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Her Resolution to Die: “Wayward Women” and Constructions of Suicide in Wilkie Collins’s Crime Fiction

by Emma Liggins

Nineteenth-century representations of female suicide exposed a series of contradictory links between women’s waywardness and social class. Whilst suicide reports in the mid-Victorian press tended to emphasize social and medical readings of the crime, Wilkie Collins used the genres of sensation fiction and detective fiction to explore the connections between crime, gender and class, focussing particularly on the sexuality of the suicidal woman. Lyn Pykett has noted the subversive potential of his fiction in terms of its blurring of gender boundaries, so that his “bold, assertive and/or devious and scheming heroines and villainesses” slip between “vulnerable, dependent femininity” and its “disruptive” counterpart (20, 14, 17). In their discussions of his interest in crime and gender, however, most critics have largely ignored his examination of suicidal women, preferring to focus on women who attempt murder, fraud, adultery or bigamy. Collins’s fascination with suicide is indicative of a wider interest in the conventions of crime reporting in the press, and the inclusion of such sensational material became part of his project to extend the limits of what was acceptable in bourgeois fiction. Drawing on contemporary crime reports, he also attempted to think beyond social and medical explanations of female suicide, as his fiction suggests that the links between femininity, sexual frustration and the suicidal impulse must also be examined.

Mid-Victorian suicide reports and wayward femininity

Collins’s novels then draw upon and rewrite contemporary crime reports from the press, which aimed to “explain” female suicide primarily in terms of social deprivation and temporary insanity. Polarized versions of suicide organized around stereotypes of gendered behaviour and anxieties prevailed, as statistically men killed themselves through worries over employment or money, whereas women reacted to sexual or emotional problems (Anderson, 196). However, women’s problems were also often to do with money rather than men. A high proportion of female suicides were young, working-class women, particularly servant girls; explanations such as “misery and privation” (Illustrated Police News, 4 June 1870, 3) or being short of money and “in want of food” (Illustrated Police News, 20 Feb 1864, 3) were common. Unregulated female sexuality was sometimes emphasized in the reports, which could then reinforce social policies for regulating female waywardness. Entrenched associations between suicide and the fallen woman, popularized in high art, cheap fiction and melodramas, also influenced styles of reporting. A series of famous paintings, such as G.F. Watts’s “Found Drowned” (1850), depicted drowned women as erotic spectacles and thus promoted the “seduction to suicide” mythology, which had become “almost clichéd” by the end of the 1860s (Nead, 188, 190-1). Reports increasingly commented on the mental states of women and used telling phrases such as “in a low desponding state of mind” and “her mind weakened” to describe the disposition of suicides; some ended their lives after being advised by doctors to travel for health reasons. Shifts in the definition of insanity, which came to mean “psychological disturbance of a certain kind, rather than brain disease,” made it much easier for criminal women to be classified as insane by mid-century, and this had far-reaching effects on legal verdicts (Smith, 149; Gates, 13-14). The “weak” state of women’s minds and bodies could then be linked to emotional distress of various kinds, so that narratives of suicide could also reveal women’s dissatisfaction with their domestic or marital roles or femininity in general. As Lucia Zedner has argued, female crime at mid-century was considered in relation to “deviance from femininity,” as contemporary reports and articles illustrated “the tendency to assess female crime not according to the act committed or the damage done but according to how far a woman’s behaviour contravened the norms of femininity” (28).

Whilst crime reports then cited lack of money, derangement, sexual irregularity and dissatisfaction with femininity as possible explanations for female suicide, the wider connections between crime, gender, class and female sexuality were rarely explored. A comparison between two cases of suicide by drowning demonstrates the contradictory messages such reports offered. The first case is the death of Sarah Tubb, taken from a Times report of 1835:

It appeared that she was the daughter of respectable parents residing at Hackney, and for several months had been addressed by a young man named Hinsby, who, under promises of marriage, effected her ruin. Such conduct deeply affected the deceased, and finding herselfenceinte, she absconded from her home, and terminated her existence by drowning herself. After wandering about apparently in great distress of mind, she was observed by a gentleman to throw herself into the river. Hinsby was severely reprimanded by the coroner and jury, and a verdict was returned, “That the deceased drowned herself while in a state of temporary derangement.” (The Times, 23 Mar 1835, 4) 

