Katherine Byrne, Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination

Katherine Byrne, Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 223pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978–0–521–76667–8.

It has become something of a cliché to observe just how destructive consumption or pulmonary tuberculosis was in the nineteenth century and before: one in four people suffered from it, so writers like Thomas Beddoes claimed. Arguably no other disease in the Victorian period achieved such a high level of cultural visibility, and certainly the novel, on which Katherine Byrne’s excellent book concentrates, is a genre overflowing with coughing, wasting, vanishing consumptives. Literary criticism has been rather slow to catch on to the fact that disease is a crucial element in the literary world, except perhaps in certain glamorously tragic instances (the Brontës, Keats) and even then the medical element is often downplayed as being tediously unpoetic.

Fortunately this state of affairs is changing as literature and medicine becomes a more mature discipline, and perhaps partly aided by the rise of the as yet amorphous phenomenon of medical humanities. Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination helpfully supplies at least part of the map of Victorian representations of literature and consumption, with a little fine art thrown in for good measure. It is surprising that it has taken this long for a full study of the Victorian novel and consumption to appear: Susan Sontag’s Illness as metaphor was brilliant but not focused purely on the Victorian novel and hardly the last word on the subject.

The title of the book, then, is slightly misleading: it is the novelistic Victorian imagination that is at issue here, and some consideration of the differences between genres would have been at the very least interesting, given the huge quantity of poetry and drama in which consumption featured strongly. That said, it is doubtless true that many of the tensions drawn out by consumption and its representations manifest themselves in a similar manner across literary genres, but the scholar of literature is interested in form as well as content, a factor that can no doubt be further investigated in this case.

This caveat aside, Byrne provides a much-needed contribution to our understanding of the way the British novel handles consumption, and how consumption handled it. The opening chapter introduces the medical discourse on consumption, and sure-footedly reveals the two-way interaction between the medical text and the literary one, even as doctors perseverated about the potentially malign influence of romanticised literary interpretations.

Chapter Two examines the role of consumption as a metaphor for an economic and social pathology via two ‘Condition of England’ novels: Dickens’s Dombey and Son and Gaskell’s North and South. In both novels tuberculosis is a convenient and multivalent, even contradictory, figure for the tensions in capitalism itself. The sainted child-hero Paul Dombey is killed by consumption and, as the heir to the firm, shows the diseased nature of consumer capitalism. Byrne sensibly refines this apparently crude argument by showing how medics’ concerns about the ‘hot-housing’ of middle-class children and the effects upon their health feed into Dickens’s own interests and into the novel itself, so that Mr Dombey’s need to turn his son into a good capitalist backfires by transforming him into a consumptive. In Gaskell’s novel tuberculosis is caused by the poor factory conditions and deprivation inherent in the process of producing the luxury goods that would end up being consumed by the likes of the Dombeys.

The third chapter focuses on Mrs Humphry Ward’s Eleanor (1900), whose eponymous and consumptive heroine is one of the many travellers for health in this century (and those around it) – a driving force for literary travel not researched sufficiently at present. Ward’s novel, argues Byrne, is a strong influence on James’s The Wings of the Dove, although Bryne cautiously states that Milly Theale’s illness is never openly identified as consumption (but her symptoms fit the easily recognisable ‘code’ for consumption). Again, the representation of consumption is a complex matter, as it is ‘an ideal medium through which to discuss eugenics, religious doubt and the position of women’ (p. 72).

It is hard to avoid Elizabeth Siddal, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s famous ‘stunner’ and wife, in discussions about Victorian consumption, and the next chapter takes on this ambiguous figure (previously discussed by Bram Dijsktra and Elisabeth Bronfen). Byrne argues that the ‘rise of the tubercular aesthetic’ was spurred on by the popularity of the Pre-Raphaelite images of Siddal and the other phthisical beauties so glamourised by the movement. The Romantic image of beautiful consumption was male (Keats, Shelley, Byron) says Byrne, so when the cult of female invalidism arrived with the Victorians, it was given a boost by visual artists. This makes sense as a local phenomenon, but Byrne could give more attention to the continuing presence of the aestheticisation and sexualisation of consumptive femininity in the Romantic period – a paradoxical combination that carries on into the pure yet sexy figures in Victorian art and literature. The works of poets like Hemans and Signourney are packed full of attractive female consumptives, while plenty of Romantic male poets fantasise about such drooping ladies in their own poetry. A usefully nuanced analysis of George Du Maurier’s Trilby follows in this discussion as an exemplar of the initially transgressive sexual woman being liberated from her own desires by the purification of consumption.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula abounds with consumptive imagery, and Byrne’s fifth chapter nicely follows in the wake of Dijkstra’s work on the wasting bodies and metaphorical and political implications of both vampire and consumptive. It is a shame that Byrne has ruled out of court discussion of American texts, as an invocation of Poe, horror writer and obsessive extraordinaire about consumptive women, would have been productive at this point and others in the book. The transatlantic aspect of consumptive discourse needs further exploration. Nonetheless, this is a helpful contribution to our view of nineteenth-century vampire fiction.

Lest we think that men do not feature in consumptive representations, chapter 6 analyses the spiritualised but emasculated character of Ralph Touchett in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, ‘a rare literary example of the adult phthisical male whose decline is central to the narrative’ (p. 150). Ralph figures a crisis of invalid masculinity that nevertheless conferred certain advantages, an invalidism that Byrne reads against James’s own life, in particular his relationship to his consumptive cousin Minny Temple.

Byrne’s epilogue takes us past the discovery of the tubercle bacillus in 1882 and the rise of germ theory to the slow decay of individualised and spiritualised consumption, ending with its termination in the 1950s when an effective cure was widely implemented. Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination is essential reading for anyone interested in the cultural and literary history of medicine and, as importantly, for literary scholars interested in the Victorian novel. There is much more room for work on tuberculosis in this period: British drama is a neglected area, and we still await a study of the British literature of consumption in the twentieth century. We must be grateful that this book has so well supplied one part of the necessary scholarship on this most literary of diseases.

Clark Lawlor, Northumbria University 

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