‘Proved on the pulses’: heart disease in Victorian culture, 1830-1860

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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’.1 A sense of ‘compression’ in the chest does have some authority as a symptom of cardiac illness, but the chief weight of the statement lies in the theory of heartbreak. The inquest could interpret a figurative expression as a physical event, and was supported in this by medical authority. ‘Violent feelings not only agitate, but may kill the heart in a moment; in short, broken hearts are medical facts’, wrote the medical and philosophical writer James Wilkinson in 1851.2 In the same decade, but in a different discourse, William Gladstone argued, in a review of Tennyson’s poems, that passion and feeling were vital aspects of contemporary life, concluding, ‘Does any one believe that ever at any time there was a greater number of deaths referable to that comprehensive cause a broken heart?’3 Honoria’s death from a broken heart, it seems, was a peculiarly Victorian cause, one supported by both literature and medicine.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFraming and Imagining Disease in Cultural History
EditorsG. Rousseau, M. Gill, D. Haycock, M. Herwig
Place of PublicationBasingstoke
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan Ltd.
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9781403912923, 9780230524323
Publication statusPublished - 3 Oct 2003


  • organic disease
  • fatty degeneration
  • natural theology
  • romantic love
  • medical writer


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