Horace Moule’s Suicide

Contents (click on items to move through page)

Robert Gittings
Michael Millgate
Martin Seymour-Smith

From Robert Gittings, Young Thomas Hardy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. 179-182.

“Moule’s words were the last message he was to direct towards Hardy. On Friday, 19 September, he came back from a summer holiday to his rooms in Queens’. Cambridge was empty, a fortnight before Michaelmas Term, and even his brother Charles was not yet in his rooms at Corpus. The onset of autumn is a melancholy time in Cambridge, with the mists rising from Coe Fen over the causeway, and the drenched Michaelmas daisies drooping their heads in the college gardens. A wave of melancholy and restless agony about life and work seized him in a way that at once alarmed his doctor. It was the worst bout he had seen, and he felt it urgent to provide a nurse, who came on the Saturday morning, and to send a telegram to Charles Moule that night. His brother arrived on the Sunday, and had a distressing and all-too-familiar talk with him. The drink he took to try and combat his depression seemed to him to threaten his work. The possibility of losing his position was very much on his mind, and he became at first excited and then deeply depressed. After a three-hour discussion, he said he felt so ill that he was going to bed. Charles remained writing in the other room. After a few minutes he heard a sound, which at first he could not place, a kind of trickling. He went into the bedroom, and found Horace Moule lying on the bed covered in blood. Thinking at first he had broken a blood vessel, Charles Moule ran to the Porter’s Lodge, and sent a messenger for Dr. Hough. Hastening back, he found his brother lying there, bleeding but still just able to speak. He said, ‘Easy to die’ and ‘Love to my mother’. Only then, perhaps, did Charles realize that Horace had done what he long ago threatened to do, and taken his own life. The surgeon, when he arrived, confirmed that he had cut his throat. The nurse, also summoned, found an open razor. Horace Moule never spoke again. At the inquest, held the next day, the jury returned a verdict of ‘suicide whilst in a state of temporary insanity’.

On the Sunday his friend died, Hardy had spent the day walking to and from the great autumn fair at Woodbury Hill, east of Bere Regis, which was to appear in Far From the Madding Crowd. On Wednesday, 24 September he heard the news. Next day, Horace Moule’s body was brought to Fordington, for burial on the Friday in consecrated ground, which the form of words on the jury’s verdict had allowed. On the previous evening, 25 September, Hardy, according to a later poem, went to Fordington churchyard, and contemplated the mound of chalk dug from the newly-prepared grave. It was this day, rather than the day of death, or that of the funeral, which he attended, that he always remembered….

With so little direct evidence, and in the absence of some vital dates in Moule’s life, much must necessarily be speculation. There is, though, one hitherto unknown factor, which is perhaps the most important of all. It may even be that it was first revealed to hardy on that memorable last visit to Cambridge, for it remained vividly in his mind in his old age, when he confided it in detail to the second Mrs. Hardy. On that evening of 20 June, as the talked in Moule’s rooms in Queens’, the conversation between the two men went on deep into the summer night. Moule stood by the mantelpiece of his keeping-room, with the candles guttering behind him. As he spoke on and on excitedly, he seemed to Hardy to be pointing unconsciously at the long trailing overflow of wax that was gathering on the candle. This, in country-superstition terms, was known as the ‘shroud’, and it was held to foretell the death of the person to whom it applied. This is the factual basis for Hardy’s later poem Standing by the Mantelpiece. There was another fact, though, far more significant than a mere legend, that must have entered into the long discussion. This was the fatal secret of Moule’s personal life; whether it caused or followed the open secret of his drunken bouts, will probably never be known, though the fact itself, concealed by his own family, is fully attested. At some unspecified time, Moule had had, or had been persuaded he had, a bastard child by a low girl in his father’s parish at Fordington. This was, according to Florence Hardy, the ‘tragedy of his life’….

Members of the Moule family regretted for years afterwards that they had been able to do so little for him. The heaviest burden of regret and horror at the event naturally fell on Charles, who had been a few yards from the suicide. The anniversary, mourned by the whole family, was always a time of particularly deep personal trial to him….If Hardy…felt excluded from the grief of the Moule family, it was the exclusion of his own peculiar kind of grief. Modern thought is apt to deal heavy-handedly with the topic of Victorian male affection. Hardy was left the evidence we have seen that he felt for Moule in some way as Shakespeare did for his friend, and as Tennyson did for Hallam. There is no other point of definition.”

From Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982. 153-156.

“…on Sunday, 21 September 1873, [Hardy] walked over the heath to Woodbury Hill Fair, on which his fictional Greenhill Fair was to be based.

