The Romantic Disease

Read enough novels from the 19th century’s Romantic Era and you will inescapably come across the Romantic Disease. Of course, like its namesake, the Romantic Disease could easily be mistaken to mean our contemporary definition of romance, but as Clark Lawlor writes, it was “aestheticized as a sign of passion, spirituality and genius”.

Helen Burns dies of it in the arms of Jane Eyre, as does impoverished Fantine. Anne Shirley’s childhood friend contracts the fatal disease and reaps its alluring reward, noted in her final days as being “even handsomer than ever; but her blue eyes were too bright and lustrous, and the color of her cheeks was hectically brilliant”—a typical description of the resplendent beauty that accompanied the disease, otherwise known as consumption. A killer as miserable as it was ubiquitous in Western literature, consumption is no longer as common as it used to be nor its diagnosis as devasting (at least for those in industrialized countries). In fact, it is now called by its more prosaic medical term of tuberculosis. However, for its literary glory in the Romantic Era as a muse for the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Byron, some historians prefer to call it “the Romantic Disease”. The romanticization of tuberculosis during the 19th century brazenly reveals itself in that era’s literature—certainly, Anne Shirley’s description of her dying friend demonstrates the disease’s potential for tragic beauty.

Tuberculosis itself is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which affects the lungs and can be spread through the air. A person afflicted with TB might find themselves coughing up blood and experiencing fatigue, fever, and chest pain. Despite the fact that this disease is preventable and curable with a six-month course of antimicrobial drugs, tuberculosis is still unfortunately rampant, especially in Asian countries. It is clear, however, that it has lost the cultural significance it once held in the world. The melding of the humanities with medicine is unmistakable in the way that tuberculosis has permeated so much of what we consider classic literature, but we do not have to feel some poetic loss simply because tuberculosis is no longer seen as a “beautiful” disease. Rather, this new unromantic attitude could be taken as evidence of the dramatic improvement in healthcare and scientific knowledge over the centuries. As Morens theorizes in reference to consumption in the 19th century, the arts held great power in its ability to “make sense of misery and death in ways that turned otherwise senseless suffering into human dignity and hope”. With this in mind, perhaps we should celebrate that modern medicine has created a world in which we no longer have to turn to artistic dramatizations to make tuberculosis—and its horrific reality—more bearable. However, the romanticization of health, especially of mental health, is still relevant today if you recall the arguments that arose around the 2017 release of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, a show that was criticized for glamourizing suicide. Although it shows that the arts and medicine might never actually stray too far from each other, it more seriously continues the need to consider the dangerous societal consequences that result from presenting the image of illness as something deeply desirable.

References

Lawlor, Clark. Consumption and Literature: The Making of the Romantic Disease. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Morens, David M. At the Deathbed of Consumptive Art. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738548/.

Tuberculosis. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tuberculosis. Accessed 17 Jan. 2020.

Tuberculosis (TB) Disease: Symptoms and Risk Factors | Features | CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/features/tbsymptoms/index.html.

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