anatomist, Elizabeth Siddall, Fallen women, found drowned, gender roles, John Waterhouse, Ludovico Brunetti, nineteenth century, Ophelia, Padua, Paris, Sir John Everett Millais, suicide, The Bridge of Sighs, The punished suicide, Thomas Hood, Victorian
Trigger warnings: this post references some recent cases of suicide that some readers may find distressing.
“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Edgar Allan Poe
In 2008, Fox News aired a crime scene video showing a twenty-year-old Model, Ruslana Korshunova, lying dead on the street, after apparently committing suicide by throwing herself from the 9th floor of her New York apartment block. Blood could still be seen oozing from her nose. The image was both shocking and intrusive. But, intrusive media coverage of death and disaster has become an accepted part of our appetite for sensation – a malady we like to think of as particularly modern. However, comments from the reporter, and subsequent comments on social media, which focused on the unworldly beauty of the woman’s corpse, revealed attitudes toward female suicide that find their origin in a much earlier nineteenth-century aesthetic. One that both romanticized female suicide for a male gaze, whilst also serving as a warning to women daring to step outside their proscribed gender roles.
Death becomes her
In the eighteenth-century, male suicide was fairly commonly depicted in art and literature, with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, perhaps the most famous example. The novel created something of a moral panic and ‘Werther Fever’ and the ‘Werther Effect’ were linked to several copy-cat suicides of young men overcome by unrequited love or their own heightened sensibilities .
During the nineteenth century, the depiction of suicide underwent something of a gendered transformation which saw a proliferation in images of female suicide and far fewer images of male suicide . This belied the reality, that in fact, in the nineteenth century, men were (and still are) much more likely to successfully commit suicide than women . Before looking at why this change took place, let’s look at some examples of nineteenth-century images of female suicides.
Firstly, anyone who ever had a Pre-Raphaelite phase at college will be familiar with the poster-girl of drowned maidens, Ophelia. Painted in 1851 by John Everett Millais, this is considered to be artistic ground zero for the huge proliferation of depictions of drowned females in the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is pulled this way and that by the men in her life. Used by her father and brother in their court intrigues because of her implied liaison with Hamlet, she is then cast off by Hamlet and ultimately drowns through her own actions. Maybe she was an innocent victim, maybe a fallen woman. Maybe it was an accident, maybe suicide.
Millais’s iconic image presents her watery death in a very eroticized way. Her lips are half-open, singing as she drowned, perhaps, or expelling her dying breath; or just maybe her parted lips are meant to evoke something far more sexual. It is for the viewer to decide. There is a voyeuristic element to the picture, it is even framed in a proscenium-style arch, giving it a theatrical air – even though the actual death of Ophelia was not usually depicted on stage. 
The Second image will be familiar to anyone who has done CPR Training. L’Inconnue de la Seine is said to be the death mask of an unknown woman found drowned in the Seine in the 1880s (although this has been debated). She was judged to be a suicide. Her corpse was displayed in the Paris Morgue, as was the custom. One of the morticians was supposed to have been so taken with her beauty, that he cast her death mask.
The image caused a sensation, Richard le Gallienne called her a modern Ophelia while Albert Camus described her ‘Mona Lisa Smile’. Her mask became a popular, if morbid, fixture in many private homes. Her image was romanticized and eroticized. It became a ‘look’ to be emulated by the popular actresses of the day .
In 1955 Asmund Laerdal made her even more famous by using her image to create Resusci Anne, giving the unknown woman of the Seine the dubious distinction of having ‘the most kissed lips in history’. That’s not creepy in the slightest!
The third image, Found Drowned, by George Frederic Watts, c. 1850, presents the scene following a woman’s apparent suicide by drowning. The title reveals something important about how female suicide was recorded, often there were no witnesses to drowning, so while the assumption might be that it was a suicide, societal taboos around female suicide often led to such deaths being hidden under the ambiguous label of ‘found drowned’. .
The picture, which was inspired by the influential poem The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, assumes that the viewer understands the implicit backstory of this image. The drowned woman is a fallen woman. Seduced, abandoned and pregnant. Rather than descend into shame, poverty, and prostitution, the only route left open to her by society, she has chosen to take her life and thereby redeem herself.