The associations of suicide with unwanted pregnancy had a place in the popular imagination as Olive Anderson has pointed out, although she maintains that such assumptions were contradicted by coroners’ reports, which found relatively few female suicides to be pregnant (57, 59). As drowning was generally believed to be the “prostitute’s way out,” Sarah Tubb’s respectability cannot be accounted for, so class issues are diverted onto medico-legal explanations. The verdict of “temporary derangement” nullifies the narrative of female agency; if the woman had been in the right state of mind, it is implied, she would have had second thoughts. In a similar case in the Illustrated Police News of 1870, a thirteen-year-old servant, Jane Johnson, “an attractive girl” who had been “taken notice of by gentlemen,” is “found drowned” (29 Jan 1870, 4), though medical explanations for her behaviour are never explored. The medical examination reveals that she had been seduced but was not pregnant, which, combined with evidence from other witnesses, lead the coroner to conclude that “no doubt she was fond of gadding about” and “probably … was averse to work.” Perhaps it is her working-class status and sexual precocity which preclude the medical explanation; although Sarah Tubb’s pregnancy might be seen as a more comprehensible reason for committing suicide than Jane’s dislike of work, her respectability has to be linked to derangement in order to pre-empt discussion of female suicide in the middle classes. Medicalized readings could then rob the act of its social resonances, typically stressing the diminished responsibility of the criminal woman (Smith, 149, 159).

It is also important to consider the different kinds of crime reporting in circulation at mid-century. Although daily newspapers such as The Times had become more sensationalized by the 1860s, popular weeklies such as the Illustrated Police News, established in 1864, with its lurid illustrated cover and melodramatic style of reporting, fed the public’s appetite for scandalous narratives, which can be directly linked to the development of sensation fiction. Anderson suggests that suicide reports aimed at the new lower-middle classes concentrated on “domestic pathos,” and that the “uniquely varied readership” of the mid-nineteenth century Times “was offered a worldly wise handling which emphasized the odd and the curious” (217). Reporters for The Times were less likely to comment on the sexual proclivities of the women involved, often providing shorter reports, which focussed on women’s dissatisfaction with their marital roles. In an account of the “Extraordinary Suicide” of Mrs Grenshaw, a barrister’s wife (31 May 1864, 12), we are told that whilst her husband has spent the day at the races, returning home “for the purpose of entertaining a party of friends,” Mrs Grenshaw has thrown herself and her child in front of a train on the way to visit relatives. The trend for mothers to commit suicide with their children underlines women’s emotional investment in the family and potential anxieties surrounding their roles as wives and mothers. By contrast the Illustrated London Clipper of 1874 ran the story of a drunken Bristol prostitute who had taken laudanum after a “fit of depression consequent upon drink” (12 Dec 1874, 3). The woman was featured on the cover in a low-cut dress with no shoes on, gasping for breath, with a terrified client in the bed behind her; the report reinforced the point that “she was not alone” when she was discovered. Such titillating accounts provided a sensationalized alternative to the “domestic pathos” of The Times,demonstrating the different narratives of femininity which underpinned mid-century suicide reports.

