Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart

Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart

Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart

Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart

Excerpt

In 1841, The Times reported an inquest on Honoria Brien, a young woman who died unexpectedly in a state of poverty and starvation. The cause of her death was recorded as heart disease: largely, it seems, due to a witness who reported that Honoria told her, 'my heart is so compressed, and I am sure it is breaking'. While a sense of 'compression' in the chest does have some authority as a symptom of cardiac illness, the chief weight of the witness statement clearly lay in the theory of heartbreak. The inquest was able to interpret a figurative expression as a physical reality. This would have been supported by contemporary medical authority. 'Violent feelings not only agitate, but may kill the heart in a moment; in short, broken hearts are medical facts,' as James Garth Wilkinson, philosopher and physiologist, observed in 1851. Rather than ascribing Honoria's death purely to physical factors such as malnourishment, or attributing it to social or economic factors like poverty and deprivation, those involved in the inquest chose to perceive it in terms of emotional collapse.

In considering the heart in Victorian literature, the reader repeatedly encounters such moments, slippages between the metaphorical and the literal. Conceptions of the heart, whether in literature, medical textbooks, or the formal language of an inquest, oscillate

The Times, 15 Jan. 1841, p. 5.

James John Garth Wilkinson, The Human Body and its Connexion with Man
(London: Chapman and Hall, 1851), 219.

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