About a decade ago, I had a temp job in the local hospital. I was based in the library and my task was to go through the shelves and find books that had updated editions, journals that were now available online, and so on, so that outdated material could be replaced with more recent thinking.
In among the back issues of The Lancet and The Journal of Otorhinolaryngology there were some really interesting books, and I spent quite a few of my breaks reading through The End of Innocence: Britain in the time of AIDS and Suffer the Children: the story of thalidomide, as well as a book whose title I can’t remember but which was about planning a hospital’s response to potential disasters.
And then there was Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, which I, a year on from the end of my English Literature degree in which I’d paid a lot of attention to the Victorians, found absolutely fascinating. The illness in which she’s mostly interested is tuberculosis, or consumption if you want to be all romantic about it. She dissects the disconnect between the horrors of the disease itself and the otherworldly depiction it receives in so many nineteenth century novels. (I wrote ‘Victorian’ at first, but of course one of the most famous is La Dame aux Camélias by Dumas fils.)
I do not possess copies of any of the books I’ve talked about here, so here are two that deal with tuberculosis. Poor Helen Burns in Jane Eyre shares the fate of two of Charlotte Brontë’s sisters: dying of the disease at boarding school. Last year, we had The Essex Serpent in which the suffering character, Stella Ransome, experiences a spes pthisica that manifests as an obsession with all things blue. I’ve included that blue glass bottle (with its distinctly unVictorian plastic spray top) in her honour.