Category Archives: History

“I should never have married at all if I had not been dead at the time.” GBS


Charlotte and Bernard Shaw (centre) with Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb     Library of the LSE

On 1 June 1898, Irish playwright and thinker George Bernard Shaw married Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend, a wealthy Irishwoman, fellow Fabian and champion of women’s rights. Shaw wrote of his new wife:

She, being also Irish, does not succumb to my arts as the unsuspecting and literal Englishwoman does; but we get on together all the better, repairing bicycles, talking philosophy and religion… or, when we are in a mischievous or sentimental humour, philandering shamelessly and outrageously.

As was his wont, he considered himself captured prey, pounced upon when at his most vulnerable. “I should never have married at all,” he told his friend Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, “if I had not been dead at the time.” The nature of this perceived entrapment was that he had fallen off his bicycle and agreed to recuperate in her home. In truth, they got on terribly well. According to fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb they were “constant companions, pedalling round the country all day, sitting up late at night talking.”

When it came to sex, they reached a mutually satisfactory understanding:

As man and wife we found a new relation in which sex had no part. It ended the old gallantries, flirtations, and philanderings for both of us. Even of those it was the ones that were never consummated that left the longest and kindliest memories.

They stayed together until Charlotte’s death in 1948. In 1950, when Shaw died, their ashes were mixed, then scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.

This is an extract from my new biography, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, which will be published on 17 October 2019. Further details here.


Michael Holroyd. Bernard Shaw: the search for love 1856-1898.Chatto & Windus, 1988

G.B. Shaw. Sixteen Self-SketchesDodd, Mead, 1949

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. My Diaries 1900-1914: The Coalition Against Germany. A.A. Knopf, 1923


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Opening Night of The Importance of Being Earnest – 14 February 1895


Original cast: Allan Aynesworth, Evelyn Millard, Irene Vanbrugh & George Alexander

The opening performance of The Importance of Being Earnest took place at the St. James’s Theatre on 14 February 1895. Oscar Wilde’s great friend Ada Leverson was among the ‘distinguished audience’ that attended. Her lovely tribute to that brilliant occasion, contained in her memoir Letters to the Sphinx, shows that she saw no reason to believe that:

‘the gaiety was not to last, that his life was to become dark, cold, sinister as the atmosphere outside’.

There had been a ferocious snowstorm that day and the street was blocked with carriages depositing patrons who stepped down into a bitterly cold wind. Yet, such inclement conditions did nothing to deter the ‘Wilde fanatics’ who treated the arrival of his audience as an essential part of any performance. Describing how they ‘shouted and cheered the best known people,’ Leverson recalled that:

‘the loudest cheers were for the author who was as well-known as the Bank of England’.

Oscar, recently returned from Algiers where he had holidayed with Lord Alfred Douglas, appeared suntanned and prosperous, and had dressed with what Leverson described as ‘elaborate dandyism and a sort of florid sobriety’. He wore: a coat with a black velvet collar, a green carnation blooming at the buttonhole; a white waistcoat, from which he had hung a large bunch of seals on a black moiré ribbon watch-chain; and white gloves, which he held in his hand, leaving his beloved large green scarab ring visible to all. On any other man, Leverson admitted, this ensemble might be taken for fancy dress, but Oscar, she thought:

‘seemed at ease and to have the look of the last gentleman in Europe’.

Flamboyant as ever, Oscar had declared lily-of-the-valley to be the flower of the evening ‘as a souvenir of an absent friend’ – Lord Alfred Douglas that was and not his wife Constance, also absent – and those gathered sported delicate sprays of that lovely flower: ‘What a rippling, glittering, chattering crowd was that!’ Ada declared, adding:

‘They were certain of some amusement, for if, by exception they did not care for the play, was not Oscar himself sure to do something to amuse them?’

The play did not disappoint. Irene Vanbrugh, who played Gwendolen Fairfax, wrote in To Tell My Story that it ‘went with a delightful ripple of laughter from start to finish’. During the short time she knew Oscar she admired his ‘charm of manner and his elegance’ and the fact that ‘no one was too insignificant for him to take trouble to please’. Years later, she recalled how she:

‘felt tremendously flattered when he congratulated me at one of the rehearsals’.


As the curtain fell at the end of the performance that night, Oscar stepped forward and was greeted with an ovation. He stood smoking while he waited for the applause to subside; the evening was a triumph. Yet, a dangerous drama was unfolding in the vicinity of the theatre that night. The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, had grown increasingly frantic in his efforts to stop his son seeing Oscar and had planned to make a public protest by throwing a grotesque tribute, a bouquet of rotting vegetables, onstage.