Despite the more sympathetic message of the image, the depiction of the woman is still sensual. The woman’s face appears luminous and her limbs flung wide, displaying the victim’s figure to the viewer.
Hood wrote the poem in 1844 and it helped to raise society’s awareness of the plight of the ‘fallen’ woman – who found the only option left to her was suicide. In one famous passage, he describes how her sin has been washed away by her death:
Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.
However, its idea of a fallen-women gaining redemption through drowning, while generating public sympathy, may have also led to an unfortunate increase in life imitating art, as women saw their only option for social redemption, suicide, reinforced .
Finally, a lesser-known image of female suicide, this time from Italy. Ivan Cenzi has brought the story of how this extraordinary image was created to an English speaking audience . The subject of this human taxidermy project was an unknown 18-year-old seamstress who drowned herself in the river at Padua, sometime in 1863. It was pronounced that she had killed herself over an ‘amorous delusion’.
The nearby University of Padova had a long history of anatomical study, and the girl’s body was handed over to the chair of Anatomy himself, Ludovico Brunetti (1813-1899).
Brunetti had a very unusual plan – this was to be no simple anatomical dissection. He intended to create Great Art out of this girl’s pain. He proceeded to take a cast of the girl’s face and bust, then he skinned her, taking care to keep her hair pristine. He then treated the skin with sulfuric ether and his own special tanning formula, in order to preserve her image for eternity. The resulting bust is truly startling.
Unfortunately, as the girl had been dragged out of the river using hooks, her face had sustained some damage. However, Brunetti used these flaws to his advantage, seeing them as a way to convey a moral message, as well as display his skill at preservation. What emerged from his creative processes was a shocking image known as ‘The Punished Suicide‘. To ram the moral home, that suicide was a mortal sin and suicides would be forever tormented in Hell, he enveloped her face in writhing snakes and used red candle wax to imitate blood gushing from her wounds.
Somewhat perversely, to modern sensibilities at least, her parents loved it. Brunetti and his Punished Suicide, later wowed the audiences at the Universal Exposition in Paris where he won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions category, which in itself says a lot about public attitudes to images of female suicide and public entertainment. This image is still on display in Padova University, and, to modern eyes at least, evokes a strong reaction. Personally, I find the use and display of human remains as art, without the informed consent of the subject, to be highly problematic. However, nineteenth-century attitudes were clearly very different.
These are only a few of the many such images in nineteenth-century art, literature, and sculpture. But why were they so popular and what was their purpose?
Women behaving badly
During the nineteenth century, Western Societies underwent a huge demographic shift as the Industrial Revolution lead to mass migrations from the countryside to towns and cities. From living in traditional rural communities, where everyone knew one and other, many people now found themselves amongst strangers. Factory work saw more women working outside the home and competing with men. Poverty and overcrowded housing brought disease and disorderly behavior, drunkenness was a common outlet for the lower classes. Add to this the blatant social inequality of Victorian society, where the poor (and particularly the female poor) were routinely exploited by those higher up the social ladder, and you and you can begin to see the cracks undermining the edifice of respectable Victorian society.
The Victorian establishment did not only fear the working class becoming politicized or organized via trade unions, they feared the traditional gender roles of society were being challenged. Women were supposed to be the ‘Angel in the house’ described in Coventry Patmore’s poem, a sweet and passive homemaker for her husband and family. However the economic reality for many women was very different, and when a woman transgressed society’s norms, particularly if she was considered a ‘fallen’ woman, she could suffer terrible consequences.
Influential sociologists writing about suicide, such as Henry Morselli, writing in 1881, and Emile Durkheim, writing in 1897, both linked urbanization and the breakdown of traditional gender roles as a factor in female suicide. While the stats they relied upon showed that male suicide was more common than female suicide, both promoted the view that women were weaker morally and were safer when protected from the struggles of society .
In doing so, they used the stats to reinforced traditional Victorian gender roles by concluding that married people and married people with children were less susceptible to suicide, whereas the unmarried, divorced, widowed or childless were more at risk. In short, women should stay at home and look after their husbands and family – or risk the consequences. Of course, as Deacon has pointed out, the stats don’t tell the whole picture .
There was an underlying hint that perhaps suicide was one way to rid society of unwanted, ungovernable and surplus women.
