Tuberculosis Represented In Nineteenth Century Literature

“Heard Melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter” – John Keats. Trying to stay healthy and not sick during the early mid nineteenth century was notoriously difficult. The ever expanding world of disease was unknown and unnerving, and in some ways, still is. While we make further steps into understanding disease more as time goes on, that still does not take away the countless people who suffered such illnesses in the past. Varying authors and poets of the early to mid nineteenth century wrote about their experiences facing certain diseases. Specifically in the United Kingdoms, many individuals and their loved ones were affected and coped with consumption, also known as tuberculosis. Poets like John Keats and authors such as Charlotte Bronte (along with her sisters) suffered and eventually succumbed to Tuberculosis. Many of their works reflect the suffering and mortality each of these artists faced. Accepting one’s own mortality is a theme visited multiple times within each of these writer’s respected art forms. It is both deeply morbid and oddly fascinating to read a grim portion of history through the lens of modern British literature and poetry, even if tuberculosis is not the main center point of their writings. 

So how was Tuberculosis, also known as the “white plague”, “consumption”, and “TB”, introduced to mid eighteen hundreds England? How did one in four people in early to mid nineteenth century England succumb and eventually die due to Tuberculosis? (Landers, J.). Poor living/working conditions paired with poverty and a lack of nutrition  would mean that Tuberculosis had optimal conditions to thrive and spread during this time due to multiple factors in play such as overpacked living quarters and sub par sanitation and cleanliness during work. “The diffusion of problematic social conditions, such as completely deprived work settings, poorly ventilated and overcrowded housing, primitive sanitation, malnutrition, and other risk factors were associated with the diseases.” (Frith J. History of Tuberculosis part one). Similarly enough, the United States was also witnessing millions of citizens contract TB around the same time. In the late years of the eighteen hundreds, one in five Americans were to have suffered from tuberculosis. If that was not bad enough, it was also estimated that for a majority of the nineteenth century, over seventy percent of all Americans were infected with Tuberculosis (Draper, Matthew. The Tuberculosis Epidemic.). Millions of people from across the globe had experienced Tuberculosis, and the horrible symptoms that go along with it. 

Multiple people infected with TB were not aware of it until it was too late. There are two types of TB, a primary TB infection, and a secondary TB infection. Most individuals do not show symptoms of Tuberculosis until the secondary infection begins, which can happen if the primary infection is not treated as soon as possible. Symptoms of the secondary Tuberculosis infection include high fever, extreme tiredness, weight loss, night sweats. TB can also affect other parts of the body like your lungs, resulting in continued breathlessness and a very harsh persistent cough. Sometimes coughing up large sums of blood is common (CDC, Fact Sheets.). Other painful and rather uncomfortable ways your body can be affected by TB is stomach/abdominal pain, confusion, seizures, and swollen glands (Draper, Matthew. The Tuberculosis Epidemic.) During the nineteenth century, common remedies that individuals believed would help  to treat Tuberculosis was inhaling hemlock or terpenes. Another remedy included Cod liver oil and vinegar messages (CDC, World TB day, 2021.)  Sadly, antibiotics for the disease would not exist for another eighty years or so. Millions of deaths, people and their loved ones being infected with Tuberculosis.  Artists, writers, poets, individuals who witnessed themselves and their loved ones succumb to consumption, expressing their loss and own mortality through writing and poetry.

John Keats was a medical doctor turned England Poet.  During his short time on earth, he would spend his years taking care of his mother Frances, who was suffering from Tuberculosis. Some time after his mothers passing, Keats went into the medical field for a portion of his life. This was cut short however, as John abandoned his field in medicine and pursued poetry (Cliffnotes, Keats Poems.). In his later years John would take care of his younger brother Tom, who was infected with Tuberculosis just like their mother was. After his brother’s passing, John himself would be infected with Tuberculosis. It is theorized that he got infected through taking care of his brother (Bresnahan, Daniel.). All of this information is vital in understanding how this sickness affected John’s poetry. An example of Keats work reflecting his real life struggles with Tuberculosis can be found in one of his poems, On Seeing The Elgin Marbles. This poem is about someone bearing witness to the Elgin Marbles and all their grandeur, coming to terms with the fact that he is just human and is destined to die one day. (“On Seeing The Elgin Marbles: synopsis and commentary”). The individual facing the Marbles is reflective to Keats himself being infected with TB and understanding that he will not live long. Keat once said in his late life while infected with Tuberculosis “I know the color of that blood. I can’t be deceived in that color; that drop of blood is my death warrant- I must die.” (John Keats, Love, Life, and Death. Shmoop. 2021.). The character in Keats poem literally states the line “I must die.” As stated previously, this seems to be symbolic of Keats own mortality he was facing at the time before he passed away from Tuberculosis. 

Charlotte Bronte was one of five other children of the Bronte family. The Bronte family consisted of writers and poets who would all eventually die of Tuberculosis. Charlotte Bronte, the oldest sibling, is known for her novel Jane Eyre. She had five siblings in total, two who died at an early age due to tuberculosis. Her brother, Branwell, later died of the disease as well. The Bronte sisters who went on to become authors and poets before their deaths, consisted of Charlotte, Anne, and Emily. Jane Eyre is a novel published in eighteen forty seven written by Charlotte under the pseudonym “Currer.” Jane Eyre  greatly reflects the events Charlotte experienced in her own life. More specifically, how tuberculosis affected her loved ones. In Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, a character by the name of Helen becomes one of Jane’s dearest friends. Jane meets Helen at the all girl school they are both attending. They quickly become friends after Jane notices one of the teachers yelling at Helen for not being cleaner, saying “you dirty disagreeable girl! You have never cleaned your nails this morning.” This most likely mirrors, or at the very least hints at, the unsanitary and unkempt conditions Charlotte herself had to endure during her time in school. Soon enough, Helen becomes one of the only people that treats Jane with genuine kindness and respect. Jane’s relationship clearly mirrors the relationship she had with her sisters. Since the Bronte sisters all attended separate schools, perhaps Charlotte wrote about Helen, wishing that her sisters could attend the same school she went to. Keeping that information in mind makes Helens fate in the novel all the more depressing. Helen falls ill with Tuberculosis and passes away in Jane’s arms. This is obviously reflective of Charlotte’s real life coping with losing all of her siblings to Tuberculosis, which she herself later died of in eighteen fifty five (BBC. The History of Tuberculosis. 2014.) 

