Storytelling Insight from Victorian England

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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?

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6 thoughts on “Storytelling Insight from Victorian England

    • I think so as well, but death was a huge mystery, which is probably why it came off as believable.

      It was “He Knew He Was Right,” which is based on the Anthony Trollope novel. It wasn’t great, but it did have David Tennant.

  1. Yes, they did seem to be able to turn up their toes at will. And inconvenient wives to die (of natural causes of course). If only life were so sensible.
    Sorry, can’t agree about David Tennant. Those teeth!

    • It’s really remarkable, and I think many people would find that very handy. Or maybe the Victorian murder rate was far higher than anyone would guess?!

      I love David Tennant, teeth and all 🙂 Still my favorite Doctor.

      • I saw a TV program about a spate of household poisonings in Sydney just after the war, so this century, with thallium, which was freely available and used to kill rats. Eventually they took it off the shelves, but for all the people they knew had been killed they thought there were probably lots of others. So no doubt in Victorian times it wasn’t too hard.
        (I may well give David Tennant thalliium if I had the chance.)

      • Heresy! I think that is absolute heresy!

        Given the lack of forensics, I’m sure people got away with a lot. People were also probably charged with things they didn’t do, come to think of it. Science, I think, has helped make things a little more precise.

        I hope. 🙂

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