Another popular Victorian preconception was that men tended to commit suicide for more important reasons. Male suicide was viewed as linked to the social and economic well-being of the country, while women were seen as committing suicide for personal and emotional reasons, which were considered less important to society. This had the effect of trivializing female narratives and the reasons for female suicide, often downgrading them by centering them on women’s (failed) relationships with men .
As the century progressed, attitudes to suicide also changed, from being considered a sin and a shameful crime, people began to link mental illness to suicide. While this was a good thing, as it led to more understanding of the underlying causes of suicide, it also played into the idea of women as weak, emotional creatures who needed to be protected from themselves or risk the consequences. From Ophelia to the Italian seamstress suffering from ‘Amorous delusions’, women’s suicide was linked to madness and instability in the nineteenth-century mind, further devaluing it by refusing to see it as a final, if desperate, act of autonomy.
From sexual sirens to found drowned
The Victorians had a particular fondness for depicting women in water, no doubt because of the long-standing associations between femininity and water. Women were seen as fickle and changeable as the sea, with sexual undercurrents and life-cycles made up of water, blood, and milk . While sexual sirens might be depicted as mermaids or aquatic nymphs, leading men to drown in their transgressive embrace, the fallen woman was often depicted floating serenely, a beatific expression on her face, lovely to behold. Not remotely like a real drowning victim -bloated and muddy.
It has been suggested that this elevated the fallen woman’s suicide to a kind of redemption and washing away of sins – as implied in Hood’s poem. While this sounds romantic and sympathetic, it also created the pernicious cycle of life imitating art, real fallen women, cast out by society and facing a future of shame and prostitution, saw suicide as a way to redeem themselves and avoid becoming a burden on society because it was tacitly reinforced in popular culture.
To sum up, the Victorians fetishized the image of female suicide. While male suicide was often seen as a final, possibly heroic, act of autonomy, for women, it was quite different.
Artistic images of female suicide had multiple purposes and meanings. One of the most obvious was to commodify and pacify the female body by creating an ideal, female beauty for the (male) viewer to appreciate. The threatening unruly female, stripped of all power and autonomy after death, but still possessed of erotic and romantic fascination.
In addition this, in a society undergoing radical change, images of female suicide, bound up as they were with ideas of shame, madness, and sexual transgression were often used as a warning to women to keep to their proscribed roles and not try to compete with men in the public sphere.
In the 20th Century, widespread publication of Robert Wiles photograph of Evelyn McHale’s suicide made her death both public and iconic -which went against her expressed wishes for privacy. More recently, the 21st Century case of Ruslana Korshunova, where the reporter talked of Ruslana’s life and death, as a fairy-tale-gone-wrong, show that in some ways, attitudes to representations of female suicide have not changed much since the nineteenth century.
However, more nuanced readings of these images are possible, readings that provide a deeper understanding of attitudes society held towards women and the public consumption of their bodies, both then and now.
While male suicides still predominate today, as in the Victorian age, the recent tragic suicide of Love Island’s Caroline Flack, in the face of much negative media attention, has made it more important than ever to consider the unrealistic expectations that our society and the media still place on women.
Sources and notes
**Firstly, if you are having a hard time and need to talk to someone, you can contact Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
Cenzi, Ivan, The Punished Suicide, 24 Oct 2016, <https://deadmaidens.com/2016/10/24/the-punished-suicide/>  [9
Deacon, Deborah, Fallen Women: The Popular Image of Female Suicide in Victorian England, c1837-1901, 7 April 2015, <https://www.uvic.ca/humanities/history/assets/docs/Honours%20Thesis%20-%20Deborah%20Deacon%202015%20.pdf> -
Durkheim, Emile, 1952, (originally published 1897) Suicide a Study in Sociology 
Meeson, Valerie, Res.Ma HLCS, Post-Mortems: Representations of Female Suicide by Drowning in Victorian Culture, [date unknown], <https://theses.ubn.ru.nl/bitstream/handle/123456789/3754/Meessen%2c_V.P.H._1.pdf?sequence=1> 
Mulhall, Brenna, The Romanticization of the the Dead Female Body in Victorian and Contemporary Culture, 2017, Aisthesis Vol 8 
Mike Singleton said:
In depth and interesting , like the point about the fear of politicising and gender challenging . Some excellently appropriate images too
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks Mike, I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was fascinating to research.