Saturday, 18 February 2017

Ale, Sodomy & the Noose; Sir John Gurney (1768–1845) St Pancras Old Churchyard



The chest tomb of Sir John Gurney in St Pancras churchyard has its inscription turned towards the hedge which surrounds it, as though somehow ashamed of the identity of its owner. As well it might be, Sir John was the man responsible for the execution of James Pratt and John Smith, the last men hung in the United Kingdom for the crime of sodomy. Sir John was born in Walworth, London in 1768 the son of a parliamentary stenographer. He was a bright boy, educated at St Paul’s School, who was determined to become a lawyer.  His training seems to have been mainly practical, accompanying his father in his duties at court, and he was called to the bar at Inner Temple in 1793. As a barrister he defended Arthur O’Connor on charges of high treason and took part as junior in the state trials of Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke, and John Thelwall in 1794 treason trials. He was not a Kings Counsel until 1816 and his greatest moment as a prosecutor was in 1820 when he procured the conviction of two of the Cato Street Conspirators. The Dictionary of National Biography, which does not mention his sentencing of Pratt and Smith, sums up his professional career; “he was a good criminal lawyer, though not deeply learned, and was an independent and acute, but severe and somewhat harsh judge.” 

In August 1835 unemployed 32 year old James Pratt, a married man with two young daughters who lived in Deptford, and 34 year old labourer John Smith were caught in flagrante engaging in anal sex in the room of 68 year William Bonill in Southwark. The full wrath of the law fell on the two men who were thunderously charged with the capital offence of sodomy, James Pratt “not having the fear of God before his eyes, nor regarding the order of nature, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil, then and there, to wit, on the same day ..... feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, was consenting to and did permit and suffer the said John Smith ....feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, to have a venereal affair with him.... and then and there carnally to know him.. and.. to commit and perpetrate the said most detestable, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery, to the great displeasure of Almighty God, to the great scandal of all human kind... and against the peace of our lord the king, his crown and dignity.” The hapless William Bonill was said to have “feloniously and maliciously did incite, move, procure, counsel, hire, and command the said John Smith and James Pratt the felony aforesaid”; a lesser but still very serious charge.

Sir John Gurney in the guise of happily married family man

The trial was held on September 21st with Sir John Gurney the presiding judge. The evidence against the three men was provided by William Bonill’s landlord, George Berkshire and his wife and the policeman who had arrested them at the Berkshire’s instigation. George Berkshire told the court that he lived at 45 George Street, Blackfriars Road where he kept a coal shed and horses for hire. William Bonill had been his lodger for about thirteen months. At four o’clock on the 29th August James Smith came into the shop and inquired after Bonill. Berkshire let him through and Smith went down the passage and opened the private door at the rear of the premises to allow in Pratt who went immediately up the stairs to Bonill’s room with Smith following. Berkshire went out into the backyard where the stable had a loft above it. He told the court that he removed a tile to get a view of Bonill’s room where he saw “Bonill sitting on one side of the window and Smith on the other, looking out of the window and talking together – after a few minutes I saw Pratt come and put himself down on Bonill's knee.... he then rose up, as if pushed by Smith, and placed himself on Smith's knee; and there I saw him for five or six minutes.” Feeling cramped under the eaves peering out of a hole in the tiles Berkshire climbed down and went back inside. He told his wife what he had seen and then went into the back room to have his tea. Five or ten minutes later his flustered wife fetched to look through the keyhole in Bonill’s door where he saw “Pratt laying on his back with his trowsers below his knees, and with his body curled up & his knees were up – Smith was upon him – .. Smith's cloths were below his knees.” He was asked if he had seen any motion. “Yes; the motion of the body, and a great deal of fondness and kissing,” he replied. “I put my shoulder against the door, and burst the catch of the latch from the door, opened it, and saw Pratt and Smith – Pratt said, "Oh, my God, we are caught," or, "caught at last," I will not swear which....he exclaimed very bitterly to me for mercy – they pulled their clothes up as quick as they could, and both fell on their knees, and offered me their purses, and begged hard for me to let them go.” William Bonill was not in the room, he returned shortly afterwards with a jug of ale. “He seemed surprised at seeing me there,” said Berkshire, “and asked what was the matter – I called him an old villain and said, ‘You know what is the matter; you have been practising this in my place for some time past.’” The shocked Bonill tried to calm the situation down and suggested Berkshire join them in a drink. He told them he would not drink in such society and went to the nearest station house to fetch a policeman, Robert Valentine.

