[This story was first published on The British Society for Literature and Science website. The original post can be read here: bsls.ac.uk/reviews/romantic-and-victorian/alex-tankard-tuberculosis-and-disabled-identity-in-nineteenth-century-literature-invalid-lives.]
Alex Tankard, Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity in Nineteenth-Century Literature: Invalid Lives (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2018) ix + 238 pp. £62.99 PDF & EPUB, £79.00 Hb. ISBN 978-3-319-71445-5
Alex Tankard’s Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity in Nineteenth-Century Literature: Invalid Lives is a title in Palgrave Macmillan’s Literary Disability Studies, a series dedicated to literary readings informed by disability theory, research and activism. The book sets out to revisit nineteenth century literary representations of the impairment through the lens of critical disability studies, firstly establishing the definitions of ‘disability’ which might retrospectively be applied to Victorian consumptives.
Tankard develops the definition of disability in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act as the condition of having an impairment or being regarded as having an impairment which ‘substantially limits one or more major life activities’, and Rosemarie Garland Thompson’s discussion of disabled bodies being perceived as a ‘deviation’ from ‘cultural rule about what bodies should be or do’, a notion in which consumptive bodies are understood in comparison with societal expectations of what a body ‘should’ be capable. These ‘commonplace assumptions’ (3) shape societal structures in such a way that excludes bodies which do not fit, an evaluation reflected by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation in 1976, which put forward a social model of disability locating impairment not in the body but in a society that ‘makes inclusion conditional upon a level of physical functioning impossible for some of the population to attain’ (3). Drawing on these definitions, Tankard advocates for disability as something to be understood not as located within the body but as ‘a social condition’: she follows the use of ‘disability’ to ‘refer to the social marginalisation and stigma experienced by people with physical impairments’ (4).
Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity, therefore, explores how people living with tuberculosis negotiated the cultural and socio-economic experience of being ‘a consumptive’, within the timeframe between 1821 (the year that René Laënnec’s Treatise on Diseases of the Chest was published in English) and 1912 (when it became compulsory to notify all cases of pulmonary tuberculosis to authorities). In addition to life writing, Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity also examines how this negotiation is explored in fiction from the nineteenth century, an era of ‘medical and social changes’ (5), such as the emerging eugenic discourse. Tuberculosis has a complex relationship with English literature during this period, and consumptives were ‘usually depicted in a sympathetic light in both fiction and non-fiction texts as their disease had positive associations with spirituality, sensitivity, and virtue’ (5). Chapter One, the book’s introduction, highlights the traditional characterisation of ‘the consumptive’ as pure and spiritual (such as Jane Eyre’s Helen Burns), and juxtaposes these literary expectations against the lived reality of those with consumption. In doing so, Tankard introduces a number of questions to which she returns throughout the book: did consumptives feel pressure to conform to these representations of the ‘good’ consumptive? Did they resist these characterisations, or performatively adhere to them? Comparing the reality of tuberculosis with literary depictions emphasizes the economic disenfranchisement of those with the impairment, meaning that ‘Romantic and sentimental stereotypes could ignore (or even conceal) real social disadvantage: in a culture that expected consumptives to face suffering with pious resignation, would it be easy to express ingratitude to carers, or rage against society and demand social change?’ (5).
Tankard’s book features texts that challenged these expectations, and were able to do so because ‘an emerging biomedical model of tuberculosis’ began to destabilise traditional notions of ‘the consumptive’. These traditional notions are among four ‘models’, identified by Tankard, through which historically society has attempted to explain and/or marginalise consumptive personhood. The religious model (which suggests impairments are a supernatural punishment or blessing), the sentimental model (in which the disabled person’s ascribed role is to evoke emotion), the biomedical model (which argues that the biological abnormalities of those with impairments are the root of disadvantage – not social structures – and such bodies should be moulded to a particular standard), are arguably negated by the social model, which ‘locates disability not in the body but in social structures that marginalise or oppress people whose bodies do not fit the medical norm’ (12).
Chapters Two and Three examine this socio-economic or cultural ‘disabling’ of people with tuberculosis between 1821 and 1912, while Chapters Four, Five and Six each focus on a particular nineteenth century novel which ‘exhibit[s] a self-conscious manipulation of consumptive cultural clichés’ (19). Chapter Two explores the ways in which the emerging biomedical model of tuberculosis impacted on Victorians with this impairment, using social and medical documents to form a picture of the type of literary landscape available to consumptives and those depicting consumptives. The ‘disabling’ of the person with the impairment is explored through a discussion of the era’s socio-economic structures and medical discourses (particularly of the supposedly ‘hereditary’ nature of tuberculosis and eugenicist attitudes): ‘looming over traditional notions of consumption as a source of spiritual enlightenment and artistic inspiration was the shadow of the workhouse infirmary’ (27).
Chapter Three investigates how the dominant models of identity of ‘the consumptive’ in the nineteenth century negatively impacted on those with this impairment. Tankard identifies three significant aspects of consumptive identity which suggested consumptive life as a living death: sentimental victimhood, the pious Christian deathbed, and the inspired but doomed Romantic artist. The author explores the negative impact of supposedly ‘positive’ characterisations of the consumptive as figures with ‘profound moral purpose’ by examining writing by and about John Keats and Aubrey Beardsley, both of whom died at the age of twenty-five from tuberculosis.
Chapter Four’s focus on Wuthering Heights suggests that the character of Linton Heathcliff destabilizes stereotypes by reflecting aspects of the various ‘models’ of consumptive identity: ‘he is all consumptive identities and none at all, and any model that demands exclusive rights to interpret consumptive identity is undermined by the chaotic mess of his performance’ (127). How Thomas Hardy and Dostoevsky reimagined the consumptive as representative of despair or horror is the focus of Chapter Five, which posits that the characters of Jude ‘Little Father Time’ Fawley and Ippolit Terentyev ‘test traditional models of consumptive identity and expose them as inadequate’ (136). This chapter uses close readings of Jude the Obscure and The Idiot to discuss how the biomedical model of disability disguises ‘socio-economic and cultural disablement [whilst simultaneously creating the problem of to whom] the sufferer should direct their protest’ (137).
The relationship between a New Woman and a disabled man in Beatrice Harraden’s 1893 bestseller Ships That Pass in the Night is discussed in Chapter Six, highlighting the novel’s link between gendered injustice in marriage – continuing Tankard’s exploration on the relationship of gender to disability – and mistreatment of disabled people. Tankard demonstrates that this novel develops on the analysis of Wuthering Heights and Jude the Obscure as texts with little hope for a better future of consumptive identity, to instead imagine a ‘new comradeship between disabled and non-disabled people based on mutual care and respect’ (167). Harraden’s novel, Tankard argues, represents a key moment in the development of the biomedical model of disability, in which consumptives can be liberated from Romantic stereotypes, but the ‘tyranny’ of the model is yet to manifest.
Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity is an intensely informative text, which puts forward challenging and nuanced theories and readings while still remaining accessible to the reader. It offers a new and exciting perspective on nineteenth-century fiction which engages with the literary tradition of depicting the ‘consumptive’, and does so in a fascinating, thought-provoking, and enlightening way.