Eighteenth-century culture of suicide

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 6 (November/December 2013), Volume 21

18While the heroic, Roman, suicide was a popular literary and historical ‘type’ in the eighteenth century, Tone was equally familiar with another more ‘romantic’ type of suicide. This was epitomised by the publication of the semi-autobiographical The sorrows of young Werther by Johann von Goethe in 1774. A theatrical version of the novel was performed in Dublin in the mid-1780s, as well as in London and other British cities. The story depicts the fate of Werther, who is in love with Charlotte, a young woman betrothed to another. Werther eventually commits suicide when he hears that she has married her fiancé. Tone’s familiarity with the story is evident in both his diaries and his letters, and in his own attempt at a novel, Belmont Castle (1788). Described by Marion Deane as a roman-à-clef, according to Tone the novel (co-authored with two others whilst he was in London) was written in order to ‘ridicule the execrable trash of the circulating libraries’. His quotation of Goethe’s novel in his letters (to wife Matilda) and in

Above: Death mask of Theobald Wolfe Tone. (Trinity College, Dublin)

Above: Death mask of Theobald Wolfe Tone. (Trinity College, Dublin)

his diaries suggests that he had read, absorbed and enjoyed the novel. Yet the undisguised literary theft in which he engaged in Belmont Castle suggests that he classed it among the aforementioned ‘trash’. In describing the suicide of Belville, one of the main characters in Belmont, Tone (for this letter in the epistolary novel is attributed to him by Deane) lifts the entire scene, description and words from the suicide of Goethe’s Werther. Belville ‘ordered [his] fire to be made up and a pint of wine to be brought’ (Letter XXXIV, Belmont Castle). Similarly, in trusting his remains to his friend, Belville was aware that ‘good Christians will not choose that their bodies should be interred near the corpse of an unhappy miserable wretch like me’. While Tone was echoing the work of Goethe, he also demonstrated an awareness of the social and community condemnation that often befell the suicide and was reflected in burial practices.

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