Valentine told the court that he had taken the two men into custody and immediately carried out an examination of their linen; “I found the linen of Smith in a very dirty state in front – the back part of his linen was clean,” he testified, “It appeared to me dirt from the fundament.” In contrast Pratt’s linen was clean at the front but the back “was in a very foul state – it appeared a different matter from Smith's, of a sort of slimey, glutinous nature, and rather yellow.” Judge Gurney asked “did it resemble the seed of man?” to which Constable Valentine answered in the affirmative. “Was it in a wet or dry State?” the Judge quizzed the policeman further. “In a wet state,” said Valentine, “it appeared to be recently done.” The three men were not allowed to give evidence in their own defence though six witnesses were called to give evidence as to the good character of James Pratt but it did him no good; the jury found all three men guilty and Judge Gurney sentenced James Pratt and John Smith to death and the 68 year old William Bonill to 14 years transportation.

Sir John the 'severe and somewhat harsh' hanging judge
The only hope for the condemned men lay in the royal prerogative to commute death sentences to lesser sentences of imprisonment our transportation. While they waited the Kings decision they remained at Newgate, separated from the other prisoners for their own protection because of the nature of their offences. Whilst there they were visited by a young reporter, Charles Dickens, who wrote up his visit in a piece entitled “A Visit to Newgate”, published the following year in ‘Sketches by Boz’. The warder who showed Dickens around did not rate the chances of Royal clemency for Pratt and Smith very highly, the “two had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world. 'The two short ones,' the turnkey whispered, 'were dead men.'” Their anguish was palpable; Dickens reports passing by their room twice and seeing them immobile and apparently frozen in despair in exactly the same positions both times. On Friday 20 November Charles Law, the then holder of the ancient legal office of Recorder of London, made a trip to Brighton to report to the King, William IV, and the Privy Council on all the prisoners who had been capitally convicted at the September and October Sessions of the Central Criminal Court; over 20 cases of men condemned to be executed. After much deliberation His Majesty commuted all the death sentences to transportation except for James Pratt and John Smith, “upon whom the law is left to take its course, and who were ordered for execution” the following week.  


Many newspapers ran reports of the execution of the two men, none of them mentioned the ‘unnameable offence’ for which they were to hang. This is from the Surrey Advertiser of Friday 04 December 1835;

Execution.—On Friday morning, at the usual hour, the sentence of the law was carried into effect upon James Pratt, aged 32 and John Smith, aged 34, who were convicted at the September Sessions of the Central Criminal Court, of a capital offence. The Sheriffs arrived at Newgate about half past seven o'clock, and immediately proceeded to visit the prisoners, whom they found engaged in prayer with the Rev. Mr. Cotton, the Chaplain of the gaol, and Mr. Baker. Both the culprits appeared in a very weak state, and when eight o'clock, the hour of execution, arrived, it was found necessary almost to carry them from their cells to the Press-room. Pratt, especially, appeared dreadfully weak and dejected. While Smith was being pinioned, Pratt appeared to suffer dreadfully. His groans resounded through the prison, and while he was pinioning, repeatedly exclaimed, "Oh, God, this is horrible, this is indeed horrible." He at this time was so weak, that the executioner's assistants found it necessary to hold him in their arms to prevent him from falling to the ground. All the preparations having been completed, the melancholy procession proceeded to the scaffold, and in the room leading from the debtor's door, as it is called, the ceremony of delivering the prisoners to the Sheriffs of Middlesex, was performed by Mr. Cope, the Governor of Newgate. Smith was the first who ascended the scaffold, and immediately afterwards Pratt was also assisted the steps, and placed under the beam. The necessary preparations having been performed, the bolt was drawn, and after a very short struggle the culprits ceased to exist. Pratt was a married man. The other culprit was single. On Thursday night Pratt was visited by a Dissenting Minister, to whom he eventually confessed his guilt.


William Bonill was transported to Australia where he died in Tasmania in 1841 at the age of 74. Baron Gurney died, after a long and distinguished career, at his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1845 at the age of 77. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Dead Romantic – Til Death do us part. A Valentine's Day Special

Is there anywhere more romantic than a cemetery? The London Dead celebrate Valentines Day by remembering the great love stories behind some of the city’s best memorials and graves.  

