The romantic death; in the 19th century, tuberculosis was so prevalent that poets, artists and musicians glorified the spirituality of the disease

The romantic death; in the 19th century, tuberculosis was so prevalent that poets, artists and musicians glorified the spirituality of the disease – Special Issue: Tuberculosis

Instead of acute terro, in many observers and victims of the fatal disease the attitude was one of lofty melancholy. Tuberculosis had gained the reputation of being spirutal, a cleanser of base qualities. Its victims wasted away ethereally.

Perhaps the illusion of agraceful ascent from life was enhanced by the literary aura that emanated from some of its victims: Robert Louis Stevenson, the great novelist; Thomas Mann, author of the Magic Mountain, a literary classic that used a sanatorium as its background; HJenry David Thoreau; the Bronte sisters; Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and many other luminaries of the time, including Frederic Chopin, the composer.

At the crest of the Romantic Movement, Rene Dubos, M.D., French-born phsyician and author of twenty scientific books and essays, observed that “to be consumptive was almost a makr of distinction, and the pallor caused by the disease was part of the standard of beauty.

“The Romantic English poet George Gordon Byron longed to achieve this physical appearance. He is reported to have said while looking in a mirror, ‘I look pale. I should like to die of consumption . . . because ladies would says . . . how interesting he looks in dying.'”

Dr. Dubos also observed that the taste for looking sickly during that period was reflected in the wan, ethereal heroines found in the pre-Raphaelite paintings of Rossetti, Morris and others and especially in the theatre and opera. Mimi in La Boheme and Marguerite in La Dame aux Camelias (Camille) represented ideals drawn from actual women whose histories were well known and who died of tuerculosis in their early twenties.

“Languid pallor was then such a desirable feminine attribute,” Dr. Dubos notes, “that the use of rouge was abandoned and replaced by whitening powders. during the 19th and early 20th centuries, tuberculosis was truly the white plague.”

In his book The Last Crusade, Mark Caldwell describes the attitude toward tuberculosis among the literary luminaries of the mid-1850s: “It was a badge of refinement, it was very nearly a polite accomplishment. And if you contracted it, it led your friends not to mourn your early death so much as to venerate you as one marked out for a fate of special distinction.

“That made a certain amount of sense,” Caldwell observes. “The symptoms of the disease — a gradual loss of flesh, the sparkling eyes, the flush and slight excitement brought on by low-grade fever — all these suggested immateriality a looking toward the beyond. And somehow these symptoms outweighed the more frightening and disgusting ones.”

COPYRIGHT 1991 Vegetus Publications

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