Victorians were obsessed with death in general and suicide in particular. For women who wanted to take their own lives, drowning was a common choice and the image of a female body floating in the water became a popular one in the Victorian imagination. This idea was heavily romanticised: it was like these women (especially “fallen women”) had been cleansed of their former sins and had found a quiet beauty in the (imagined) quiet serenity of their demise.
Artists and writers depicted women falling out of windows, jumping off bridges, and walking into lakes. Performances of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were very popular, the painting of Ophelia by Millais (see above) was painted and exhibited in 1852, and in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Lord Henry asks Dorian how he knows that “Hetty isn’t floating at the present moment in some starlit mill-pond, with lovely water-lilies around her, like Ophelia?”
As Foucault noted in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1988),
when civilization, life in society, the imaginary desires aroused by novel reading and theatergoing [sic] provoke nervous ailments, the return to water’s limpidity assumes the meaning of a ritual of purification; in that transparent coolness, one is reborn to one’s first innocence.