1. Emma Jones, died 1842. Kensal Green Cemetery

Victorian celebrity chef Alexis Benoit Soyer’s ostentatious display of grief for his 29 year old wife Emma Jones stands opposite the Upper Gate in Kensal Green Cemetery, a few yards away from the endless traffic and scurrying pedestrians on the Harrow Road. Its size and position demand attention even during the day but by night when it was first built, it was illuminated by gaslight, and must have been a truly uncanny sight for anyone who peered in through the cemetery railings into the dark and deserted burial ground. Emma was an artist and her husband displayed her palette and brushes like holy relics in a glass fronted niche at the back.
Alex and Emma married in 1837 at St George’s Hanover Square. In 1842 Emma was pregnant for the second time, having lost her first baby through a miscarriage. Alex was away in Brussels on business when London suffered an unusually intense summer storm with torrential rain and thunder and lightning all day. Emma reacted badly to the continual rumble and roar of the thunder, appearing agitated and nervous. Eventually she retired early to bed where she was discovered dead by her maidservant two hours later. Alex was distraught when he heard the news. His immediate reaction was to try and stab himself. His Belgian friends wrestled the knife off him and dragged him into the garden where it took them two hours to calm him down. He never forgave himself for his absence from home and never really recovered from the death of his young wife. He tried to buy back all of her paintings that had been sold so that he had every single one of her works (many people would not part with them however) and he commissioned the impressive funeral monument to her at Kensal Green. He was buried with her when he died in 1858.
2. Florence Philipson, died 1914. Golders Green Crematorium
The Philipson Mausoleum was built by Ralph Hilton Philipson (1862-1928) for himself and his wife, Florence. Clearly viewable through the door their ashes stand side by side on a pedestal inside the mausoleum, contained in two rose coloured alabaster urns, which seem to be wrapped in Clingfilm.
Ralph Philipson was born in Newcastle, the eldest son of a coal magnate who was educated at Eton and Oxford and trained as a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn (but was rich enough never to have to bother practicing). He was a sportsman, an amateur cricketer and tennis player and he was a lover and patron of the arts. Ralph seemed a confirmed bachelor but in 1908 at the age of 46 he married the 32 year old Florence Woodward, a Californian heiress, in New York after meeting her the previous year aboard an Atlantic cruise liner travelling between Europe and the States.  After a honeymoon in Canada the couple returned to London moving in to 74 Portland Place, close to Regents Park. There were no children but Ralph was devoted to Florence and was devastated when after just 6 years of marriage she died at the age of 38. Even for a wealthy man the mausoleum he commissioned is grandiose;  Edwin Luytens was already a well known architect when Ralph asked him to design the mausoleum and his services would not have come cheap.

A few years later Ralph married again, to Maya Stuart King, the widow of Baron Knoop, a Russian textile millionaire. Maya was of Hungarian descent and had a romantic and artistic temperament. The Baron was considerably older than his wife and very possessive but young women wear out old men quickly and he died in 1918 leaving her comfortably off as long as she did not remarry (old men’s jealousy lasts longer than life it seems).  When Maya was 47 she met the incredibly wealthy 61 year old Ralph; the Baron’s mean attempts to control her from beyond the grave by disinheriting her in the event of a new marriage no longer mattered and the couple married in 1922. In December 1928 Ralph contracted a severe case of food poisoning and died. He had left instructions for his body to be cremated and his ashes placed with his first wife’s in the Mausoleum at Golders Green. Maya never got over her husband’s death and wore mourning  for the rest of her life.
3. Marthe Josephine Besson, died 1908. Highgate Cemetery

Up a steep and neglected muddy side path in Highgate East Cemetery, hidden amongst the undergrowth and surrounded by toppled and leaning gravestones, you will find this striking monument to a Victorian businesswoman. The inscription reads:  

In loving memory of
Marthe Josephine Besson,
daughter of Gustave Besson
of Paris and London
and beloved wife of Adolphe Fontaine.
Died 15th Sept 1908, aged 56 years.
Her great talents and untiring energy gained the praise of the foremost masters in the musical world.

