Dying of a Broken Heart

Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher


Today I offer up a couple of 18th century British items. First, regarding actress Debbie Reynolds’s death the day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died, I know what Henry Fielding’s diagnosis would have been. Recent research bolsters what Field declared in Tom Jones: people can die of a broken heart.

Also, thanks to The Atlantic, I have a list of Jonathan Swift’s new year’s resolutions, written when he was 32 but discovered amongst his personal papers after he died decades later.

Regarding death by broken heart, following Reynolds’s death The Washington Post reported that people can die when “the left ventricle of the heart, which has the main responsibility for pumping, [is] weakened and mimick[s] the symptoms of a heart attack”:

[Japanese physician Hikaru] Sato dubbed the condition Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a name derived from an octopus trap because of the left ventricle’s shape, which has been described as similar to a kind of fishing pot in Japan that has a round bottom with a narrow neck that makes it difficult for a catch to escape. But since then, the illness has become more popularly known by a different name: “broken-heart syndrome.”

Researchers now accept that this condition is a real one and not just one of soap operas and myths. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine published in 2005 is among those that confirmed that a flood of stress hormones may be able to “stun” the heart to produce heart spasms in otherwise healthy people.

Here is Fielding describing the death of Dr. Blifil, the man who convinces Squire Allworthy to let his sister marry Blifil’s mercenary brother Captain Blifil. Once possessed of Bridget’s hand, the captain coldly cuts off his brother, leading to a case of Takotsubo cardiomyopathy:

The doctor went directly to London, where he died soon after of a broken heart; a distemper which kills many more than is generally imagined, and would have a fair title to a place in the bill of mortality, did it not differ in one instance from all other diseases—viz., that no physician can cure it.

That last comment is a dig at 18th century doctors, who only categorize illnesses that they can profit from. I should add that Dr. Blifil’s broken heart arises from a complicated mixture of emotions: bitterness at his brother is combined with his own sense that he has done wrong.

Famous for his pranks, Swift compiling his list of resolutions is totally in character. Make sure you read all the way to the end:

When I come to be old. 1699. 

Not to marry a young Woman.
Not to keep young Company unless they reely desire it.
Not to be peevish or morose, or suspicious.
Not to scorn present Ways, or Wits, or Fashions, or Men, or War, &c.
Not to be fond of Children, or let them come near me hardly.
Not to tell the same story over and over to the same People.
Not to be covetous.
Not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into Nastyness.
Not to be over severe with young People, but give Allowances for their youthfull follyes and weaknesses.
Not to be influenced by, or give ear to knavish tatling servants, or others.
Not to be too free of advise, nor trouble any but those that desire it.
To desire some good Friends to inform me wch of these Resolutions I break, or neglect, and wherein; and reform accordingly.
Not to talk much, nor of my self.
Not to boast of my former beauty, or strength, or favor with Ladyes, &c.
Not to hearken to Flatteryes, nor conceive I can be beloved by a young woman, et eos qui hereditatem captant, odisse ac vitare [and to hate and to avoid those who strive to catch an inheritance]
Not to be positive or opiniative.
Not to sett up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none. 

So there you have it–if you don’t make any resolutions, you won’t break any.

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