Clark Lawlor, Consumption and Literature

Clark Lawlor, Consumption and Literature: The Making of the Romantic Disease (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006). 248pp. £45 hb. ISBN  13: 978-0-230-02003.

Clark Lawlor’s scholarly account of ‘consumption narratives’ is to be recommended as a well-informed and engaging contribution to the burgeoning field of interdisciplinary studies addressing the literary representation of disease. Consumption and Literature sets out to answer a key question: why was the inherently unpleasant, painful, deadly disease formation once known as consumption, tabes or phthisis pulmonalis - which we now recognise as pulmonary tuberculosis caused by the action of the tubercule bacteria first discovered by Robert Koch in 1882 – traditionally exalted by professional and creative writers alike as a romantic, even perversely desirable disease of the spiritually exalted, the artistic and the beautiful? As Lawlor observes, while there have been many studies of consumption, including such excellent cultural histories as The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man and Society by Réne and Jean Dubois, yet ‘none has entirely addressed the issue of the aesthetics of this disease’ (p. 3). In particular Susan Sontag’s influential Illness as Metaphor, which contrasts consumption as the glamorous disease with the stigma surrounding cancer and AIDS, set a model for addressing diseases as socio-literary constructs. But as Lawlor justifiably observes, Sontag’s ‘description of consumption tends to flatten out its varied narratives into one homogenous entity stretching out from the late eighteenth century to the twentieth...’. Lawlor succeeds in his aim to fully ‘historicise’ Sontag’s account by pursuing the discursive history of consumption back into the earlier eighteenth-century and beyond to the Renaissance and the legacy of the ancient medical authorities, as well as by looking forwards to the later Victorian era. He thus places the familiar obsession with the disease amongst the ‘High’ Romantics within an evolving historical context and is able to show how the romantic image of the consumptive poet, as exemplified in the figure of John Keats, forms part of a more complex and diverse cultural formation.

In a succinct introduction Lawlor places his approach in the context of recent concerns with illness narratives as prompted by Arthur Kleinman which consider how our experience of disease and illness is ‘constructed through signs, primarily language’, as we ‘develop stories, patterns of expectation, plots, sequences of images and metaphors, which form our perceptions of disease, pain, [and] the importance of suffering’ (p. 3). If the romanticisation of consumption illustrates how ‘people’s need to explain, contain and even manipulate illness results in evolving discourses that may eventually detach themselves from what might be termed biomedical reality’, Lawlor is keen to avoid falling into ‘a postmodern linguistic relativism’ in which ‘the body disappears in a puff of post-structuralism’ while ‘the advance of biomedicine, which has …found a cure for consumption, lies forgotten in a Derridean abyss’ (p. 4). Drawing support from David Morris’s commonsense arguments in Illness and Culture in the Postmodern Age, Lawlor himself insists that ‘the mediation between the biomedical and cultural perspectives on disease calls for recognition that we are biologically grounded in bodies with certain inescapable material processes and that we express such biology through language and narrative’ (p. 4).

Part I of Lawlor’s study identifies two key strands in early-modern consumption narratives which fed into later formulations, namely consumption as the disease of ‘love melancholy’ amongst both men and women, and consumption as the disease which, by its gradual progress and purported numbing of the sufferer to their own impending demise, enables a ‘soft’, ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’ death. Allusions to consumption as the disease of thwarted lovers in Renaissance poems and plays are analysed alongside contemporary medical texts which explain the action of the ‘wasting disease’ in terms of humoural pathology. Lawlor’s analysis of Isaac Walton’s accounts of the deaths of two consumptives, the poets John Donne and George Herbert is particularly valuable in illustrating the important religious dimension.

In Part II Lawlor shows how a new structure of feeling begins to consolidate in the mid-eighteenth century as consumption comes to be associated with artistic genius; a construct underpinned by Newtonian or Boerhaavian iatro-mechanical notions of nervous sensibility as well as subsequent more vitalist models. Once again the early-Georgian medical writer Dr. George Cheyne, who attributes consumption with nervous delicacy and newly casts it as a disorder symptomatic of the deleterious effects of participating in an expanding consumer society, is seen to play a pivotal role in mediating between the medical and literary realms. But as Lawlor observes, while Cheyne persuaded his upper-class patients and readers, particularly women, that consumption and associated slimness is symptomatic of an inherently more delicate, refined constitution, ironically the increasing incidence of the disease amongst an urbanised proletariat was being largely ignored. Lawlor is also able to offer an interesting new perspective on how we might read the decline and death of Richardson’s eponymous heroine Clarissa (the novelist was Cheyne’s patient). This concern with gender is sustained throughout Part III covering the Romantic and Victorian periods. The self-fashioning of such neglected ‘wasting poets’ as Michael Bruce (1746-1767) and Henry Kirke White (d. 1806), reveals how the image of the consumptive, short-lived male poet we associate with Keats (as encouraged by P. B. Shelley) was in fact already firmly in place as a marketing ploy by 1800. A companion chapter examines how Regency physicians offered gendered accounts of consumption and considers the careers of such ‘consumptive poetesses’ as Mary Tighe, who died of the disease in 1810 at the age of thirty-eight, and Lucretia Maria Davidson who died in 1825 aged sixteen. A final chapter considers the later Keatsian legacy of the abnormally sensitive, often lower-class male poet as exemplified in the self-consciously consumptive sonneteer David Gray who died in 1861 aged twenty-one.

Lawlor’s fascinating study provides new readings of canonical literary texts, as well as alerting us to lesser-known sources including medical texts, journals and private correspondence to provide a valuable account of the evolving aesthetics of consumption. It includes a bibliography.

David E. Shuttleton, University of Glasgow.