It looks like a touching tribute from a grieving husband and one could lazily assume that Adolphe and Marthe were mutually devoted and lived long and contentedly in conjugal bliss. But one would be wrong. 12 years earlier Adolphe was trailing through Europe after Marthe and her Spanish lover accusing her of stealing his fortune, trying to have her arrested by Scotland Yard and generating a scandal that he must still have been trying to live down when he instructed A. MacDonald & Co. Ltd of Euston Road to produce his wife’s funeral monument.  Marthe became pregnant by her Hispanic paramour, Señor Alcaraz, and gave birth to a son Frank. Tragically Señor Alcaraz committed suicide when Marthe was arrested and made to return to England to stand trial on criminal charges of stealing from her husband. More details of this story here and here.
4. George William Lancaster, died 1920. East Sheen Cemetery


GeorgeWilliam Lancaster from Wigan in Lancashire was a successful mining engineer and colliery owner with interests in the Welsh and Kent coalfields. Despite taking George’s name and being buried with him Louisa Mary Lancaster was most definitely not his legal wife and was in fact a divorced woman.  Divorces were still relatively rare in 1896 when Mr Edwin Charles Jones  petitioned the courts in Bristol for a divorce from his 35 year old wife. Jones had married Louisa Mary Wilkinson in 1883 and the couple had three children. Jones had been employed in his father’s ironmongers business but his father’s death had left him jobless and rather “badly off”. To improve his situation Jones had moved his family to London where he opened a small tobacconist’s in Finsbury Park. The business was not a success and unemployed again Jones moved back to Bristol to live with his mother until he could find other employment. When he did find a job and wrote to his wife to join him in Bristol she refused. From the children’s nurse Jones discovered that his wife was frequently visited by George Lancaster, generally at her home but on at least one occasion spending the night at the Grosvenor Hotel. The nurse was produced as a witness and told the court that the children called the co-respondent ‘Uncle George’. The judge granted Jones a decree nisi with costs and custody of the children.

At the time of the divorce George Lancaster was already living apart from his wife Emily in Acton. The separation was never formalised and he remained married to Emily until his death in 1920. By the time of the 1901 census he was living at Greenford Hall in Middlesex with Louisa listed as his wife along with their two young daughters. George was a successful business man and when he died he left a fortune worth £504,880.0s3d of which the lions share was bequeathed to Louisa under her maiden name of Wilkinson. His wife had been left a mere £700 annuity. Sidney March’s monument is probably one of the most famous funerary memorials in London but the Lancasters have fallen into obscurity and the old scandals are forgotten.


5. Georgina Robinson, died 1965. Willesden Cemetery

I am unable to find out any more about this sad memorial other than what is revealed in the epitaph (inscribed with a heart with G engraved on one side and M on the other);   
Georgina “Georgie” Robinson, nee Owen
Killed in a road accident – France
4th September 1965
Returning from honeymoon
Two weeks before this day of sadness
We’d stood together in joy and gladness
Our life together was at the start
Too soon came true “Till death do us part”
Your Loving husband Maurice





6. Herbert William Allingham, died 1904. Kensal Green Cemetery
The interesting detail on Herbert William Allingham’s memorial is the figure of his German wife, Fraülein Alexandrina Von der Osten,  reclining on a large cushion, clutching a bunch of lilies in her right arm, a loyal lap dog laying on her left, apparently on her death bed. She died in January 1904 after being an invalid for several years. Her husband died barely ten months later in November, committing suicide in a hotel room in Marseille at the age of 42.
Allingham was a talented doctor and teacher who worked at St George’s Hospital and was also Surgeon to the Household of King Edward VII and Surgeon in Ordinary to the Prince of Wales (later King George V).  As well as practicing and teaching he wrote several well regarded books and articles on surgical procedures. In 1903 he was operating on a ‘puzzling rectal condition’ when he gashed open his thumb. The mysterious rectal condition soon explained itself when the patient developed the unmistakable symptoms of syphilis. Much to Allingham’s disgust he developed the same symptoms a few days later.
When his beloved wife died early the following year Allingham’s grief gradually froze into incurable depression. In November, heartbroken and syphilitic, the doctor set off on a long holiday to Egypt in a forlorn attempt to cheer himself up. In Marseille he succumbed to despair after an evening of enforced jollity dining with friends at the Hotel du Louvre. Alone he returned to his room to compose a letter of apology to the hotel manager for any inconvenience caused by using his establishment as a place to die before injecting himself with a fatal overdose of morphine. His body was found next morning by the hotel staff.
7. Lucy Renaud Gallup, died 1883. West Norwood Cemetery
She died young and had beautiful eyes; that is obvious from the photograph of her probably taken when she was in her mid twenties, shortly after her marriage in 1870 to Henry Clay Gallup. Henry must have loved the portrait as he had it reproduced on porcelain and set on her grave; a very novel practice in the 1880’s. 130 years later the ceramic plaque is still in excellent condition and Lucy Renaud’s lovely eyes continue to regard us rather hauntingly as we pass by her tomb.
Lucy was born on 10 June 1847 and was baptised at St Luke’s in Chelsea. She was married in the same church, four days after her twenty third birthday, to the 35 year old American Henry Clay Gallup. Henry had been born in Stonington, Connecticut in 1834, and worked as a travelling agent selling patent medicines for the New York firm of Jeremiah Curtis & Sons. When he was made a partner he was sent to London to set up a European branch of the business to be called the Anglo American Drug Company. In 1881 Lucy and Henry were living at 39 Marine Parade, Brighton with their six year old son, Henry Junior.  In the census returns for that year Henry lists himself as a retired merchant.  Less than two years later Lucy was dead at the age of just 35. Henry was distraught and only lasted another couple of years himself, dying in 1885 at his home, Preston House, Upper Norwood, leaving an estate valued at £131,947 14s 9d to his 11 year old orphaned son.
8. Evelina Rothschild, died 1865. West Ham Jewish Cemetery