On the evening of that same day–though the news did not reach Bockhampton until two or three days later–Horace Moule committed suicide in his Cambridge rooms. Few details are available of Moule’s career during the late 1860s and early 1870s. He seems to have lived mostly in London, supporting himself somewhat tenuously be examination coaching, journalism, and literary work of various kinds: an undated letter (ascribed by Hardy to 1870) speaks of his having two articles in the Echo (a London even newspaper) for that day, and signed articles by him appeared in Fraser’sand Macmillan’s magazines in the latter half of 1871. Economic pressures led to his acceptance, in July 1872, of a position under the Local Government Board (with which his father had some influence as the result of his work in the cause of better sanitation) as an assistant Poor Law inspector for the East Anglian district. He found it convenient to take rooms in his college to be closer to his work, and it was there that Hardy had visited him the previous June. They had parted ‘cheerfully’, and it was only in retrospect that Hardy read a superstitious significance into the fact that the previous evening, as Moule stood talking by the mantelpiece, he had pointed unconsiously at a candle whose wax was ‘shaping to a shroud’.

The reasons for his cutting his throat in those same rooms three months later were explored in a Coroner’s inquest, which heard evidence from Charles Moule, who had been caring for his brother at the time of his death, and from Horace’s doctor. The picture that emerged was of a recurrent cycle of depression, recourse to ‘stimulants’, and resultant incapacity for work–followed by fear of losing employment and hence a return of depression. Moule had never succeeded in conquering the alcoholism his pupil Albert Bankes had observed thirteen years earlier. In the more recent past he had every now and then slipped off into the East Anglian countryside and stayed drunk for days at a time, until his brother Frederick, the vicar of Yaxley, near Peterborough, would find him and bring him back to the vicarage to recover. On at least one such occasion he had spoken of suicide and secreted a razor beneath his pillow. Since Charles Moule also declared himself to be familiar with such threats there is perhaps little point in speculating about the immediate ’causes’ of Horace’s death. He had been for many years an alcoholic, perhaps an opium addict, certainly a potential suicide. He had recently taken on a job which was both demanding and deeply depressing, involving as it did constant visits to workhouses, among whose unhappy occupants he must often have seen examples of what he himself dreaded to become. Coincidentally or otherwise, he had returned from a tour of workhouses just two days before his death….

Hardy’s second wife believed, on the basis of what her husband had told her, that Horace Moule had had an affair with a ‘Mixen Lane’ girl of doubtful reputation who became pregnant and was shipped off to Australia, where her son–of whom Moule might or might not have been the father–was later hanged. True or false–and it must be at least partly true despite the suspiciously Hardyan conclusion–the lurid tale would appear to belong to the late 1850s or early 1860s when Moule was living at Fordington, although the 1873 date assigned to the apparently relevant poem ‘She at His Funeral’ leaves open the possibility that the girl, in her ‘gown of garish dye’, could have been present as a distant observer of the burial of her ‘sweetheart’. More immediately connected with Moule’s suicide is the story of his engagement to a governess, ‘highly cultivated’ and of ‘sterling character’, whom his sister-in-law, Frederick Moule’s wife, though a ‘splendid person’, perhaps capable of solving Horaces’ difficulties. But the governess broke off the engagement, probably because of Horace’s drinking–the reason cited in another version of the same story, which speaks of the fiancée as a ‘lady of title’.

Hardy was deeply shocked by the death of one who had, in many respects, been closer to him than anyone would ever be again. No other man, certainly, would ever subscribe a letter to him, ‘Yrs ever and most affectionately’. The easy assurance of Moule’s letters to Hardy reflected in part that position of patronage which flowed naturally enough from superior age, education, and class, and which (so A Pair of Blue Eyes would suggest) Hardy in 1873 was just beginning to resent. That there was real affection between them there can be no doubt….Almost fifty years later Hardy was to say of Moule that he ‘had early showed every promise of becoming a distinguished English poet. But the fates said otherwise….

