Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity in Nineteenth Century Literature: Invalid Lives (2018) by Alex Tankard

Sep 20, 2019 | Reviews

Heidi Logan

Alex Tankard’s Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity in Nineteenth Century Literature: Invalid Lives dispels myths about the representation of ‘consumption’ in nineteenth-century literature, delivering in-depth analyses of several novels and an overview of the movement from sentimental and religiously inflected representations of consumption to representations of lung disease increasingly influenced by the biomedical model of tuberculosis or phthisis.

One of the early chapters in Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity analyses cultural representations of John Keats and Aubrey Beardsley. Both were known to be ‘consumptive’ during their lifetimes and being consumptive has since become part of each artist’s mythos. Tankard explains how Keats has historically been misrepresented via “consumptive genius” tropes that rely on a sense of tragic incompleteness of oeuvre and that it is in fact unclear “whether he was ill when he wrote his major poems in 1819” (65, 73). Tankard argues that Keats’s inability to control messages about his consumptive identity allowed others to dictate his later portrayal through sentimentalized tropes (66). In the late nineteenth century, Aubrey Beardsley, on the other hand, actively controlled his public image, defying others’ expectations (79, 81-4). Beardsley may have benefitted from more tolerant attitudes, as, for a brief time, many doctors believed that tuberculosis was spread genetically rather than through contagion (7, 36). From the late nineteenth century until the rise of the sanatorium movement, there was a period when people with tuberculosis were not necessarily perceived as a threat in need of isolation.

As Tankard explains, not all ‘consumptives’ willingly embraced the assumptions and expectations that attended their identity (7). This is the topic of the most enjoyable section of Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity: Tankard’s particularly original chapter on Wuthering Heights (1847) made me highly interested in a novel that I dislike many aspects of. The argument presented is that rather than being straightforwardly ableist in its representations of consumption, Brontë’s novel actually undermines frameworks and tropes commonly used to represent consumption by taking each of them to their extreme. By piling on stereotypically sentimental methods of characterisation of consumptive individuals, Brontë reveals the absurdity of such traditional tropes (100-101). Nelly despises Linton not necessary simply because she considers him weak, lazy, and self-pitying, but because he does not voice the gratitude for caregiving that she expects. Linton therefore endures a second round of victimization by Nelly due to her inherited belief that the social role of invalids is to show immense, angelic gratitude for any care they are given, no matter how grudging, spiteful, or inconsistent the care. Tankard points out that Linton’s refusal to be grateful for condescension and minuscule help may in fact reveal his resentment at being forced into sentimental and Romantic tropes of disability (102-106).

Almost equally interesting is the parallel analysis of Jude the Obscure’s (1895) representation of Jude’s lung disorder and of Ippolit’s representation in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1869). Both novels reject sentimental and religious views of consumption and tuberculosis by representing protagonists who do not feel spiritually ennobled by their disease and who suspect that God is either totally ignorant of their situation, or worse – actively malevolent toward them – a “tarantula” (142, 144). Tankard argues that readers can interpret Ippolit’s apparent blasphemy as his means of seeking a new, valid identity for himself and resisting other characters’ attempts to silence him (2, 139, 142, 152). Tankard’s analysis shows that it was possible for nineteenth-century authors to explode the myth of the holy sickbed attended by immensely kind caregivers and to recognise that the sickroom could be a place of oppression (152-156).

The monograph’s last analysis focuses on Ships that Pass in the Night (1893), a text that Tankard suggests forwards frameworks for improved social and romantic relationships between men and women, made possible by the Consumptive New Man’s willingness to listen to and value the New Woman’s feelings and socio-political aims and the New Woman’s openness to experiencing personal growth through relationships with such men (167, 170). Here, the consumptive man represents an attractive alternative to hyper-masculinity and misogyny.

The points in Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity are made elegantly and with convincing supporting examples. And the book’s organisation is logical, lending further satisfaction. Several times, when a particular point was made, I personally thought “what are the connotations that point has for X?”, only to find that the issue I had thought of was exactly what Tankard discussed next. Tankard is also willing to admit when there is not enough evidence to make a particular claim.

It is difficult to suggest that this accomplished work has any small flaws in structure, content, or argument. I can only suggest that it may have been interesting to provide slightly more information in the Introduction regarding previous work on literary and cultural representations of consumption or tuberculosis. But Tankard occasionally refers to previous examples of such research throughout her book. This also felt compensated for by the fact that the last two chapters unexpectedly outline the direction that representations of tuberculosis in literature took after 1912, the date initially represented as the cut-off for the period covered. I suspect that, like me, many readers will associate consumption with images of early-twentieth-century European sanatoria. It is therefore helpful that by outlining some post-1912 works, the book places its earlier analyses in a wider context.

There is much to be gained from this book, including the seemingly simple but actually far-reaching realisation that not all Victorian representations of ‘consumption’ should automatically be understood to represent ‘tuberculosis’ (6). Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity convincingly argues that there was a gradual change in how the protean disease of ‘consumption’ was represented in literature and other cultural fields throughout the nineteenth century: “an emerging biomedical model of tuberculosis began to undermine the dominance of sentimental, Romantic, religious models of consumptive identity” (6). Moreover, Tankard argues that variety existed in how people living with the disease responded to it and that a number of fiction and non-fiction texts from the period display elements of a disability consciousness despite predating disability studies (6). Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity challenges the general impression that Victorians with tuberculosis were merely experiencing a living death (2, 52). This book’s findings should put paid to any monolithic impression of the representation of tuberculosis in Victorian fiction.