Beyond Despair: The Drowned Woman in Victorian Literature and Art The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world ―Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”
Suicide is often portrayed as the ultimate form of despair; an action relinquishing all hope of reconciliation or salvation. Yet it was a subject that fascinated Victorians. Indeed, Philippe Aires notes that the staging of death as an aesthetic event was a nineteenth-century invention (466). Often mentioned in passing but rarely explored is the larger Victorian preoccupation with women and death by drowning. The mixture of literary and visual representations of the drowned woman reached all strata of Victorian society and formed a cohesive iconographic system with which Victorian society, as a whole, could identify and to which it could respond. As T.J. Edelstein explains, an image, such as that of the drowned woman, could become "the embodiment of a Victorian mythology . . . one example of how a new iconographic vocabulary was established in the nineteenth century."1 Further, such classification is necessary, since "an immediately identifiable character or symbol helps to create a predicable response" (184). For example when William Scott Bell closes “Rosabell”2 with the lines And hearts as innocent as hers As blindly shall succeed, shall take Leap after leap into the dark, Blaspheming soul and sense at once, And every lamp on every street Shall light their wet feet down to death Victorian readers accept without explanation beyond the chronically of her slide into prostitution that the young woman commits suicide, drowning herself following a life of shame, nor do they doubt that many others “shall take / leap after leap into the dark” because of their transgression. 1 2
Edelstein here is speaking of any iconographic system, not the drowned woman in particular. “Rosabell” was revised and re-titled “Maryanne” before it was reprinted in Scott’s Autobiographical Notes.
Beyond Despair, page 2
Indeed the connections is so great that when J.R. Spencer Stanhope exhibited Thoughts of the Past (1859) he could indicate what many would view as her inevitable demise with the image of the bridge in the distance seen through her window. Decades later, George Bernard Shaw, in Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1894), uses the image as a metonymy for standard warnings to young girls: “Liz [Mrs. Warren’s sister] went out one night and never came back. I know the schoolmistress thought I’d soon follow her example; for the clergyman was always warning me that Lizzie’d end by jumping off Waterloo Bridge” (66).3 Thus writers and artists used this symbol to incite a certain response and, later, to build upon an already established pattern. The number of actual suicides by drowning during the Victorian era is open to speculation. The numbers in London alone vary widely, from Charles Mackay's estimated average of thirty annually from Waterloo Bridge to J. Ewing Ritchie's calculation of 500 annually in the Thames as a whole, with "by far the larger class" being from "the number of whom Hood wrote"—seduced, abandoned women (34, 6). Fueled by numerous, sensationalized newspaper reports, Victorians were fascinated by the horror stories of young women who, through seduction or economic need, "fell" into prostitution and then, in despair, attempted suicide by leaping from a bridge. Yet here, too much of the information is speculative. In Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects, in London and Other Large Cities, William Acton claims that in 1840 only fifty-six women in London committed suicide and that there is no reason to believe that even half were prostitutes (58). He goes on to argue that while many women cannot return to their families, they can return to society:
It is significant, though, that by this point the reference is used to present exaggerated or repressive social myths. Mrs. Warren’s statement continues:...
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