This blog post has been inspired by this article: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/VictorianNovelDisease
With thanks to Ged Maybury for pointing the article out to me.
The word “consumption” first appeared in the 14th century, and was used to describe any fatal wasting disease -it wasn’t just the one disease but a range of them, like cancer is today. Cancer isn’t one disease, but a whole family of related conditions; that is why there can never be one straightforward cure for cancer. Over time, the word ‘consumption’ was specifically to used to describe tuberculosis. Although the word ‘tuberculosis’ first appeared in print in 1860 (and it is uncertain how long it was in use before that), it wasn’t until 1882 that the German physician Robert Koch identified the bacterium that caused the illness. And – as it turns out – tuberculosis isn’t just one disease, there are several strains of it, like influenza and the common cold.
Most infections do not have symptoms, and the dormant disease is known as latent tuberculosis. About one in ten latent infections eventually progresses to an active state. If left untreated, tuberculosis kills more than half of those with the active state of the disease. In the late stages of a fatal infection, the lung tissue is eroded away by the rapidly growing colonies of the bacteria. It becomes difficult to breathe. Victims experience weight loss (hence the common name), fever, night sweats, and the painful coughing up of blood-filled sputum. If you have ever suffered from a chronic cough, you know how painful that can be, with your chest burning as if filled with live coals. Despite the movies, it is neither a pretty nor an easy way to die.
One-third of the world’s population is thought to have been infected with M. tuberculosis, with new infections occurring in about 1% of the population each year. In 2007, an estimated 13.7 million chronic cases were active globally, while in 2013, an estimated 9 million new cases and 1.5 million associated deaths occurred, mostly in developing countries. The absolute number of tuberculosis cases has been decreasing since 2006, and new cases have decreased since 2002. The rate of tuberculosis in different areas varies across the globe; about 80% of the population in many Asian and African countries tests positive in tuberculin tests, while only 5–10% of the United States population tests positive. More people in the developing world contract tuberculosis because of a poor immune system, largely due to high rates of HIV infection and the corresponding development of AIDS.
That is the state of play RIGHT NOW! Imagine what it was like back in the 19th Century, when medicine was more of a dark art and less of a science.
In the fictional world, even today in movies like Moulin Rouge and television shows like Penny Dreadful, and in every Gothic novel from the Victorian era until the present day, consumption is a ‘sexy’ disease. The sufferer gets thin and pale, their eyes burn, they tend to lie around in elegant dressing gowns or frilly bed jackets, and usually the adults lie on suggestively rumpled beds. They still seem to have the energy and breath to sing entire arias before collapsing and dying, like in the opera The Lady of the Camellias. The reality was and is the complete opposite, with sufferers made gaunt with the illness, eyes bruised from the chronic cough, skin and hair ravaged by illness, and a constant expression of pain on their face – not so glamorous. Even after death, the corpse did not miraculously become ‘transformed’ by death into something peaceful and pure (and now I’m looking at you, L. M. Montgomery and Charles Dickens).
Consumption was the ‘heroin chic’ of its day; and there is nothing pretty or romantic about a heroin sufferer. So when you – as a writer of Neo-Vicwardian Retro-Futurism – get the urge to kill some character off in a ‘romantic’ way, like consumption … DON’T! It might seem like a wonderfully tragic way to kill off a character, but don’t make it ‘sexy’ or ‘romantic’. Keep it real.