I was watching a British period drama — I haven’t met one yet that I’d pass up — when it struck me that in Victorian times, according to literature written in that time and about that time, people used to die of anything. Even, simply, the loss of desire to keep living.
It is really quite remarkable. They decided they were too upset to go on, and then they didn’t.
It’s a convention found in the work of many, many authors of the era. There was no real need for a cause for death, for a catalyst; the desire not to live was enough.
It’s one thing you can count on in Victorian novels. If a character doesn’t want to keep living, he or she won’t.
Is that an aspect of Victorian storytelling itself, or was it a sign of the times? In the time-frame of the show, somewhere in the late 1860s, a great deal of medicine was a mystery. In fact, it was only around that time that Louis Pasteur was drawing the connection between germs and disease. Without the science, a lot of life and death could look like mind over matter.
On the other hand, it does make for a convenient plot device, especially since it relies on the audience’s familiarity with the idea to do part of the work. Once someone seems to give up on life, any reader knew the clock was ticking.
It’s probably easier to see these kinds of shortcuts from a distance, especially when they are based on common assumptions that are later proven wrong. But it makes for a good question for any writer to ask him or herself while writing:
Is this here because it’s real? Or is it here because it’s easy?
Check out my full-length novels, Her Cousin Much Removed, The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!