Another significant aspect of these narratives of femininity was their commentary on female anger, often interpreted as derangement or waywardness rather than as a sign of women’s dissatisfactions with their roles. The treatment of the suicidal tendencies of a young domestic servant described in The Times of January 1864 bears out these assertions. The “Wilful Woman” refusing to eat or move from the covered passage of a tollgate in Gainsborough is tested for insanity, “for in the event of her being pronounced deranged, the relieving officer would have the power to remove her by force, but, on an examination taking place, no evidence of insanity could be detected” (26 Jan 1864, 9). Arguably, it is only because her suicide attempt is prevented that she escapes the label; her history of suicide attempts, “fits of anger” and “a most ungovernable temper” can then be attributed to wilfulness, and the alternative explanation of female dissatisfaction edited out. Suicide is then potentially concealed because of the narrative of female anger which it may publicize; threats to the social order are dissipated by the control of women’s violent inclinations. Moreover, no attempts were made to examine the links between this anger or dissatisfaction and women’s social positions; as both servants and more respectable women exhibited this behaviour, it was taken to be indicative of a particular kind of femininity which might foster suicidal tendencies, rather than anything to do with class. The two women charged by the police for attempting to take their own lives in July 1861 were of contrasting social groups, but were specifically figured as representative by their unconventional behaviour. The class differences between the two women are then elided, as their suicide attempts brand them as “wayward women,” reacting against a set of social restrictions common to all women. Ellen Greenwood who had taken laudanum was “well-known to the police” having been “several times charged at this court as a disorderly prostitute” (The Times, 29 July 1861, 11). The other woman being charged, Ann Herring, is from a “highly respectable family.” The reporter’s explanation that the parents “had done all they could to keep her at home; but she was very wayward and would not stop with them” privileges feminine waywardness over respectable femininity as an explanation for suicide. No connection is established between respectability and the suicidal impulse; rather, Ann Herring becomes tainted with the judgement passed on Ellen Greenwood, as her waywardness is an alternative manifestation of the prostitute’s disorder. Two short reports in the Illustrated Police News in 1874 about the drowning of respectably dressed women also failed to reconcile preconceptions about female suicide with middle-class femininity; no possible explanation is offered for why one of these “determined” women might be “crying bitterly, and … in a very excited state” (3 Jan 1874, 2; see also 20 June 1874, 3), though unusually, since it wasn’t a very sensational case, she was pictured on the front cover of the issue in her distracted state on the Thames Embankment. At a time when the families of suicides, particularly those from respectable families, tried as hard as possible to conceal them (Jalland, 70), the social stigma of the crime and the potential narrative of class dissatisfaction are separated out from the middle class.

With his first-hand knowledge of the legal system and his developing interest in the female criminal, Collins made an important contribution to these debates about the causes of female suicide. In the following section I argue that his fiction of the 1860s and 1870s incorporated key developments in medico-legal perceptions of the crime, casting doubt on dominant mythologies of femininity authorized by contemporary crime reports. Changes in the law regarding suicide over the century reflected a growing leniency towards perpetrators, who came to be regarded and classified in terms of mental illness or responses to the changing urban environment rather than sin and criminality. From the 1860s onwards suicide was perceived to be more of a social problem than a crime (Gates, 60). Collins also refused to accept the labelling of suicidal women as simply mad or sexually indiscreet, addressing issues such as the connections between respectability and the suicidal impulse, and the psychology of servant girls, which contemporary crime reports usually avoided. The detective plot also enabled the reworking of ideologies of female sexuality by allowing suicidal women to tell their own stories. The narratives of female anger and dissatisfaction provided for the reader attempt to locate female waywardness or derangement in the social conditions of both servants and respectable women, complicating social and medical explanations for the crime.

Collins’s portrayal of female suicides

In his fiction Collins focuses on suicides which elude easy interpretation in terms of class or sanity, highlighting the ways in which women’s violence exposes their dissatisfaction with middle-class marriage as well as their unacknowledged sexual desires. His characteristic use of women’s letters, diaries and testimonies alongside supposedly more “authoritative” and controlled male narratives ensures that their dissatisfaction is not always mediated through male narrators. However, women’s narratives are frequently “edited” and hence distorted before the reader has access to them, as detectives and members of the family conspire to produce acceptable versions of femininity. Gates suggests that suicide as a topic appealed to Collins “both because it was subversive and because it was an ultimate test of character” (Gates, 57), bringing into play questions of motivation, concealment and secrecy which were essential to the sensation text and detective fiction.1 It also allowed him to focus on the links between femininity and appearance. Women’s anxieties about their looks are frequently cited as a contributory factor to their decisions to kill themselves as the lack of male appreciation of the female body precipitates violence. Questions of social identity, however, can never be entirely excluded from classifications of the crime, as the suicidal impulse jars with contemporary codes of middle-class femininity.

