(TLS) Freya Johnston reviews three recent historical books on Suicide

As Kelly McGuire points out in Dying To Be English: Suicide narratives and national identity, 1721”“1814, the word has a vexed history. Deploying a pronoun as a prefix in order to describe both an action and a person (a person who is at once victim and perpetrator), it is something of a botched job. The convolutions and impenetrability of the term seem appropriate to a deed which many understand as the consummate rejection ”“ of life, family and community, as of social and religious obligations ”“ although one lesson of all the books under review is that suicides themselves, actual and imagined, tend not to see it that way. Many of the ballads reproduced in The History of Suicide in England, 1650”“1850 depict lovers killing themselves in the confident hope of forgiveness and a place in heaven, as of avoiding shame and misery on earth. And even the most hard-line of religious commentators will hesitate to condemn all suicides to hell: as the Calvinist preacher Thomas Beard wrote in 1631, “the mercie of God is incomprehensible”. Overall, there is much evidence of what John Donne called “a perplexitie and flexibilitie in the doctrine” of suicide.

Gradually replacing more overtly judgemental epithets such as “self-murder”, “suicide” became a familiar word in England in the later eighteenth century. Perhaps the availability of a neutral form of language influenced how people thought about voluntary death; there is a relic of the older way of describing it in current references to “self-harm”. It is sometimes argued that apparently more tolerant and sympathetic attitudes to suicide, as to other infractions of the moral law, developed in the eighteenth century as the result of a progressive secularization. But religious as well as civil sanctions against the act persisted, in Britain and in the American colonies ”“ only in Pennsylvania was voluntary death not criminalized ”“ and those official sanctions are not incompatible with sympathy.

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