Oscar was tipped off and foiled his nemesis by persuading the theatre manager, George Alexander, to revoke Queensberry’s ticket and to organise for a cordon of policemen to surround the building. Thwarted, Queensberry hung around outside for hours, muttering with fury, before delivering his monstrous bouquet to the stage door. This was the beginning of the end for Oscar.

For what happens next you could do worse than read my book Wilde’s Women. More information about it here.



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That Wallpaper


On graduating from the Sorbonne, London-born journalist Claire de Pratz, née Zoe Clara Solange Cadiot, worked as an English teacher before becoming a correspondent with both Le Petit Parisien and the Daily News. During her lifetime, she wrote several well received novels and non-fiction books.

In July 1889, when she was aged just seventeen, de Pratz wrote an article, ‘Pierre Loti and His Works’, for The Woman’s World, a magazine that was edited by Oscar Wilde at the time. When she met Wilde in Paris towards the end of his life, she reminded him that he was her first editor and they struck up a friendship.Wilde christened her ‘the good goddess’or ‘la bonne déesse’.

An interview de Pratz gave to Léon Guillot de Saix in L’Européen on 8 May 1929, and her memoir France from Within,  give fascinating insights into the final months of Wilde’s life. In these, de Pratz reports that Wilde often spoke of his mother but never of his trials and imprisonment. Clearly devastated by the consequences of his conviction, he asked her: ‘Is there on earth a crime so terrible that in punishment of it a father can be prevented from seeing his children?’

It was to Claire de Pratz that Wilde said of the wallpaper in his room at the Hotel d’Alsace – chocolate flowers on a blue background – ‘my wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other has to go’. Unfortunately, it was to be him. Oscar Wilde died one month later, on 30 November 1900. Although he was just 46, he had outlived his father and mother, his sister and brother, and his wife.

Claire de Pratz is one of the remarkable women in my book Wilde’s Women, read more here.



L’Européen8 Mai 1929, ‘Souvenirs Inedits’ reeferenced in Témoignages d’époque,  Claire de Pratz, Rue de Beaux Arts, Numéro 37 : Mars/Avril 2011 accessed on 2 March 2015



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Entering The Woman’s World: Oscar Wilde as Editor of a Woman’s Magazine


I am absolutely delighted to have an article on Oscar Wilde as Editor of The Woman’s World magazine, which is based on a paper I delivered to Communities of Communication II in Edinburgh University, 10-11 September 2015, published on the superb Victorian Web. This is an excellent resource for scholars and anyone with an interest in the period. My article is here and reproduced below:

In April 1887, Oscar Wilde accepted the position as editor of The Lady’s World, a high-end, illustrated monthly magazine produced by Cassell and Company. Wilde expressed the opinion to poet Harriet Hamilton King that The Lady’s World was ‘a very vulgar, trivial, and stupid production’ (Complete letters, 332) and in the face of strong opposition from Cassells, he renamed the magazine. The new title, The Woman’s World, was suggested to him by novelist and poet Dinah Craik, daughter of an eccentric Irishman and author of the exceptionally popular John Halifax, Gentleman. Oscar admired Craik enormously and planned to recruit her as a regular contributor and he was dismayed when she died of heart failure, aged sixty-one, just weeks before his first edition was due to appear. He eulogised her in his first ‘Literary and Other Notes’, in November 1887: ‘She was very much interested in the scheme for the foundation of THE WOMAN’S WORLD,’ he wrote, ‘and promised to be one of its warmest supporters’.

In a letter to Thomas Wemyss Reid, General Manager of Cassells, Wilde undertook to transform the magazine into ‘the recognised organ for the expression of women’s opinions on all subjects of literature, art, and modern life’ (Complete letters, 297). He vowed that, under his editorship, The Woman’s World would: ‘take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel’ (297).

A reproduction of the magazine cover, the title-page with Wilde’s name, and the binding of The Woman’s World annual volume. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Wilde’s Motivation

It is often assumed that Wilde took on this editorial role simply to secure access to a regular income. Certainly, as a married man of thirty-two with a young family to provide for and exquisite tastes to gratify, he found it impossible to fund the lifestyle he desired out of his unreliable earnings as a freelance reviewer and, by then, occasional lecturer. Although his wife Constance brought a modest allowance to the household, by 1887 the couple’s resources were falling distressingly short of their outgoings and they were looking for tenants for their lovely Tite Street home. Yet, although the weekly salary of six pounds was very welcome, it does not account entirely for Wilde’s motivation in agreeing to accept Cassell’s offer.

