Remember how Victorians thought tuberculosis was the ultimate Romantic disease?
In the 1800s, TB (or “consumption” as it was known then) was considered to be a desirable way to die because it was the sign of a delicate, sophisticated soul. Looking like a TB patient even became the height of Victorian fashion; women would paint little veins on the side of their face and drink vinegar in an attempt to bleach their skin and become as pale as possible (as immortalised in this Horrible Histories sketch). In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that our current obsession with skinny models is a trend rooted in this consumption craze.
TB was a particularly popular way to kill off characters in nineteenth-century literature. Authors delighted in glorified descriptions of trembling men and women with gigantic dark eyes who had somehow become wiser and even saint-like through their condition (usually glossing over the less attractive aspects like the excruciating pain and the smell).
“Metzengerstein” (1832), Edgar Allan Poe
The beautiful Lady Mary! How could she die? – and of consumption! But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious! to depart in the hey-day of the young blood – the heart of all passion – the imagination all fire – amid the remembrances of happier days – in the fall of the year – and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous autumnal leaves!
Nicholas Nickleby (1838), Charles Dickens
There is a dread disease which so prepares its victim, as it were, for death; which so refines it of its grosser aspect, and throws around familiar looks unearthly indications of the coming change; a dread disease, in which the struggle between soul and body is so gradual, quiet, and solemn, and the result so sure, that day by day, and grain by grain, the mortal part wastes and withers away, so that the spirit grows light and sanguine with its lightening load, and, feeling immortality at hand, deems it but a new term of mortal life; a disease in which death and life are so strangely blended, that death takes the glow and hue of life, and life the gaunt and grisly form of death; a disease which medicine never cured, wealth never warded off, or poverty could boast exemption from; which sometimes moves in giant strides, and sometimes at a tardy sluggish pace, but, slow or quick, is ever sure and certain.
Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë
I am very happy, Jane; and when you hear that I am dead, you must be sure and not grieve: there is nothing to grieve about. We all must die one day, and the illness which is removing me is not painful; it is gentle and gradual: my mind is at rest. I leave no one to regret me much: I have only a father; and he is lately married, and will not miss me. By dying young, I shall escape great sufferings. I had not qualities or talents to make my way very well in the world: I should have been continually at fault.
Les Misérables (1862), Victor Hugo
[Fantine’s] whole person was trembling with an indescribable unfolding of wings, all ready to open wide and bear her away, which could be felt as they rustled, though they could not be seen. To see her thus, one would never have dreamed that she was an invalid whose life was almost despaired of. She resembled rather something on the point of soaring away than something on the point of dying.
The Idiot (1869), Fyodor Dostoevsky
[Mary]’s consumption was so advanced, and she was so weak, that she used to sit with closed eyes, breathing heavily. Her face was as thin as a skeleton’s, and sweat used to stand on her white brow in large drops. I always found her sitting just like that. I used to come up quietly to look at her; but Marie would hear me, open her eyes, and tremble violently as she kissed my hands.
The Magic Mountain (1924), Thomas Mann
And life? Life itself? Was it perhaps only an infection, a sickening of matter? Was that which one might call the original procreation of matter only a disease, a growth produced by morbid stimulation of the immaterial?
“No Pain Whatsoever” (Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, 1962), Richard Yates
When he bent forward to take the match the yellow pajamas gaped open and she saw his chest, unbelievably thin, partly caved-in on one side where the ribs were gone. She could just see the end of the ugly, newly healed scar from the last operation.
Angela’s Ashes (1996), Frank McCourt
Theresa Carmody answers the door. She has the consumption and they’re afraid of catching it from her. She’s seventeen and out of the sanatorium, and she’ll never see eighteen. The boys at the post office say sick people like Theresa know there’s little time left and that makes them mad for love and romance and everything. Everything. That’s what the consumption does to you, say the boys at the post office.
One thought on “Reading List: Tuberculosis”
Great list! I would recommend adding the 2017 Baileys Prize shortlisted book, “The Dark Circle”, by Linda Grant. It takes place in the early 20th century and follows a group of TB patients confined to a Kent sanatorium, exploring the chronic impact of an illness we have now largely forgotten about.