Ferdinand James Anselm Freiherr von Rothschild was born in Paris in 1839 of the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family. In 1865 he unquestioningly took up the family tradition of endogamy by marrying his cousin Evelina, the daughter of Baron Lionel de Rothschild and his cousin Charlotte Rothschild (née Rothschild) of the Neapolitan branch of the family. Far from being just a dynastic alliance Ferdinand truly loved Evelina. The couple took a long honeymoon travelling in Europe and within a few weeks of their return Evelina discovered, to Ferdinand’s great joy, that she was pregnant. Eight months later, at the age of 26, she was dead. Following a railway accident she had gone into premature labour, giving birth to a stillborn child and then herself dying. Ferdinand never got over his grief. He commissioned the elaborate mausoleum where her name, Eva, is endlessly repeated as a decorative motif in English and Hebrew letters. He also endowed a hospital for sick children in Southwark in her name. When his father died in 1874 he liquidated his £2 million share in the family bank, gave up business and bought a rundown estate in Buckinghamshire from the Duke of Marlborough. On the estate he built a stately home where he lived for the rest of his life with his unmarried younger sister Alice. He never remarried and despite his famous hospitality he often dined on cold toast and water while his guests were being served lavish meals. Shortly before he died he wrote to his cousin Lord Roseberry “I am a lonely, suffering and occasionally a very miserable individual despite the gilded and marble rooms in which I live.” When he died in 1898 he was finally reunited with his young wife and was interred by her side in the mausoleum.
9. Martha Gall-Bianchi, died 1936. Hampstead Cemetery
The splendid Grade II listed Art Deco Bianchi memorial was created by Cesare Bianchi for his wife Martha who died in 1936 giving birth to their second child Robert. The memorial is set in a large triangular plot that had wrought iron railings and a gate until they were stolen by thieves in 2011. A futurist angel stands with wings outstretched over a gateway inscribed with the name Bianchi. On either side of the gateway are carved relief panels, one showing Martha ascending to heaven accompanied by wingless angels and the other showing Martha and Cesare, apparently reunited in the afterlife, sitting on a bench with Martha finally cradling the baby she presumably never got to hold before she died. 
Martha and Cesare were born within a few months of each other; Martha, one of 9 children, in the small town of Insch near Aberdeen in 1897, and Cesare in 1898 in the village of Cernobbio on Lake Como in northern Italy. He first came to England in 1913 but as an Italian national was recalled to Italy after the outbreak of the First World War to serve in the Alpine Brigade of the Italian army as an interpreter. When the war ended Cesare returned to Britain and found work at the Palace Hotel in Aberdeen where he met Martha Gall. The couple were married in 1921 and had their first child Patricia the same year. Later they moved to London, where Cesare eventually became Head Chef at the Café Royal.  The family were living in Lawn Road in Hampstead when Martha tragically died in childbirth in 1936; the baby survived only to lose his father before he was 10. At 11.30am on March 8 1945, a V2 rocket hit Smithfield Market. The rocket breached the market buildings and punched through the floor, entering into the subterranean railway tunnels beneath before exploding. The huge explosion, heard all over London, created a huge crater into which the market buildings collapsed. 110 people died, not just market workers but women, many of them with their children, who were queueing to try and buy from a consignment of rabbits that had gone on sale that morning. Cesare was amongst the dead and if that wasn’t bad enough for the Bianchi children, so was Mary their aunt. The victims of the rocket attack were all buried at the City of London Cemetery in Manor Park; contrary to Cesare’s wishes he was not able to join his wife in the Hampstead grave.


Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Savage God - Al Alvarez (Bloomsbury £9.99)

The old Penguin edition - the latest Bloomsbury paperback has a rather uninteresting illustrationless blue cover 

Al Alvarez’s book on suicide ‘The Savage God’ had a profound personal impact on me when I read it in the early 1980’s. The study was originally published in 1971 but has aged reasonably well for the most part. Alvarez’s discussion on what he calls the four great fallacies of suicide gives a flavour of the book; the fallacies being that the young are more prone to killing themselves than the old, that unrequited love is often a cause, that the weather somehow exerts a malign influence over the mind of the would be suicide and that certain countries make a national habit of doing away with themselves. On the fallacy of age he says “it used to be thought…that suicide was inextricably linked with young love. The paradigm was Romeo and Juliet – youthful, idealistic and passionate. Yet statistically, the chances of Romeo and Juliet succeeding in taking their own lives are far smaller than those of King Lear…..the incidence of successful suicide rises with age and reaches its peak between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-five.” He adds that suicide attempts peak between 25 and 45. As for “the suicidal great passion. It seems that those who die for love usually do so by mistake and ill luck. It is said that the London police can always distinguish, among the corpses fished out of the Thames, between those who have drowned themselves because of unhappy love affairs and those who drowned for debt. The fingers of the lovers are almost invariably lacerated by their attempts to save themselves by clinging to the piers of the bridges. In contrast, the debtors apparently go down like slabs of concrete, without struggle and without afterthought.” On the claim that “suicide is produced by bad weather” he quotes an early eighteenth century French novel that begins; ‘In the gloomy month of November, when the people of England hang and drown themselves.’” He points out that there are two annual peak in suicide rates; one is at Christmas (that period of forced jollity is enough to drive the most strong minded of us to seriously consider putting an end to it all) and the other is spring which does not always bring the expected improvement in mood hoped for by the depressed and despairing and leads some hopeless individuals to take their own lives. As for ‘suicide as a national habit,’ the French, as in the passage quoted above, regarded suicide (along with flagellation) as an English vice. In the early 1970’s when Alvarez was writing (and perhaps nothing much has changed with regard to this particular trope) we thought it was the Swedes who killed themselves in their thousands during their unending long winter nights. Alvarez points out that the highest national suicide rates, at the time, were in fact Hungary, Finland, Austria and Czechoslovakia.  In 2012, according to the World Health Organisation, Hungary had slipped to 16th in the world suicide rankings, Finland to 33rd, the Czech Republic to 42nd and Austria 54th. Today's suicide hot spots are Guyana, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. Poverty is cited for the high incidence in Guyana, the totalitarian regime in North Korea it (in South Korea the elderly kill themselves, not because of liberal democracy, but because of poverty and the breakdown of traditional family support) and in Sri Lanka the suicide rate is highest amongst the relatively young, 15-44 year olds. I suppose no one should be looking for a useful discussion of social trends in a 40 year old book. Alvarez’s examination of psychological theories is almost as redundant as his musings on the sociology of suicide. An entire, tedious, chapter is devoted to weighing up the pros and cons of Sigmund Freud’s and Melanie Klein’s versions of the death instinct; maybe my younger self found this stuff gripping but psychoanalytic theory now seems as outdated as alchemy.

The death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis - a perennially popular exhibit at Tate Britain

The book opens and closes with personal memoirs.  The opening is a rather harrowing account of the last days of Sylvia Plath; Alvarez knew both the American poet and her husband Ted Hughes and last saw Sylvia alive on Christmas Eve 1962. The events of that night are mired in controversy as Alvarez’s obvious feelings of guilt and vague explanation of “responsibilities I didn’t want” in relation to Plath have led to speculation that he either rejected sexual advances from her or accepted them – either way he is seen as being in some way implicated in her death. Ted Hughes was furious that Alvarez published details of Plath’s suicide but ultimately his account of her suicide, fascinating as it is, answers none of the questions that have been endlessly raked over since her death. The book closes with a revealing and thought provoking account of Alvarez’s own suicide attempt. Literature is Alvarez’s vocation and the best pages in the book, apart from the opening and closing memoirs, are his discussions on suicide in literature from the classic texts of Seneca and Cicero to his own generation of poets and their immediate forbears Robert Lowell and John Berryman. There is an excellent examination of suicidal themes in the work of John Donne (“For Donne, however, suicide seems not to have been a question of choice or action but of mood, something indistinct but pervasive, like rain. After a certain point, a kind of suicidal damp permeated his life”), and absorbing accounts of the suicide of Thomas Chatterton and the attempted suicide of William Cowper.


Highly recommended.