As a committed individualist, Wilde believed that women should be allowed far more autonomy than they were afforded by patriarchal Victorian society. He also shared his mother’s opposition to gendered writing, resistance she had expressed in forthright terms when, as a young woman, she had been offered control of the ‘woman’s page’ of The Nation newspaper. Echoing his mother’s distain, Wilde quipped in a letter to Wemyss Reid: ‘artists have sex but art has none’ (Complete letters, 298).

As a regular contributor to several popular periodicals, Wilde must have realised how badly served intelligent, ambitious women were by the plethora of new magazines claiming to represent their interests. In response, he used The Woman’s World to point out the more absurd aspects of gender discrimination, and to facilitate debate on the contentious issues faced by women who were attempting to enter the public sphere. He also offered a platform to emerging women writers who displayed a style that could be considered more edgy than that adopted by their peers.

Wilde’s zeal for his new role was palpable: ‘I am resolved to throw myself into this thing,’ he told Wemyss Reid, ‘I grow very enthusiastic over our scheme’ (Complete letters, 299-300). In ‘Oscar Wilde as Editor’, an article he wrote forHarper’s Weekly in 1913, Arthur Fish, the young man appointed by Cassell and Company as Wilde’s sub-edito, insisted that the ‘keynote’ of The Woman’s World under Wilde’s editorship was no less than ‘the right of woman to equality of treatment with man’ (Fish, 18). Fish also testified that several of the articles on ‘women’s work and their position in politics were far in advance of the thought of the day’ (18).


With the help of his well-connected friend Lady Mary Jeune, Wilde compiled a list of potential contributors, among them prominent social activists, literary luminaries and society women, including two princesses. Fish called them ‘a brilliant company of contributors which included the leaders of feminine thought and influence in every branch of work’ (18). Since Wilde had told Wemyss Reid that he intended to make The Woman’s World ‘a magazine that men could read with pleasure, and consider it a privilege to contribute to’ (Complete letters, 297), he also invited several men to submit articles.

The first issue of The Woman’s World appeared in November 1887. A fresh cover design featured Wilde’s name prominently with key contributors listed below. In a significant departure from convention, each article was attributed to its author by name. Wilde also increased the page count from thirty-six to forty-eight, and relegated fashion to the back while promoting literature, art, travel and social studies. Gone entirely were ‘Fashionable Marriages’, ‘Society Pleasures’, ‘Pastimes for Ladies’ and ‘Five o’clock Tea’. In his ‘Literary and Other Notes’, Wilde demonstrated unequivocal support for the greater participation of women in public life. He campaigned for them to be granted access to education and the professions, and argued that the ‘cultivation of separate sorts of virtues and separate ideals of duty in men and women has led to the whole social fabric being weaker and unhealthier than it need be’ (WW, 2 (1897): 390).

The editorial direction Wilde intended to take was signalled by the inclusion in the very first issue of ‘The Position of Women’, a lengthy article from Eveline, Countess of Portsmouth. She welcomed amendments to marriage law designed to reform an institution that, in her view, ‘might and did very often represent to a wife a hopeless and bitter slavery’ (WW, I, 8). In ‘The Fallacy of the Superiority of Man’, published the following month, Laura McLaren, founder of the Liberal Women’s Suffrage Union, asked: ‘If women are inferior in any point, let the world hear the evidence on which they are to be condemned’ (WW, I, 54).

A New Slant on Fashion

Left: Scene from “The Faithful Shepherdess” — the frontispiece to the 1888 Woman’s World. Right: Orlando. Both plates are illustrations to “The Woodland Gods” by Janey Sevilla Campbell. These images and those below coem from the Internet Archive version of a volume in the Stanford University Library. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Although fashion remained a key feature, a conventional round-up of the season’s trends was supplemented with articles on cross-dressing, aesthetic design and rational dress. On the first page of his first edition, Oscar published ‘The Woodland Gods’ a review by the aristocratic Janey Sevilla Campbell, more commonly known as Lady Archibald Campbell, of three cross-dressing dramas staged by her Pastoral Players at her home, Coombe House in Surrey. This article was illustrated with images of Janey dressed as a young man to play Orlando in As You Like It and embracing a woman as Perigot in Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess.

