"This Rash Act": Suicide Across the Life Cycle in the Victorian City.
This is a splendid book: in many ways it is a model for how a sophisticated social history might be written at the end of the twentieth century. Victor Bailey begins with a run of manuscript source material, a detailed sequence of Victorian coroners' reports on suicide hearings in the important port, import processing and fishing centre of Kingston upon Hull, usually known simply as Hull, which he found while researching for an entirely different project. He takes the opportunity to interrogate this rich body of evidence, using an agenda which derives from the controversies over the roots and significance of suicide from Durkheim onwards, and to test ideas against a coherent collection of cases which were presided over by a dynasty of coroners, under circumstances which minimised the problem of contrasting and changing administrative practices which bedevils attempts to derive statistical series across different and changing jurisdictions. He uses quantitative and qualitative approaches to chart the changing incidence of suicide by area, social group, gender, marital status and life-cycle stage, and he takes account both of the stories the suicides told about themselves (where notes or similar material were left) and of those that were presented to the coroner s court by relatives and neighbours. Changes in the judicial process, especially the use of differing verdicts in response to similar evidence as conventions and values changed, are also discussed, and this remarkable book ends up by offering original and well-grounded insights into a range of issues from the administration of justice to personal narratives of shame and collective beliefs about the destiny of the soul.
The book is formidably well-organised, on lines which might be prescribed as best practice for the aspiring doctoral student. It introduces the historiography and the relevant theoretical perspectives ('Durkheim and beyond'); discusses the working of the law on suicide; develops the key organizing context of the life cycle in Victorian towns, which is the overarching theme around which most of Bailey's questions are pivoted; sets the local context for the study by presenting the urban ecology of Hull; charts the changing incidence of suicide statistically, with appropriate caveats; and moves on to the main body of the evidence, discussing the incidence and context of suicide at four life-cycle stages (and thereby breathing new life into discussions of living standards from a completely novel angle). The concluding chapter feeds back, as all conclusions should, into the theoretical and historiographical discussion with which Bailey began, assessing the differences that his sustained critical dialogue between theory and evidence has made to our understanding of the issues.
There are a few problems. There is, I think, a missed opportunity to correlate the statistical suicide rate with the local trade cycle: Figure 6.1 on p. 126 shows peaks and troughs which seem likely to run in tandem with it, and it seems to defeatist to write the issue off, on the previous page, with the statement that rates were "so volatile that they defy interpretation." This refusal of analysis seems out of character with the rest of the book. The other main difficulty is the repetition that is entailed by the method adopted, in the last and main full section of the book, of taking the experience of suicide in each successive life-cycle stage through the same processes of analysis in the same order. This serial jumping though hoops is the only wearisome aspect of the book, although it has been done for the best of academic motives and it has the corresponding advantage of clarity of exposition. It is also difficult to see how else this theme could have been presented.
Like the present author, Bailey was influenced at a formative stage by the pioneering 'history from below' writings of Richard Cobb on daily life in eighteenth-century France, and this book reasserts Cobb's concern to recreate ordinary lives with empathy and without condescension, while benefiting from a willingness to take sociology seriously, and make use of it, which Cobb never managed. It is, perhaps, not as eloquent as Cobb in full flight; but it is undeniably a very fine book.
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|Author:||Walton, John K.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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