Life in today’s pandemic centered world is nothing short of exhausting, confusing, and chaotic. However modern medicine and practices have made combating certain diseases and sickness more of a possibility. In the nineteenth century, there was no such way, or at least, an actual working way, to combat viruses and illnesses effectively. Tuberculosis caused a great deal of pain and death throughout the United Kingdom Most individuals infected with the disease often did not get to live a full healthy life. People like the Bronte sisters and John Keats took their collective experience with tuberculosis, and wrote about their pain and the trauma it caused to themselves and those around them. It is interesting to view Tuberculosis through the lens of real life. However, I find it even more effective to see historical events through the eyes of art. Witnessing how certain individuals took their suffering and attempted to capture it through their form of art, be that poetry, writing, or something else, is as interesting as it is equally morbid. It is haunting to read a piece of art that talks about one’s own mortality. It is even more haunting to remember that Tuberculosis is the real life reasons why these authors and poets wrote about their own mortality in the first place.

Authors note: I have always been fascinated with disease and the different effects it can have on our population. From large scale areas of infection to smaller isolated innocents that are documented, there are so many ways the history of diseases and sickness has been captured and remembered. Authors and poets like Charlotte Bronte and John Keats expressed their personal experience with Tuberculosis through their writings and poetry. Even if Tuberculosis does not take center stage of their writings, It is certainly hinted at to some degree. The purpose of this paper was to give a brief overview of Tuberculosis and the effect it had on that time period. After a meeting with my professor, I attempted to make a nice balance of both discussing the history of the disease in the early to mid nineteenth century UK, and the different writings and poetry that emerged from it. Is it a nice balance though? Should I discuss one more than the other? Some feedback on that would be greatly appreciated. I worked my absolute hardest on this paper, but that does not mean it’s perfect. I am open to any possible feedback (which included a crisis on whether I did my citations in the correct way or not.) I hope I did all of my citations properly, and I hope whoever is reading this enjoyed it! 

Barberis, I, et al. “The History of Tuberculosis: from the First Historical Records to the Isolation of Koch’s Bacillus.” Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, Pacini Editore SRL, Mar. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5432783/#R02.

“Fact Sheets.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Oct. 2011, www.cdc.gov/tb/publications/factsheets/general/tb.htm#:~:text=The general symptoms of TB,depend on the area affected.

Frith, Authors:  John, et al. “History of Tuberculosis. Part 1 – Phthisis, Consumption and the White Plague.” Journal of Military and Veterans Health, search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/INFORMIT.430338287813994.

Glaziou, Philippe, et al. “Trends in Tuberculosis in the UK.” Thorax, BMJ Publishing Group, Aug. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6204963/#R2.

“History – The Brontë Sisters.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/bronte_sisters.shtml.

“Keats’ Poems.” John Keats Biography, www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/k/keats-poems/john-keats-biography.

Markel, Dr. Howard. “How Poet John Keats Met His Early End.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 23 Feb. 2017, www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/column-poet-john-keats-met-early-end#:~:text=Today marks the day in,Tom, who died in 1819.

“On Seeing the Elgin Marbles: Synopsis and Commentary.” It.info, crossref-it.info/textguide/john-keats-selected-poems/40/3003.Shmoop Editorial Team. “John Keats: Love, Life, and Death.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, www.shmoop.com/john-keats/love-life-and-death.htmlCachedAfter.

2 thoughts on “Tuberculosis Represented In Nineteenth Century Literature

  1. This is a great post, man. Honestly makes me wonder if Professor Helms picked this book because of its relation to a historic viral outbreak. I mean seriously, this is very poignant in the face of the times we’re living through. I honestly hadn’t really thought about the connections between the TB outbreaks in the book and our own current situation very much, so I appreciate your work here lol. One of the things I notice is that, like in our times, the characters of Jane Eyre just kind of have to keep it moving through this outbreak. Like yeah people and loved ones are dying nd falling gravely ill, but everyone has developed ways to cope with it. Some are cold and dejected, others fallback on their religion, but they’re all pretty well-adjusted to living during such a time. It’ makes me think of the early weeks of the pandemic, where the weight of living in unprecedented times was making me incredibly anxious. Now though it’s kind of just like whatever, you know? Like people are dying by the thousands, but that’s just how it is. It isn’t the focal point of most of our lives right now, but it does paint a grey backdrop that puts everyday life in perspective. And I think the same could be said for Jane. Like sure, she doesn’t talk very much about being troubled by the outbreak besides when her friend dies. But it does make her already dark early life a lot darker. The English winter and TB outbreak serve as a perfect backdrop for the stories setting, which, having just made it through a pandemic winter in New England, I think we can all relate to. Sorry if this was winding and off-topic, but I really appreciated your post. Made me think a bunch. Thanks!

  2. Wow what an interesting project. I’m a history major so this stuff is so interesting to me. I did not know Charlotte Bronte was so effected by Tuberculosis, no wonder Jane’s best friend died of this is the boo. Bronte was probably able to write this chapter in such emotional depth because she was so close to it personally. Really interesting stuff!

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