In The Moonstone (1868), Rosanna Spearman’s working-class credentials seem to perpetuate many of the assumptions about the social causes of the suicidal impulse: she is a prostitute’s daughter with a criminal past, now working in domestic service. However, like many of Collins’s women, her social identity is not fixed, as she has “just a dash of something that wasn’t like a housemaid, and that was like a lady, about her” (55). Yet her death seems to underline her social position rather than question it, as if she has internalized the codes of the popular reading of her class–Jane Johnson, the servant girl “found drowned,” also appears to have been influenced by sensational stories about women in distress (Illustrated Police News, 29 Jan 1870, 4). Though Rosanna Spearman has not been seduced, she has been sexually rejected by Franklin Blake and is obsessed with his “indifference” to her: we are told “it never seemed to occur to him to waste a look on Rosanna’s plain face” (92). Despite this comment on the invisibility of Victorian servants and the futility of cross-class desire, her actions have to be explained in terms of wayward femininity, rather than class dissatisfaction. Servants may play crucial roles in crime plots in terms of providing clues and testimonies, but they are still treated as nobodies within the Victorian household and their sexualities either ignored or misunderstood (Trodd, 8, 66). Avoiding an examination of the sexuality of servants, both the police and Rosanna herself seek to explain her “mysterious conduct” in terms of derangement and feminine irrationality: “Is such madness as this to be accounted for?” (376). Rosanna’s suicidal impulse should also be linked to the accusation of theft and the threat of exposure of her criminal past; similar cases in the press detail the suicide attempts of “disorderly” women imprisoned for theft or felony (Illustrated Police News, 19 Feb 1870, 30 May 1874, 3). Although the official explanation is derangement, Collins also characteristically draws our attention to the social causes involved, implying that Rosanna’s suicide comments on her anomalous position as an ex-criminal servant girl.

Where Collins deviates more obviously from the conventions of the crime report is in his inclusion of a detailed suicide note offering the woman’s own explanation of her death, a technique he was to utilize in other novels to question contemporary interpretations of the act. Rather than endorsing perceptions of suicide as an entirely social problem, his examination of women’s narratives and their misinterpretations implied that violence against the self could be read as an act of female defiance and a pertinent comment on women’s experiences of sexual rejection and frustration. This subtext is endorsed by Betteredge who observes that the suicide note allows her to “speak for herself” (361) after being constantly classified by others. Rosanna’s note seems on the surface to tell a predictable tale of class inferiority and jealousy of her pretty employer, yet it develops to detail the feelings of “degradation” and “loneliness” of a crippled ex-criminal trying to be a “reformed woman” and hence stranded between clashing versions of femininity. She ponders “which it would be hardest to do . . . to bear Mr Franklin Blake’s indifference to me, or to jump into the quicksand and end it for ever in that way?” (374). Although the reader is aware of her feelings from reading the note in its entirety, Franklin himself is able to bear neither her recriminations nor her desire and only reads half of the narrative, signalling men’s failure to confront the links between suicide and femininity.2 Trodd argues that this is a typical scenario in Collins’s crime fiction where “upper-class young men do their best to distance themselves from the nightmare narratives of the female servants, putting them away, giving them to other people to read” (86). She claims that such “genteel characters” offer “a behavioural guide to the reader” who should react to such sensational stories by “rejecting them, reading them selectively, [and] refusing the narrators their desired response” (95). However, this does not take sufficient account of the gendered implications of the rejections of such “nightmare narratives” of female distress. I would suggest that, far from encouraging readers to adopt the male stance of cruel indifference to women’s suicidal impulses, Collins is in effect urging them to reconsider medico-legal explanations of the crime and to consider the alternative explanations of class dissatisfaction or sexual rejection. Rosanna’s case suggests that the suicides of servant girls do not always adhere to the stereotypes of sensational narratives, but may reveal alternative accounts of working-class female sexuality.

