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The deathbed scene of Helen Burns in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) is one of the most famous Victorian representations of ‘a consumptive’. Helen’s invalidism is not an affliction but, rather, a sign of her spirituality and purity: like many consumptives depicted in nineteenth-century texts, she coughs a little and then dies because she is too good to live in a harsh, unfeeling world.
Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity in Nineteenth-Century Literature: Invalid Lives is not about those consumptives.
As an undergraduate at Keele University, I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1869) and was gripped by one of its most savage antagonists: nihilistic teenage psychopath Ippolit Terentyev who, on receiving a diagnosis of terminal consumption, fantasizes about committing mass murder. Ippolit’s bitterness and rage made me wonder how many people living with tuberculosis in the nineteenth century felt alienated by the cultural images and stereotypes imposed upon them.