"Too Heavy is the Load": Representations of Women and Suicide in 19th-Century British Literature

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Hastings-Truelove, Amber
Gender , Suicide , Women , Nineteenth-century
As British alienists and sociologists in nineteenth-century Britain sought to understand suicide as a disease of the mind, coroners, jurors and lay people became increasingly sympathetic to those who ended their own lives. This sympathy, however, was often tinged with spiritual, philosophical, and moral valuations of a suicide’s life. These judgements were especially pronounced when the suicide was a woman. Speculation on female suicides almost always involved questions of romantic entanglements, pregnancy or moral improprieties. After their deaths, their lives and motivations were interpreted by legal and medical professionals who (re)created their narratives to fit social and cultural expectations. The literary and visual images of the suicidal woman from this period are coded with conflicting messages of life and death, resistance and submission, and eroticization and redemption. The literature I have chosen to focus on, Amy Levy’s dramatic monologues “A Minor Poet,” and “Xantippe A Fragment,” George Eliot’s realist novel, The Mill on the Floss, and Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula, allow for a cross-genre exploration of the cultural encoding of female suicide in multiple literary genres. These texts feature ambiguous suicides, meaning that the deaths of these characters are not explicitly connected to suicide, and that critics have most often attributed these deaths to causes other than suicide. However, by ignoring the possibility of suicide encoded in these texts, critics have often overlooked the agency of these characters’ actions. The characters become victims of circumstances rather than active participants in the narratives of their death. To pay attention to these ambiguities allows us to reconsider or reclaim the tensions in these texts and see these characters as both victims of and active agents in the circumstances which lead to their deaths. They become liminal figures existing on the boundaries of multiple sites of categorization that collapse the binaries of the Victorian angel in the house and the fallen angel.
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