When a friend saw what I was reading, she asked, "What was so special about Victorian suicides, particularly?" I hadn't thought about it, having purchased this for researching the Victorian era rather than suicide per se, but it's a pertinent question and happily it's answered within Barbara Gates's book. One of the many reasons why the 19th Century is remarkable is that it marked the beginnings of shifts in attitudes to suicide, which gained ground in later years and led to de-criminalisation. At the start of Victoria's reign, corpses from suicide were refused burial in consecrated ground and instead laid under crossroads with a stake through the heart to prevent the wandering of the spirit. Their property was also forfeit to the Crown. By the end of the century, psychiatry was coming into its own, depression or 'melancholy' was beginnning to be better understood as a widespread phenomenon and both government and charitable bodies alike were working to ameliorate the living conditions of the poorest in society.
This is a comprehensive account of that journey, including social and legal attitudes to suicide, how these differed - or not - with gender and class, how these were represented in contemporary literature and art and by what precedents the Victorians judged the morality of self-murder. If some of the arguments concerning literary or classical allusions seem dense or, at times, tenuous, they provoke thought and the written style is not overly didactic. Worth reading, too, for the case histories and the reactions of leading thinkers of the day. As the author points out, there are numerous volumes about Victorian murders and the cult of sensation, but very little about suicide.