Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England; & Vivisection in Historical Perspective
Clive Emsley reviews
Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England
Olive Anderson - Oxford University Press, 1987 – 475pp - £40
Vivisection in Historical Perspective
Edited by Nicolaas A. Rupke - Croom Helm, 1987 – 373pp - £45
Suicide and vivisection are contemporary issues yet, until fairly recently, neither would have been considered as subject material for an academic history book or for a collection of academic, historical essays. Academics are now urged to be 'relevant', but the 'relevance' of these two books probably owes far less to such promptings than to the way in which historians have broken free from the restrictive bands of straight political or economic history since the 1960s.
Olive Anderson's meticulously researched and elegantly written monograph explores suicide from a variety of different perspectives. Beginning with statistics, and ever mindful of their shortcomings and dangers, she draws out significant contrasts between male and female suicides, and between cold and young. Victorians liked to contrast the idylls of the countryside with the bustle and unpleasantness of the town, especially the industrial town; but Professor Anderson's statistics serve further to undermine these traditional images, and moving to the experience of suicide she is able to contrast generally sudden, 'rash acts' of suicide in the towns, with more calculated, sombre and usually more gruesome incidents in the countryside. She also charts significant changes through time: the Edwardian era witnessed commuter suicides on a scale undreamed of by the mid-Victorians.
From the 'realities' of statistics and experiences, Professor Anderson turns to the attitudes towards suicide as represented in the artefacts of culture at all levels. Victorians developed and extended the idea of suicide as a way out of dishonour; generally sexual dishonour in the case of women, worldly dishonour in the case of men. But they could also laugh at suicide, and execrate a villain who took his own life. The juries of the coroner's courts showed the same independence as their fellows in the criminal courts, possibly for a longer period, and were inclined to bring in verdicts based as much on their perceptions as the hard evidence.
The final quarter of the book explores the restraints exercised over potential suicides by police, church, courts, philanthropists and doctors. If the subject-matter deters some readers, it will be a pity, for this is a book which adds significantly to our understanding of Victorian and Edwardian England as a whole; furthermore its structure is a model for all students of history – each chapter starts by posing a series of complex questions which are then exhaustively, meticulously and humanely discussed.
Professor Anderson is fully cogniscent with the contemporary debates and literature on suicide but she eschews involvement; Nicolaas Rupke and his contributors do not indulge in polemics, but Vivisection in Historical Perspective very consciously brings the issue up to the present and several of the papers clearly have an eye on current arguments and activities. The fifteen essays in this volume, while beginning with a rapid survey of vivisection from the ancients to the enlightenment, concentrate un the second half of the nineteenth century in Western Europe and America exploring a variety of national contexts and a variety of differing aspects – the role of women in anti-vivisection campaigns, the problems of legislation, and the visual representation of animal experiments in painting and on film. The book, Rupke maintains, is the 'spring harvest' of the historical projects begun following the renewed controversy over animal experiments in the mid-1970s. As with any such harvest the fruits are variable, but uniformly interesting. It will surprise few readers that the driving forces behind the first anti- vivisection agitation were female, English dog-lovers outraged by the activities of a German doctor (albeit in Florence). Rupke's own thesis that the vivisection debate, particularly in Britain, was rooted in the emerging cultural ascendancy of science will surprise many more, but the case is convincingly put. It was, perhaps, because the aristocracy and the clergy of nineteenth-century France had received such a battering that the vivisection debate was so muted there. The 'autumn harvest' will be keenly awaited.
Clive Emsley is author of Policing and its Context 1750-1870 (Macmillan, 1983).
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