Lynn Shepherd's top 10 fictional drownings

From Ophelia to Captain Ahab, the novelist considers literature's most watery endings

This list of imaginary drownings was inspired by one of the most infamous factual ones. In July 1822, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley went down in a storm off the Italian coast. He'd been warned about the onset of bad weather, and when the storm came his over-rigged and unstable boat was quickly in trouble, but for some unaccountable reason he refused the help of another vessel. His body was not found for 10 days.

His behaviour that last day is far from the only unanswered question about the poet's life, and having spent the last two years researching and then re-creating him for A Treacherous Likeness, I was struck how the idea of drowning had haunted Shelley, long before it claimed his own life.

His first wife, Harriet, was found floating in the Serpentine in 1816, two years after he had left her for Mary Godwin, and images of drowning and shipwreck thread through his work, not least in a strange early poem where he describes a young girl who shrinks, Ophelia-like, from a "yawning watery grave".

And it's with Shakespeare's heroine that I'll begin my list.

1. Ophelia in Hamlet

Perhaps the most famous literary drowning of them all, immortalised in Millais' painting, though the effect is somewhat dampened – if you'll forgive the pun – when you realise poor Lizzie Siddal modelled for it in a cold bath. But the pity and beauty of Shakespeare's poetry can withstand even that Pre-Raphaelite passing-off: "Her clothes spread wide; And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up … but long it could not be Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pull'd the poor wretch … To muddy death."

2. Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss

George Eliot's portrayal of the headstrong Maggie Tulliver is so tender, so insightful, so moving, and the complexities of her relationship with her brother and lovers so perceptively described. But it's those very complexities that capsize the book in the end. Eliot writes Maggie into such an impossible corner that death is the only way out. Brother and sister are reconciled, and drown together "in an embrace never to be parted".

3. Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native

Eustacia Vye is one of Thomas Hardy's most charismatic heroines – I'll never forget his description of her winter-dark hair, and how when it caught in thorn bushes on the heath, she would retrace her steps and pass against the branches a second time, purely to repeat the sensation. In seeking to escape the confines of her birthplace she brings catastrophe first to the hero, Clym Yeobright, and then to Damon Wildeve, the wayward husband of another woman. Ninteenth-century society cannot forgive her, and Hardy cannot forgive her, and she enacts her own punishment by throwing herself into Shadwater weir.

4. James Steerforth in David Copperfield

Steerforth is David's childhood friend and protector, a darkly charismatic man who later seduces "Little Em'ly", the niece of David's housekeeper, Clara Peggotty. Steerforth abandons Emily to go to sea, and in one of those coincidences that Charles Dickens can never resist, Emily's broken-hearted fiancé, Ham, eventually gives his own life in a futile attempt to rescue a sailor from a ship going down in a storm, and that sailor turns out to be none other than Steerforth.

5. Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick

Water, water everywhere in Herman Melville's leviathan classic. After 600-odd pages, there's a certain piquant satisfaction when this particular ancient mariner is drowned by the same great sperm whale he has set out to slaughter. In their last desperate struggle Ahab tries to spear the whale with his harpoon, but the rope catches him about the neck and Moby Dick drags him down into the depths, "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

6. Camille in Thérèse Raquin

The first of two decidedly dubious drownings. In this case, the murder of the sickly and self-centred Camille Raquin by his wife Thérèse, and her lover Laurent. With its shocking subject-matter and grim petit-bourgeois setting, Thérèse Raquin was both commended and censured in almost equal measure when it was first published. Émile Zola certainly doesn't pull his punches in the description of the murder, as Camille sinks his teeth so deep into his murderer's neck that when Laurent casts him into the river, Camille "carried a piece of his flesh away with him."

7. Henleigh Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda

The union of the spirited Gwendolen Harleth and brutal Henleigh Grandcourt is one of the most horrific marriages in Victorian fiction. Grandcourt is a bully and a sexual sadist, and when he meets a watery end off the coast of Italy no one is likely to grieve, least of all his wife. Though there remains a question whether her husband could have been saved, if she had acted more quickly: "I had the rope in my hand - his face [was[ above the water – and he cried again – and I held my hand, and my heart said 'Die!' – and he sank…"

8. Jack Stapleton in The Hound of the Baskervilles

I was tempted to choose Holmes's own death here, but as the Baker Street sleuth didn't really end his days at the Reichenbach Falls, that seemed as much of a legerdemain as Arthur Conan Doyle resurrecting him. So I've chosen instead the grim death of Jack Stapleton, the villain of The Hound of the Baskervilles, whose vile crimes and misdemeanours find a fitting end when he is sucked down into the Grimpen Mire, "the huge mottled expanse of green-splotched bog which stretched away until it merged into the russet slopes of the moor".

9. Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone

Another death by quicksand, but a much sadder one. Rosanna is a maidservant who falls in love with Wilkie Collins's hero, Franklin Blake. She knows her love is doomed, but when she witnesses Blake apparently stealing Rachel Verinder's jewel, she convinces herself there's one immense service that only she can do for him. She conceals his nightgown with its incriminating paint smear, and allows suspicion to fall on her instead, as a former thief. She leaves Blake a last letter telling him what she's done, but it's a letter he doesn't receive until it's far too late. By then Rosanna has drowned herself on the Shivering Sands, and the mystery of the moonstone has made suspects of them all.

10. Monsieur Paul in Villette

In conclusion, an inconclusive. In the last lines of Charlotte Brontë's novel, the heroine Lucy Snowe writes of her lover, Monsieur Paul, returning to her by sea from three years' enforced exile in the West Indies. But then there's a sudden "wild south-west storm" that leaves the Atlantic strewn with wrecks. So is it a happy ending, or a tragic one? Are they reunited, or does he drown? I'll let you decide. "… Leave sunny imaginations hope. Let it be theirs to conceive the delight of joy born again fresh out of great terror, the rapture of rescue from peril, the wondrous reprieve from dread, the fruition of return… "

Lynn Shepherd is the author of "literary mysteries - one part literary fiction, to one part mystery and crime". Her first book was Murder at Mansfield Park, followed by Tom-All-Alone's. The latest, A Treacherous Likeness, is published by Corsair. Buy it at the Guardian bookshop.

Lynn Shepherd

The GuardianTramp

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