Examples of the large number of conventional illustrations of current fashion, which appeared every month — these from Mrs. Johnstone’s “November fashions.” Left: Morning Costume and Frock with Velvet Yoke — Right: Winter Mantles and Mantlets. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

In ‘The Pictures of Sappho’, in April 1888, classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison challenged several gender-based conventions while, in June 1889, ethnographer Richard Heath contributed an article titled ‘Politics in Dress’. A feature on fans as a feminine symbol pointed out that they were originally carried by men as a sign of power, while one on gloves asked why men, once such decorative dressers, had become so ‘sober’. In ‘Women Wearers of Men’s Clothes’, published in January 1889, Irish-born journalist Emily Crawford insisted that women who adopted masculine styles could accomplish ‘heroic duties’, while novelist Ella Hepworth Dixon applauded the ‘semi-masculine and completely appropriate gear’ adopted by women who rode.

Wilde joined the debate in his very first ‘Literary and Other Notes’ by declaring that, in time, ‘dress of the two sexes will be assimilated, as similarity of costume always follows similarity of pursuits’ (WW, I, 40). He also castigated the ‘absolute unsuitability of ordinary feminine attire to any sort of handicraft, or even to any occupation which necessitates a daily walk to business and back again in all kinds of weather’ (I, 40). In his opinion, restrictive clothing prevented women from taking their rightful place alongside men. Insisting that ‘the health of a nation depends very much on its mode of dress’, Wilde described how ‘from the Sixteenth Century to our own day there is hardly any form of torture that has not been inflicted on girls and endured by women, in obedience to the dictates of an unreasonable and monstrous Fashion’ (I, 40).

Education and Employment

Education too was a key focus of The Woman’s World. In January 1888, in his review of Women and Work, a collection of essays by poet and philanthropist Emily Jane Pfeiffer, Wilde quoted Daniel Defoe, who had asked ‘what has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught!’ (WW, I, 135-56) He commissioned articles on the women’s colleges and on Alexandra College in Dublin, an all-girls institution of higher education. He also published a series of articles encouraging those few, fortunate women who had benefitted from access to higher education to explore opportunities opening up to them in the professions.

Several articles in The Woman’s World drew attention to the blight of poverty that afflicted women and their children. In several instances, the authors of these articles proposed solutions that went far beyond the usual ineffectual charitable works. In ‘Something About Needlewomen’, published in May 1888, trade unionist Clementina Black, who had helped establish the Woman’s Trade Union Association, highlighted the plight of impoverished needlewomen who were unable to earn a living wage from the piecework they were given. She encouraged them to combine into cooperatives. In July 1888, in one of several features dealing with Irishwomen, Irish journalist Charlotte O’Connor Eccles drew attention to the alarming conditions endured by Dublin’s women weavers, and insisted that their poverty should be alleviated through education and training. Emily Faithfull, a member of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, wrote of the duty of teaching girls some trade, calling or profession.

It is interesting that many of these themes found their way into Wilde’s stories, most notably ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Young King’. His inclusion of the impoverished match-girl in the former must surely represent a nod to the fourteen-hundred women and girls who had gone on strike at the Bryant and May match factory in 1888, refusing to work until their appalling conditions and inadequate wages were improved.

Woman and Politics

Wilde tackled the contentious issue of politics head-on and was unequivocal in his support for the greater participation of women. Reviewing David Ritchie’s Darwinism and Politics in May 1889, he praised that author’s rebuttal of Herbert Spencer’s contention that, should women be admitted to political life, they might do mischief by introducing the ethics of the family into affairs of state: ‘If something is right in a family,’ Wilde countered, ‘it is difficult to see why it is, therefore, without any further reason, wrong in the state’ (WW, II, 390). He commissioned articles on the campaign for women’s suffrage and he helped Lady Margaret Sandhurst in her controversial bid to be elected to the London City Council by publishing in full a speech she had delivered.


Naturally, literature was a key focus of The Woman’s World. One of Wilde’s most rewarding tasks was the commissioning of new works of fiction from emerging and established women writers. The best article in the December 1887 issue, he told poet Louise Chandler Moulton, would be ‘a story, one page long, by Amy Levy . . . a mere girl, but a girl of genius’ (Moulton, 123). Levy had sent the story unsolicited. In response, Wilde commissioned a second story, two poems and two articles. He also championed South-African-born radical feminist Olive Schreiner who, agitated for greater access to political life and an end to the sexual double standard.