Such a lifelong devotion to Moule’s memory seems explicable only in terms of a complet surrender to his personal charm. In most readings of Hardy’s enigmatic poem “Standing by the Mantelpiece’, subtitled ‘H.M.M., 1873’, Moule is imagined as addressing the woman who has broken off their engagement, and the lines can indeed be so construed. But the poem seems to make more sense, and to give more point to the candle-wax image, when read in homosexual terms, with Moule speaking directly to Hardy himself. Their relationship must, in any case, have had a sexual component, however unrealized on Hardy’s part. For him it had no doubt seemed, and been, the kind of verbally expressive male friendship characteristic of the period, similar to, though more intense than, the one he had enjoyed with Bastow. Hardy, lacking Moule’s educational advantages, probably knew little or nothing of homosexuality…and if Moule, in June 1873, did make a direct sexual approach it is no wonder that Hardy bore himself angrily and (as the poem puts it) ‘as if surprised’, that he subsequently responded so powerfully to Moule’s death, or that he withheld ‘Standing by the Mantelpiece’ from publication until his last and, as it proved, posthumous volume.”

From Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy. London: Bloomsbury, 1994. 174-177.

“Moule had been pursuing his duties more or less successfully for just over a year. He had also continued to help young people in Cambridge, if not on a regular basis. His family’s understanding of his predicament was enlightened: they regarded his alcoholism as an illness, not as the result of an infirmity of will. In modern terms, he was subject to bouts of psychotic, suicidal, depression, for which there were then no known remedies. He therefore took to alcohol, and, in all probability, regular doses of opium….

On 19 September, returning to Cambridge for a holiday after inspecting two institutions, Horace visited his doctor, James Hough, to report alarming symptoms. These suggested that he was suffering from an attack of what is now known as agitated depression, a dangerous state for anyone who has previously expressed a wish to kill himself. It is at just this point that a depressed person can overcome his langour and weakness enough to perform the act of self-destruction; he may even seem more energetic and cheerful.

Hough wired Charles [Moule], who was not in Cambridge, and engaged a nurse, who was in attendance from the morning of 20 September, a Saturday. Moule took the usual drink to combat his symptoms, but it did not help: alcohol is in itself a powerful depressant. He managed to struggle through that day. The next morning Charles arrived and the nurse was sent away. The two men had a long and tiring discussion, during which Horace ‘explained his fears’. At some stage Horace became excited, but this state was followed by exhaustion. He went to bed, pulled the covers over himself, seized a razor he had secreted beneath his pillow, and cut his throat wide open.

After his brother had gone to bed, Charles, himself exhausted, tried to take his mind off the affair; it was to him a familiar enough situation. He got on with some writing he had to do. As he wrote, he heard a trickling sound. By the time he had traced it to its source it was too late: Horace had lost too much blood. The doctor and nurse were called. Horace was able to mutter, ‘Love to my mother. Easy to die’; soon afterwards he did die.

It has been surmised that Horace killed himself because of a fiancée’s rejection. This is possible. But there is no evidence of an affair, and Florence never made clear, in her conversations with R. L. Purdy, what Tom had told her about Moule, except that the story of the bastard by a Dorchester girl was true. However, that is likely to have happened much earlier. Horace’s suicide was the result of clinical depression.

He had many times previously talked of suicide, but without attempting it. He had been ‘perfectly sober’ when he went to bed. The coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of suicide while temporarily insane–this was usual for people of good family, and meant he could be buried in the Fordington churchyard. Tom went there on 25 September, the eve of the funeral, and drew a sketch of the mound by the side of the freshly dug grave; he would continue to visit Horace’s grave for the rest of his life….

Tom also wrote, perhaps in the last years of his life, another, more enigmatic poem about Horace. Called ‘Standing by the Mantelpiece’, it bears the subtitle ‘H.M.M. 1873’; the speaker is Moule himself. The candle motif is a piece of Dorset folklore: if a candle burns one-sidedly, leaving a ‘little column of tallow’, it is traditionally supposed to forecast a death. Here the speaker regards it as a prophecy of his own death….

The usual understanding of the poem is that Moule is addressing a woman who has renounced him for some reason, that reason not being made altogether clear….Millgate, however, reads it as an address to Hardy himself: Moule, he insists, made a homosexual proposal to him which he repudiated. Since the poem is cryptic, this is a possible reading. But there is nothing to support it: nothing to suggest, for example, that Moule was homosexual. Had he wanted to go to bed with Tom he would have made his wishes clear long before 1873….If Millgate is right, then the poem suggests that the speaker’s death was connected with his interlocutor’s refusal of his advances. Is it not more likely, though, that the background of the poem is that Moule got drunk at table, suggested to his fiancée that they go to bed, and that she repudiated him?

The meaning of the poem remains a puzzle, and readers who do not know who ‘H.M.M.’ is are confronted with an obscurity. All that can be said is that the notion of the speaker’s addressing a fiancee who had once accepted him, but then gave him up, strains credulity less than Millgate’s interpretation, and that, once assumed, it is straightforward enough.”