Yes, it’s almost that time again–Valentine’s Day when our thoughts turn to the heart. Of all of literature’s romantic heroes Mr. Darcy is probably the most popular. He is certainly the total package: intelligent yet normal (when compared with say Heathcliff), less of a liar than Rochester, richer than Tom Jones, younger than Maxim de Winter. His heart has captured that of many ladies. But what, in the Regency, WAS a heart’s true value and how was it measured?
Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. The first stethoscope was invented in 1816 by Doctor Laennec; when he saw a female patient who seemed to be suffering from a diseased heart he felt it unseemly to lay his head against her chest, so he took a piece of paper, rolled it into a tube and listened that way. Later he would perfect his invention by making the tube out of wood; an early version of his stethoscope can be seen today at the Science Museum, London. The part that plugged into the ears, via flexible bifurcated tubing, didn’t arrive until 1850.
The Regency era also saw medicine grow as a profession. The poet John Keats studied to be a doctor–though tuberculosis fatally shortened that career. Regency doctors often carried their instruments around in black leather medical bags. These instruments included mainly saws and other grisly things. No one had yet invented the blood pressure cuff; however, doctors understood that blood pumped through the body and would test the patient’s pulse the old-fashioned way–by using their fingers. Ironically, it was in this burgeoning age of science that the heart being the seat of emotion–a fancy stemming from ancient Roman times–began to be questioned.
Scientists now believe that the heart does play an active role in determining our feelings, along with the brain. In fact the heart and the brain are in a constant dialogue; the brain sends signals to the heart which then responds in a myriad of ways–by slowing down, beating faster or even skipping a beat. Forget Eliza Bennett and Mr. Darcy; the heart and the brain might be the world’s most sympathetic duo.