In ‘Literary and Other Notes’, Wilde gave what he called ‘special prominence’ to books written by women. The aesthetic and new woman writers he promoted included E. Nesbit, who he described as ‘a very pure and perfect artist’ (WW, I, 36); and controversial poet Rosamund Marriot Watson, who wrote as Graham R. Tomson. When Tomson became editor of aesthetic magazine Sylvia’s Journal in 1893, it was clear that she had learned much from her association with The Woman’s World.

Reaction to The Woman’s World

So what was the reaction to The Woman’s World under Wilde’s stewardship? In Oscar Wilde and his Mother, published in 1911, Wilde’s friend Anna de Brémont declared, ‘[S]ociety began to take Oscar Wilde seriously when he became editor of The Woman’s World’ (73). She described how the magazine caused a ‘flutter in the boudoirs of Mayfair and Belgravia’. Certainly, Constance and Lady Wilde’s drawing rooms were thronged with would-be contributors. The press response was similarly positive: ‘Mr Oscar Wilde has triumphed,’ declared the Nottingham Evening Post, ‘the first number of the “Woman’s World” has already appeared, and has, I believe, been sold out’. Praising Wilde for ‘striking an original line’, the Times hailed The Woman’s World as ‘gracefully got up…in every respect’.

Rival publication Queen admired the improved appearance and impressive array of contributors. The assessment of the St James’ Gazette must have delighted Wilde. ‘The Women’s World is a capital magazine for a married man to buy,’ its reviewer declared. ‘He tells his wife he got it entirely for her sake; but he may always find some very good reading for himself.’ The Spectator decided: ‘The change is undoubtedly one for the better, in the sense of the higher’. Describing the articles as ‘extremely bright and useful’, the Irish Times recorded how, on the evening of the launch, ‘[T]here was not one in the West End to be had for love or money and impatient people could only get through the interval between Saturday and Monday by borrowing copied from friends. Perhaps the most significant reaction of all came from The Englishwoman’s Review, the organ of the suffragist movement in Britain. While refraining from praising The Woman’s World overtly, it ran notices attracting the attention of readers to more progressive articles.


Under the terms of his contract, Wilde had agreed to spend two mornings a week in the offices of Cassell & Company. After a while, Arthur Fish could tell ‘by the sound of his approach along the resounding corridor whether the necessary work to be done would be met cheerfully or postponed to a more congenial period’. On a good day, there would be ‘a smiling entrance, letters would be answered with epigrammatic brightness, there would be a cheery interval of talk when the work was accomplished, and the dull room would brighten under the influence of his great personality’ (18).

Fish never doubted Wilde’s commitment to The Woman’s World and he described how hard his boss fought to retain editorial control:

Sir Wemyss Reid, then General Manager of Cassell’s, or John Williams the Chief Editor, would call in at our room and discuss them [issues] with Oscar Wilde, who would always express his entire sympathy with the views of the writers and reveal a liberality of thought with regard to the political aspirations of women that was undoubtedly sincere.

Yet, Wilde’s tenure was short-lived. Much of his disenchantment was born of frustration rather than a lack of commitment: ‘I am not allowed as free a hand as I would like’ (Complete letters, 325), he told his friend Helena Sickert in October 1887. In a letter to Scottish writer William Sharp, he complained: ‘The work of reconstruction was very difficult as the Lady’s World was a most vulgar trivial production, and the doctrine of heredity holds good in literature as in life’(Complete letters, 332).

As early as December 1887, Cassells were objecting to the ‘too literary tendencies’ (Complete letters, 337) of The Woman’s World. In October 1888, Oscar asked the board to authorise the purchase of a story from Frances Hodgson Burnett, but her name never appeared. Nor did four illustrated articles he had hoped to commission from French explorer and archaeologist Madame Jeanne Dieulafoy. Wilde’s despondence deepened when Cassell’s refused to drop the price to sixpence or seven pence in order to attract a wider readership. Fish noticed that his interest was waning: ‘After a few months,’ he remembered, ‘his arrival became later and his departure earlier until at times his visit was little more than a call’. Wilde’s ‘Literary and Other Notes’ disappeared after the fourth issue and, although it was reinstated at Cassell’s instance, he began to miss his deadlines. It may sound trivial but one of the toughest challenges Wilde faced was Cassell’s strict no smoking policy.

