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MacKenzie, C. (1990). Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, by Olive Anderson, Oxford University Press, 1987, xiii + 475 pages, £40.00 hb. Free Associations, 1T(19):143-146.

(1990). Free Associations, 1T(19):143-146

Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, by Olive Anderson, Oxford University Press, 1987, xiii + 475 pages, £40.00 hb

Review by:
Charlotte MacKenzie

Like the history of insanity, the history of suicide offers an exceptionally fruitful vantage point from which to examine interrelationships between the histories of medicine, the family, and legal and ethical standards of personal behaviour. Olive Anderson describes Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England as part of a ‘social history of the emotions’, but her work is understandably more insightful about the attitudinal and organizational structures which surrounded suicide than the feelings which precipitated it. Of particular value is her description of suicide prevention work — in asylums, through the remanding in custody of attempted suicides who were not certified, and through voluntary organizations which offered help to the destitute or despairing, most notably the Salvation Army's Anti-Suicide Bureau, founded in 1907.

Anderson does less than full justice to her complex teasing-out of the diverse approaches and activities of Home Missioners, ‘Sky Pilots’, Temperance Agents, prison chaplains and police court missionaries when she describes them summarily as ‘the social workers of the day’. From a present-day perspective what is interesting about these workers is that whilst they aimed practically to provide food, shelter and a reliable source of income for destitute would-be suicides, their evangelism enabled them resolutely to shun the social-environmental view of suicide adopted by sanitarians in the public health lobby, as well as asylum doctors' belief that suicide was a product of organic brain disease.

As Anderson shows, the moral-religious approach to suicide favoured by mid-Victorian philanthropists had much in common with popular middle-class conceptions of suicide as a retribution for prodigality, intemperance or fornication, which was deserving of limited sympathy. Working-class ballads and newspapers, on the other hand, were more likely to portray suicides as powerless victims of an inequitable social system.

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