanity. Perhaps "madness" was a catch-all term to cover motivations one couldn't understand, but in many cases it seems to have been fairly accurate, insofar as the evidence suggested that these men entered a severe stage of melancholy/depression quite suddenly, sometimes for a couple of weeks but more often for six months, and in a short period prior to suicide exhibited all sorts of mental distractions and irrational behaviour.

Illustration from a broadside ballad, 1707

Shame at exposure for homosexuality was a cause for acute distress in the eighteenth century, and I have traced newspaper accounts reporting about a dozen suicides following arrests for soliciting. For example, some of the very first mollies to be arrested, in 1707, hanged themselves or cut their throats while awaiting trial (illustrated above), and the pederastic schoolmaster Isaac Broderick in 1730 tried to kill himself by cutting his throat. In 1728 an upholsterer named Thomas Mitchell was apprehended for committing sodomy, at which point "he attempted, and had near accomplish’d, destroying himself, in cutting the great Artery of his Left Arm almost asunder", but surgeons saved his life despite his great loss of blood, and he was subsequently indicted for sodomy. In August 1752 a man arrested for sodomitical practices near the Tower was granted bail and then promptly hanged himself. In September 1772 a tradesman in Southwark hanged himself after being detected in having sex with his 13-year-old apprentice.

I suspect that many suicides experience "the dark night of the soul", but that wouldn't have been discussed, much less analysed, in newspapers or the pages of the Annual Register. I'm not sure that that psychological experience received much attention in the eighteenth century (melancholia of course received a lot of attention, but not that single day of transforming despair). During the nineteenth century that experience was usually considered to be a result of loss of religious faith, and happened fairly often though suicide was not the inevitable result. During the twentieth century that experience was usually considered to be the result of sexual guilt/shame – which I think underlay the "loss of faith" in the nineteenth century, and perhaps also many "inexplicable" cases in the eighteenth century.

As an example, Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist (1777–1811) for several years travelled restlessly across Europe experiencing a series of obscure intellectual and emotional crises. He experienced a personal "dark night of the soul" around 1801. His writings exhibit the single-minded intensity of the sadomasochist: in his finest play Penthesilea the heroine tears her lover Achilles limb from limb with her teeth and bare hands, and in several short stories he describes in graphic detail how the hero blows out his own brains after first killing the heroine.

Kleist threatened to kill himself on several occasions, inexplicably broke off an engagement to be married, and loved secrecy and disguise and mysterious trips with male friends. At the age of thirty-four, Kleist entered into a suicide pact with Henriette Vogel – not as doomed lovers, simply as doomed individuals, she doomed by terminal cancer, he by poverty and disillusion – and one day in November 1811 on the shore of the Wannsee he shot her and then himself. Kleist's characters are subject to states of high excitement and violent turmoil, and finally a desire to be damned. The early psychoanalysts were fascinated by his bizarre life and monomaniacal characters. A homosexual conflict is obviously the key to unlocking his inner life, but his biographers tend to refer vaguely to "the mysteries" of his emotional and sexual life. Kleist's hatred of Napoleon is due mainly to the fact that Napoleon's invasion of Prussia caused the separation of Kleist and his lover Ernst von Pfuel, who became the Prussian War Minister.

Copyright © 2000, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List in April 2000.

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