Fish had once described his boss as ‘Pegasus in harness’ and now he was pulling at the reigns. A typical day towards the end of his tenure went as follows: ‘He would sink with a sigh into his chair, carelessly glance at his letters, give a perfunctory look at proofs or make-up, ask “Is it necessary to settle anything to-day?” put on his hat, and, with a sad “Good-morning”, depart again’ (The House of Cassell, 134). In April 1889, Wilde informed the Board of Inland Revenue that he would be leaving Cassell & Co. in August. His final ‘Literary and Other Notes’ appeared in June 1889, and by October his name was gone from the cover.

After Wilde’s departure, The Woman’s World reverted to its unadventurous roots. A renewed focus on fashion prompted The Woman’s Penny Paper to scold: ‘To dress is surely not considered the first or the only duty of women, even by their greatest enemies’. The magazine was discontinued shortly afterwards. Wilde had not neglected his own work during his two-year tenure as editor. Dozens of his poems, reviews, essays and stories were accepted by various periodicals during this time and he also published and promoted his first collection of stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales. The break with Cassells heralded an exceptionally productive period that saw the publication of two further collections of short stories: Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and Other Stories, and The House of Pomegranates; a collection of essays called Intentions; and The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel. While Wilde’s sincerity and sympathy were never in doubt, his interest in coping with the day-to-day challenges of bringing out a magazine on someone else’s behalf certainly was.


Read Volume I of The Woman’s World here.

Chandler Moulton, Louise. The Literary World: a Monthly Review of Current Literature 20.8 (1889): 123-27.

De Brémont, Anna. Oscar Wilde and His Mother: A Memoir. London: Everett & Co. 1911.

Fish, Arthur (A). ‘Oscar Wilde as Editor’ Harper’s Weekly. 58 (1913): 18-20.

Anon. The Story of the House of Cassell. London: Cassell & Co, 1922. 114-46.

Wilde, Oscar, The Complete letters of Oscar Wilde. Eds. Holland, Merlin and Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Fourth Estate, 2000.

Wilde, Oscar (Ed), The Woman’s World. 2 vols. London: Cassell & Company, 1888.

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Deadly Sensationalism: Female Suicide by Drowning in the Victorian Era

I feel very proud to have an article in the September/October issue of History Ireland. It’s a wonderful and fascinating magazine, and well worth spending €7 on. Here’s a version of my article on female suicide in the nineteenth century – admittedly not the most uplifting topic.

Millais' Ophelia

The words of medical doctor and coroner, William Wynn Westcott, articulated in 1885, still hold true today:

‘In every age of the world, and in the history of every country, we find instances more or less numerous of men and women who, preferring the dim uncertainty of the future to the painful realities of the present, have sought relief from all their troubles by suddenly terminating their own existence.’

Although we fall far short of adequately tackling that scourge of despair which persuades vulnerable people to doubt their worth to the extent that they chose to end their lives, we can take consolation from the fact that in our time we have developed a more sympathetic approach to mental illness than was demonstrated by our predecessors. Our contemporary attitude to the tragedy of suicide is characterised by compassion and it seems barely credible that such an anguished flight from torment was decriminalised in Ireland as recently as 1993.

For many centuries we in Ireland were subject to English common law and our legal system retains to this day strong echoes of a code that once deemed ‘self-murder’ a grave felony. In England the act of suicide was declared illegal as early as the thirteenth century and although the ‘perpetrator’ had moved beyond the reach of the law, any property destined for their family could be seized by the state right up until the passing of the Forfeiture Act of 1870.

A ‘felo de se’, translated as ‘felon of himself’, was considered to have committed a shameful crime, an affront to God and the crown. As a result both they and the family they left behind were denied the posthumous consolation of a decent Christian burial. Until 1823 it was customary to bury suicides at the crossroads closest to the site of their ‘crime’ and as an extra precaution, the body might be interred in quicklime with a stake driven through the heart to prevent the restless spirit from rising.

The only recognised defence against ‘felo de se’ was acceptable proof of insanity, a state of mind that was difficult to establish. This was not an attractive prospect for a respectable family unwilling to accept the taint of mental illness, a poorly-understood affliction that would damage the marriage prospects of generations to come. As censorious court officials took no account of the anguish that must have hijacked the thoughts of those driven to end their lives, a family’s best hope was to conceal the details of their loved one’s death; a sympathetic coroner might be prevailed upon to suppress evidence of suicide and opt for misadventure instead.

