Tuberculosis Became the Victorian Standard of Beauty

A portrait of his sister, who died from tuberculosis, by Edvard Munch. Wikimedia

Symptoms of Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis was unique in its ability to replicate the beauty standards of the Victorian era.  Smallpox, also prevalent at the time, left the victim disfigured and was later extremely feared by the populace. Cholera was concentrated mainly in deprived areas and associated with squalor. Tuberculosis stood alone in its connection to the wealthy while also creating physical symptoms that made the sufferer appear lovely.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that typically affects the lungs, although it can change other parts of the body. In the common lung infection, sufferers would have a persistent low-grade fever that was responsible for the flushed lips and cheeks of those affected. In those for whom the disease progress was slow, weight loss and wasting would develop as the lungs’ condition worsened. This process led to the dainty, waif-ish appearance that was so valued at the time. The necessity of bed rest due to weakness and lethargy also helped developed the period’s desired aesthetic.  Sufferers were kept indoors and would show an ashen skin that could be further exacerbated by blood loss through coughing up blood.

Tuberculosis in Art and Literature

Beloved 19th Century author Charlotte Brontë wrote in 1849 that “Consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady” – the same year that she lost her sister Anne to tuberculosis and a year after she lost her sister Emily to the same disease.  She further discussed Anne’s illness, writing “Anne’s illness has of late assumed a less alarming character than it had in the beginning: the hectic is allayed; the cough gives a more frequent reprieve. Could I but believe she would live two years — a year longer, I should be thankful: I dreaded the terrors of the swift messenger which snatched Emily from us, as it seemed, in a few days.”

“Dropsy Courting Consumption,” color etching by T. Rowlandson. Wellcome Collection

Despite losing two dear sisters to the disease, Brontë still displayed an appreciation for the aesthetic that accompanied the oft-fatal infection. Other artists of the time supported this notion as well. Composter Giuseppe Verdi featured a beautiful heroine afflicted with consumption in his opera La Traviata in 1853. He based the opera on a play that was itself an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux Camélias. The story was loosely based on the life of courtesan and tuberculosis victim, Marie Duplessis, pictured above.  The famous portrait of Duplessis with extremely fair skin and shadowed eyes beautifully demonstrates the consumptive aesthetic of the time.

Noble, beautiful victims of tuberculosis were a common theme throughout the period.  Countless paintings can be found of delicate, pale victims in bed surrounded by grieving loved ones.  The iconography of birds, signifying the spirit ready to leave the body, was commonly included.  Numerous literary icons fell to tuberculosis as well, including Fantine in Les Miserables and Katerina Ivanova in Crime and Punishment.