Stories of the Self-Drowned
An excerpt from Anna MacDonald’s A Jealous Tide
At the British Library, in the Rare Books Reading Room, I continued making my way through Woolf’s notebooks and correspondence, searching out references to water and all the while looking with foreboding for the drowned. Every day from ten in the morning until six at night, I sat at that desk bent over some volume or another, stopping only briefly for a cup of tea or a sandwich, stretching my legs into the space between the desk and the canteen, the canteen and the water fountain, the water fountain back to the desk. But, although I still believe I was unaware of the shift at the time, I can recall that the focus of my researches changed course during this time of otherwise vigilant routine; that, from collecting all metaphorical and other instances of water imagery in Woolf’s writing, my interest first narrowed, then broadened, until I found myself drawn exclusively to her references to drowning and I began to read more widely accounts of near and successful suicide.
Soon, where stacks of quarto notebooks and letter files had stood alongside Hermione Lee’s biography, the five volumes of Woolf’s diaries and Penguin editions of Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves, were instead the proceedings of the American Association of Suicidology, volumes of the Journal of Mental Health and Archives of Suicide Research, Durkheim and medical treatises on drowning, rescue, resuscitation. This pile of books never seemed to diminish and when, day after day, I approached the collection counter to pick up the new material I’d ordered, I felt the librarian eyeing me strangely, as if she were wondering: Why?
It is difficult to say now what exactly I was looking for, or if I ever found it. The shift was imperceptible at first; a note here or there, an anecdote or atmosphere that could be buried amongst other, academic accounts of water: the sea as representative of human consciousness, the river as a metaphor for time, movement, the passage from one world into another. But those anecdotes, those changes in atmosphere, never remained buried for long. And I would find myself—over a cup of tea, say, or during the walk back to the station at the end of a long day, or again in the pause between Paddington and Edgware Road where the train was always held at a red signal—returning to those margin-notes, those stories of the self-drowned.
Standing in the overcrowded carriage of a peak-hour train, with other passengers all waiting patiently—reading their newspapers, chatting, nodding off, carrying on as if we weren’t all caught inside a tunnel beneath the crust of the earth, as if we had more options open to us than moving continuously forward, staying still, or making the painstaking backward journey in reverse—I wondered: was it the passage into memory which was said to characterise the agonal moment, that drew the self-drowned to the water’s edge, sent them over the side of a swiftly moving ship, or down into disused coastal quarries where they sat in the briny dark and waited for the flood in pits that held on to their bodies, subsuming them anew with every high tide? By now, I had read enough testimonies of the almost-drowned and subsequently saved to know that a watery death didn’t always, or even often, result in the kind of ecstatic visions and pleasurable physical sensations that have nevertheless persisted in the literature of drowning. I knew that the body could be torn between its reflexes—to swallow, to inhale—and the instinct for self-preservation. I knew that while it was taking in water, it was just as likely to fight desperately to hold on to life as it was to relinquish its grip on the physical world and give itself up to final memories of people and places the drowner had loved.
So, if it wasn’t the passage into memory, could it be the baptismal associations of immersion that sent people walking purposefully into the sea or the current of a moving river without turning to look back towards the safety of shore? Was it the sensation of cleansing, of renewal, the belief that that walk away from land was in fact a journey, not into death, but towards a life lived in the world of another element? I thought of Odysseus, stopping the ears of his crew with wax, requesting that they bind him with rope to the mast block of his ship in order that he might safely hear the transfixing Siren song of the deep. And of Dante the Pilgrim, dreaming his sweet Siren from a cross-eyed and stuttering woman with disfigured hands and feet, and wishing to remain with her, regretting to wake. It was as if something in the human body—come from water, made of it—looked forward to a return to those elemental depths. As if the repetition of every small task, the attraction of routine which secured the body to the orbit of a day, a month, a seasonal year, sought to hold it fast to the inland earth, to its built streets, its tilled and tended fields, at a safe distance from the tempting shore.
But then, I think it was the sense of ritual that attracted me to those stories of suicide, which without meaning to I had begun to collect. I found there, I now believe, an appealing quality of calm, and care, and consideration about a deliberate death by drowning. It took time. And not just at the end. Because you’d have to think, wouldn’t you, about what to wear: something with pockets and a heavy fabric, something that would soak quickly, help to weight the body in the water. And you’d want to select your stones carefully. I like a stone that fits snugly in the palm, and leaves there the impression of another hand, wanting to be held. And even if you didn’t take the time to write a note, telling your loved ones where you’d gone so that they wouldn’t worry, you’d have to sit quietly, alone somewhere, while you neatly stitched those stones into the pockets of your coat or jacket. And, before you rose to slip one arm into a sleeve, then the other, before you did up all the buttons so it couldn’t be shrugged off easily in the water, before you opened the door, walked out of your room, down the stairs to the street and on to the river, you’d have to lay that coat across an even surface. You’d want to check that you’d made a good job of this almost-last task, that the fabric hadn’t puckered, that the line wasn’t badly spoiled by your carefully chosen handhold stones. You’d want to get these things right. Wouldn’t you?