This was the case during the inquest into the death of Harriet Westbrook of Chapel Street in London when her family persuaded John Henry Gell Esq., coroner for the City of Westminster, to declare that she had been, ‘found dead in the Serpentine River’, with no explanation as to how or indeed why. As the details of Harriet’s tragic death were largely kept from the papers the public learned little more than what was published in a short but intriguing report carried on page two of The London Times on Thursday 12 December, 1816:

‘On Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine River and brought to her residence in Queen Street, Brompton, having been missed for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger. A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe, her husband being abroad’.

Few realised that the young woman, who was buried as ‘Harriet Smith’, was in fact Harriet Shelley, twenty-one year old wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and mother to their two children. She had been estranged from her husband for more than two years at the time of her death, but not by her choice, and the child she carried was not his.

Harriet Shelley was not the only literary wife to succumb to deathly despair. For much of her married life, poor, troubled Isabella Thackeray remained hidden from curious eyes, a situation that caused great embarrassment to Charlotte Brontë who was unaware of this when she dedicated Jane Eyre to William Makepeace Thackeray. In letters to his mother, Thackeray describes the repeated attempts that Isabella made to end her life. On one occasion, while travelling to Ireland by steamship:

‘The poor thing flung herself into the water (from the water-closet) & was twenty minutes floating in the sea, before the ship’s boat even saw her. O my God what a dream it is! I hardly believe it now I write. She was found floating on her back, paddling with her hands, and had never sunk at all.’

To thwart further attempts Thackeray tied, ‘a riband round her waist, and to my waist, and this always woke me if she moved’.

Had the lurid details of Isabella’s distress or Harriet’s lonely death been widely known, there were many who would have revelled in their tragedy. Although then as now many more men than woman took their lives, female suicide by drowning was a phenomenon that preoccupied the chattering classes throughout the nineteenth century.

Such tragedies were sensationally reported on by the popular press and read vicariously by thousands. In fact so pervasive was this unhealthy obsession that English physician George Man Burrows, a man who dedicated much of his career to the understanding and treatment of insanity, grew increasingly exasperated and accused the ‘Cheap Press’ of directly contributing to an increase in suicides. In a lengthy treatise entitled Commentaries on the Causes, Forms, Symptoms, and Treatment, Moral and Medical, of Insanity, published in 1828, Borrows observed that:

‘Nothing is found so attractive as tales of wonder and horror, and every coroner’s inquest on an unhappy being who has destroyed himself is read with extraordinary avidity’.

Specifically linking the reporting of suicide with the act itself, he wrote:

‘No sooner is the mind disturbed by any moral causes, than the thoughts are at once directed, through these channels [newspaper reports], to mediate an act, which otherwise neither predisposition, despair, nor the nature of their insanity, would have suggested’.

Certainly by the mid-nineteenth century there was an appetite to develop an understanding of the effect that becoming obsessed with the details of a suicide might have on vulnerable people. An article entitled ‘Suicide: Its Motives and Mysteries’, published in the Irish Quarterly Review of 1857, outlined how the ‘excited curiosity’ that resulted from exposure to the details of a well publicised suicide might prompt people to visit the sites of these deaths. Once there the danger was that ‘empathetic imagination’ would lead these voyeurs to attempt to understand the ‘motives and sensations’ of the victim, and in extreme cases, ‘visionary power’ might cause someone preoccupied with a case to emulate the actions of the earlier victim.

Popular artists and writers of the day responded to this public appetite for the maudlin and graphic depictions of fallen women plunging out of windows or off bridges into the murky depths below were regularly featured in popular one-shilling novels, paintings and prints. William Shakespeare may have started the trend more than two centuries earlier with his description of sad Ophelia drowning amidst garlands of flowers; certainly performances of Hamlet were hugely popular at the time and John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia (above) was publicly exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. Others, amongst them Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and the illustrator, George Cruickshank, enthusiastically took up the theme.

In Hardy’s Jude the Obscure the infant Jude is abandoned by his mother when she forsakes her violent, unhappy marriage and later drowns herself. Dickens, the most popular author of the day, revisited this theme several times. In The Chimes, published in 1844 as one of a series of instructive Christmas stories, he recounts the tale of Meg, an impoverished young widow driven to contemplate drowning both herself and her child but saved by the timely chiming of church bells. Dickens based Meg’s story on the real life case of Mary Furley who, in a desperate bid to avoid the workhouse, jumped off a bridge holding her infant child. Mary was rescued but her baby died and she was convicted of infanticide in April 1844.