Women’s voices are then employed to contest notions of suicide as motivated solely by derangement and to prompt a reexamination of the uncertainties of female social and sexual identity. As Margaret Higonnet has argued, “To take one’s life is to force others to read one’s death” (68), not to signal one’s loss of sanity. In Armadale (1866) and The Law and the Lady (1875), the deaths of middle-class women need to be read in terms of the relationship between respectability, female desire and the suicidal impulse. Lydia, the criminal heroine of Armadale, has risen from her lowly origins as a lady’s maid through a career of fraud and bigamy to become the wife of the middle-class Midwinter, intending to use him as a pawn in her latest scheme. Her transgressive nature is however checked by her love for her husband as “the strong, resourceful, independent woman is made vulnerable and dependent by sexual desire and romantic love” (Pykett, 27). Lydia’s nature is marked both by her criminal intentions and her uncontrollable sexuality, making her a prime candidate for feminine waywardness. By staging her own suicide by drowning, she draws on sensational narratives of men’s perfidy: “Does a woman not love, when the man’s hardness to her drives her to drown herself?” (490). But her rehearsal of the role of prostitute-victim is not convincing, as it jars with her respectable appearance: “though most respectably dressed, she had nevertheless described herself as being ‘in distress’” and persisted in “telling a commonplace story, which was manifestly an invention” (80). The middle-class suicidal woman, however wayward, threatens received conceptions of respectable behaviour and her story then becomes distorted, as the public refuses to confront the combination of “respectability” and “distress”.

Expectations about suicide and femininity are however endorsed in the conclusion of the novel where Lydia’s death is represented in terms of medical control of female wilfulness. Far from achieving the great murder that has been her motivating force throughout Armadale, her final scene is a successful staging of her own death, a triumph in a different kind of crime. The female suicide is a more acceptable model of the criminal woman than the murderess. As Lydia’s restlessness is channelled into suicide, it gradually coalesces with the madness she must dissemble in Doctor le Doux’s Sanatorium. As Higonnet argues, “to medicalize suicide is to feminize it” (70), where the suicidal female body can be read as a sign of woman’s passivity and tenuous grip on selfhood. Although this might seem to contradict Collins’s attitudes to medical explanations of suicide, it seems that he is exploring the ease with which women’s dissatisfactions can be (mis)read as derangement, which can then be regulated. In both Collins’s novels, the use of poisons such as laudanum and arsenic is given a specifically feminine appeal. Both Lydia and Sara in The Law and the Lady take sleeping-draughts or laudanum to calm their nerves; Sara is confined to her bed for most of the novel, suffering from a rheumatic complaint which requires constant medication. The overdoses of poison they take can be seen as a “cure” for female waywardness, which will keep them quiet. As Lydia accepts Dr le Doux’s invitation, she enters the Sanatorium “in the most unimpeachable of all possible characters . . . in the character of a Patient” (618). The doctor gambles on the female appropriation of this role; Lydia’s boast, “I shall be your patient in earnest! . . . I shall be the maddest of the mad” (631) sounds ominous in the context of earlier textual evidence of behaviour that could be labelled as “deranged.” Moreover, the doctor’s cursory summary of Lydia’s situation to one of the visitors—“Shattered nerves—domestic anxiety . . . Sweet woman! sad case!” (636)—depicts her as a stereotypical female suicide, suffering from nervous illness, a much more plausible story than the revelation that she is planning to murder a man she will claim was her husband. Taking medication was always seized on in crime reports as evidence of “temporary insanity” or mental illness; Collins is then illustrating some of the ways in which female suicide was medicalized.