The lure of a watery death seemed irresistible to fictionalised ‘fallen women’. In Oliver Twist Dickens has Nancy point to the Thames as it flows under London Bridge and say:

‘Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide, and leave no living thing to care for or bewail them? It may be years hence or it may be only months, but I shall come to that at last’.

Dickens showed genuine concern for London’s prostitutes and other ‘fallen women’. In 1847, along with his good friend, the philanthropist Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, he established Urania Cottage as a place of refuge and rehabilitation for these unfortunates. Here the regime was at variance with traditional houses of reform where harsh conditions were enforced in order to punish women. In Urania Cottage a woman was taught domestic skills, could learn to read and write and was offered a genuine opportunity to improve her lot.

History Ireland - Deadly Sensationalism Female Suicide by Drowning in the Victorian Era - The Drunkard’s Children by George Cruckshank

Cruickshank, a reformed alcoholic and Dickens’ first illustrator, produced a cautionary series of prints entitled The Drunkard’s Children. The last of these depicts a distraught young woman leaping to her death from a bridge and is colourfully captioned ‘…The poor girl, homeless, friendless, deserted, destitute, and gin-mad, commits self-murder’.

Several Irish writers embraced the theme. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890, Oscar Wilde allows Lord Henry to tease Dorian thus:

‘Besides, how do you know that Hetty [Merton] isn’t floating at the present moment in some starlit mill-pond, with lovely water-lilies round her, like Ophelia?’

In Mrs. Warren’s Profession, published in 1894, George Bernard Shaw writes:

‘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.’

Such literary drowning was not confined to the Victorian era; John B. Keane set Sive in nineteen-fifties Ireland and took as his theme the vulnerability of an illegitimate young woman who drowns herself rather than enter into a forced marriage with an elderly farmer.

Had Sive survived she would have received scant sympathy. Attempting suicide was a crime punishable by imprisonment and young Irish women were often fished out of rivers and lakes only to be incarcerated as a result. Many ended up in Grangegorman Female Penitentiary, established in 1836 as the first prison for female inmates anywhere in the British Isles. In August 1841 twenty-five-year-old Catherine Booth, who worked as a servant in Ship Street in Dublin, received a sentence of thirty days in Grangegorman for attempting to drown herself. One month later fellow Dubliner, twenty-seven-year-old Hannah Walsh from Britain Street was sentenced to fourteen days for the same ‘crime’. In October 1841 seventeen-year-old Mary Walsh from Angelsea Street received identical treatment. Both she and Hannah Walsh were unemployed and destitute at the time.

Among the most tragic cases was that of Mary O’Flaherty, a thirty-four-year-old married woman who had lost five children in infanthood; all died of natural causes. In 1892, when her sixth infant fell ill, the distraught woman attempted to drown herself and her baby. The baby died but O’Flaherty survived and was acquitted of manslaughter on the grounds of insanity. Diagnosed as ‘melancholic’, she was admitted to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum where she remained for the rest of her life.

Those most vulnerable to despair included the many thousands of Irish prostitutes who endured lives of unimaginable misery. A spate of suicide attempts among prostitutes in Galway followed the death of Mary Kate Costelloe, who drowned herself on September 20, 1888. Two days later Mary Reilly jumped into the same river shouting Costelloe’s name. She was rescued and jailed for thirty days. Later that same week Kate Dolan jumped in, declaring that she ‘would not put up with all the warrants and imprisonments’. As this was not her first attempt she received a sentence of six months. The matter did not end there. On 30 October Anne Owens declared she would, ‘follow her comrade Mary Costelloe and drown herself rather than go to jail’. She too was rescued and got thirty days.

In each case no attempt was made by the authorities to improve the lives of these desperate women. Instead they were simply rounded up, incarcerated in awful conditions and sent back onto the streets with even less chance of survival. For many this marked the start of a steady decline. Nowadays, although resources are stretched or sometimes simply not available, our approach is surely more enlightened and the notion of jailing someone in this way is unconscionable. We have some way to go yet but can take consolation in the fact that the Victorian romanticising of women driven by despair to drown or attempt to drown themselves coupled with the harsh, judgemental treatment meted out to them is no longer a feature of modern life.

Further Reading:

Broad, Richard, ‘Water and the Fallen Woman in Victorian Literature and Art’, 2010, University of London, Available from

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, 1817-1840, ed. Gordon N. Ray, 4 vols., 1945, Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Hartley, Jenny. Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women, 2009, York: Methuen

Luddy, Maria Prostitution and Irish Society: 1800-1940, 2008 Cambridge University Press


September 3, 2013 · 8:48 am