However, in order to counter such readings, Collins also locates the female suicidal impulse within women’s marital dissatisfactions, focussing here on the sexuality of the middle-class woman edited out of contemporary crime reports. Like Rosanna, Sara in The Law and the Lady is obsessed with her appearance, categorizing herself as “that next worst thing myself to a deformity – a plain woman” (388). The fear of arousing male disgust is seen as an important aspect of her suicidal tendencies and her final wish, that she had been a “prettier woman” (394) poignantly evokes the cultural obsession with female beauty as a guarantor of sexual fulfilment. What partly precipitates her death is the fact that she has been cruelly given her husband’s diary by her admirer, Miserrimus Dexter, to fuel her distrust of Eustace, the implication being that if wives were to gain access to their husband’s secret thoughts, they would kill themselves. The diary then reveals the secret of Eustace’s sexual disgust for Sara, encouraging her to believe that she has failed to live up to the requirements of a “good wife” and therefore destroying her faith in her sexual identity.3 It is also significant that the connection between suicide and insanity seems to have weakened by this stage, as Sara’s mental state is not classified in terms of madness. Her nurse testifies that she has a “detestable temper” which was “made still more irritable by unhappiness in her married life” (128), where it is the anger at the behaviour of men rather than women’s mental instabilities which is being recognized as a possible explanation for the act. This may reflect shifts in public opinion towards greater tolerance of suicides and awareness of alternative classifications than insanity. Like the angry and bad-tempered women described in some suicide reports, Sara seems to be exhibiting symptoms of depression, a term actually cited in several cases from the 1870s (Illustrated London Clipper, 12 Dec 1874, 3; Illustrated Police News, 8 Jan 1870, 4). This was often coupled with the verdict that such women were of “an unsound state of mind,” that is, suffering from mental illness, rather than being certifiably insane, as developments in psychiatry contributed to new ways of classifying suicidal women.

By 1875, Collins was also reflecting changes in perceptions of suicide by stressing the determination and anger of the female suicide. Sara’s death in The Law and the Lady is represented as an attempt to secure her husband’s desire, a sacrifice made easy in the knowledge of unrequited love. The suicide note earnestly solicits his gaze, imploring him to look at the dead body of a woman his eyes have always avoided:

The poison will have its use at last. It might have failed to improve my complexion. It will not fail to relieve you of your ugly wife. Don’t let me be examined after death. Show this letter to the doctor who attends me. It will tell him that I have committed suicide; it will prevent any innocent person from being suspected of poisoning me. I want nobody to be blamed or punished … You have just gone, after giving me my composing draught. My courage failed me at the sight of you. I thought to myself, “If he looks at me kindly, I will confess what I have done, and let him save my life.” You never looked at me at all. You only looked at the medicine. (Collins, The Law and the Lady, 392-3) 

In this scenario the husband’s gaze is privileged over its medical equivalent as Sara shrinks from the prying eyes of the attending doctor. There is an underlying suggestion that she does not desire to be subjected to a post- mortem to ascertain the cause of death, so that her note is designed to remove such a legal requirement and preserve the appearance of the body. Lydia, too, imagines the viewing of her dead body by men: “Shall I jump out? No, it disfigures one so, and the coroner’s inquest lets so many people see it” (434). By taking a very high dosage of a poison meant to improve the appearance, the text suggests that Sara believes her body will at last be noticed, “The poison will have its use.” Later in the suicide note she writes of “my resolution to die” (393) using the word Collins deployed throughout his fiction to symbolize self-will and determination. Female suicides in the press were often described as “determined” or “deliberate,” reinforcing the idea of female agency and anger, rather than waywardness. This implies that, notwithstanding medical readings, female suicide could be valorized as an important act of self-assertion, a sign of female dissatisfaction.

Concealing female suicide

And yet this greater tolerance is also often only achieved through misrepresentation, as women’s suicides were still perceived to be scandalous occurrences, which needed to be concealed. Medical readings of female suicide as accidental occur in Gustave Flaubert’s influential novel, Madame Bovary (1857), as Emma Bovary’s act of self-destruction is represented as a domestic accident—that of mistaking arsenic for sugar—in order to minimize the risk of scandal and social stigma. As female suicides were constantly misrepresented as murders, accidental deaths or deaths from natural causes and illnesses, the interpretation of the woman’s life necessitated by the act is often distorted. When, in Armadale, Lydia’s body is discovered in the Sanatorium, her story has also been changed and her death medicalized, her suicide note retained by Midwinter and thus kept from public knowledge:

There is not the least doubt that the miserable woman (however she might have come by her death) was found dead – that a coroner’s inquest inquired into the circumstances—that the evidence showed her to have entered the house as a patient—and that the medical investigation ended in discovering that she had died of apoplexy. (Collins, Armadale, 671) 

In this extract the circumstances and evidence are structured around her entrance into the Sanatorium as a “patient” and the medical diagnosis of apoplexy. The suicide note which cites marital dissatisfaction as a major cause of her death is never publicised but retained by a remorseful husband —though it is significant that the addressee of the note does read it in its entirety in this instance. Collins’s interest in the suicides of married women ensures that Lydia’s posthumous advice to Midwinter locates her death in the recognition of her inadequacy as a wife and her inability to rise above her lower social origins:

Forget me, my darling, in the love of a better woman than I am. I might, perhaps have been that better woman myself, if I had not lived a miserable life before you met with me. (Collins, Armadale, 665-6) 

The use of the adjective “miserable” in both the explanation of her death and the note expresses her status as both victim and working-class woman. It is in part a confession of Lydia’s criminal tendencies and her admission that they are inappropriate for marriage: “you will know what a wretch you married when you married the woman who writes these lines” (666). Paradoxically, the explanation reinforces the class-based assumptions Collins sought to deconstruct, as if her death does fix her into her forgotten social identity. The potential links between respectability and suicide are given scant attention, as the self-murder of respectable women could not easily be assimilated into received ideas of female behaviour.

The categorization of the death as a suicide is also avoided for Sara. The plot revolves around Valeria’s desire to disprove that her husband murdered his first wife and the unsettling of gender categories produced by the revelation that Sara poisoned herself. As the reconstruction of Sara’s suicide note provides the true explanation, she becomes complicit in the silencing of the scandal of female suicide: “my one desire was to hide it from the public view!” (395). As Barbara Gates has attested, “The true secret of [the novel] is that rejection in love followed by suicide is a verdict more terrible than murder not proven” (57). As in The Moonstone, women’s “nightmare narratives” are only discovered and pieced together by detectives who then become instrumental in concealing the implications of their discoveries, dismissing the evidence of women’s anger, desire and emotional distress in order to preserve ideologies of wayward femininity. Eustace takes his second wife’s advice and never reads Sara’s final pleas for forgiveness and recognition, remaining untouched by her anger. Both novels then imply that the narratives of women’s suicidal impulses and the connections between middle-class marriage and the loss of female identity are hidden from the public view so that the threat of “disruptive” femininity can be contained (Pykett, 22).4

Rather than offering the expected comment on the sexual irregularities of lower-class women, fictional representations of female suicides often expressed women’s dissatisfactions and anger, which medicine and the law struggled to explain. The difficulties of interpreting the deaths of all three women in Collins’s novels testify to the inadequacies of explaining the act of violence purely in terms of class or insanity. Serving to undermine prevalent assumptions about the wayward femininity of suicidal women, Collins’s plots address issues around respectability, the experience of servants, middle-class marriage, and depression, responding to changes in ways of thinking about self-destruction. It was perhaps his focus on the suicidal impulses of respectable women which was most radical; as Gates argues, “[he] was sensational because he pointed out to the bourgeoisie that suicide among them was more pervasive than they cared to believe” (59). Unlike the silent women who are the subjects of the sensationalized narratives in the press, Collins’s women are given the chance to tell their own stories in the detailed suicide notes, despite attempts to conceal the evidence of their crimes.

Works Cited

(Unsigned articles in Victorian newspapers are cited fully in the text but excluded here.)

Anderson, Olive. Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. Ed. John Sutherland. 1866; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

_____. The Law and the Lady. Ed. Jenny Bourne Taylor. 1875; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

_____. The Moonstone. Ed. J. I. M. Stewart. 1868; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Gates, Barbara. Victorian Suicides: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Higonnet, Margaret. “Speaking Silences: Women’s Suicide”. In The Female Body in Western Culture. Ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Jalland, Pat. Death in the Victorian Family. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Nead, Lynda. Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988.

Peters, Catherine. King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991.

Pykett, Lyn. The Sensation Novel: from the Woman in White to the Moonstone. Plymouth: Northcote House, 1994.

Smith, Roger. Trial by Medicine: Insanity and Responsibility in Victorian Trials. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981.

Trodd, Anthea. Domestic Crime in the Victorian Novel. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Zedner, Lucia. Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.



Her Resolution to Die: “Wayward Women” and Constructions of Suicide in Wilkie Collins’s Crime Fiction by Emma Liggins
The Wilkie Collins Journal 04 (2001)

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