A de­sir­able death

How the con­sump­tive look be­came fash­ion­able in the 18th cen­tury

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Shahidha Bari is se­nior lec­turer in Ro­man­ti­cism, Queen Mary Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don.

Con­sump­tive Chic: A His­tory of Beauty, Fash­ion, and Dis­ease By Carolyn A. Day Blooms­bury, 208pp, £70.00 and £22.99

ISBN 9781350009387 and 9370 Pub­lished 5 Oc­to­ber 2017

It is easy to fall in love with the gen­tle Mary Cath­cart. Thomas Gains­bor­ough, who painted her in 1774 when she was barely 18, cer­tainly seems to have done so. His por­trait is full length and dig­ni­fied, grace­ful and kind. An el­bow propped up against an an­tique pil­lar, Mary leans lightly, her dis­tant gaze art­fully turned away from the viewer, pale ex­cept for a flush of pink vis­i­ble across both cheeks. She is slight and nar­row in a shim­mer­ing white satin bodice and a crim­son ruched skirt, swathed in stiff­ened net and pearls, a ruby brooch at her breast and feath­ery os­trich plumes bil­low­ing from her hat.

Born to the 9th Baron Cath­cart, who was am­bas­sador to Cather­ine the Great, the aris­to­cratic Mary was a so­ci­ety beauty and duly mar­ried a Perthshire landowner named Thomas Gra­ham in 1774. Gains­bor­ough’s por­trait was ex­hib­ited at the Royal Academy in 1777, where the Honourable Mrs Gra­ham was much ad­mired. The truth, though, was more com­pli­cated and much sad­der. Rav­aged by tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, Mary had been too frail to sit for Gains­bor­ough at great length and prob­a­bly not in such an or­nate cos­tume. The gown, the feather and the jew­els were imag­i­na­tive con­coc­tions. In ret­ro­spect, the pal­lor and the flush, the dis­tant look of the eyes and the nar­row form, qui­etly be­tray her ill­ness and ema­ci­a­tion.

The Gra­hams pur­chased Lyne­doch House near Methven, Perthshire in 1785, in­tend­ing to set­tle there, but Mary’s ill­ness com­pelled them to travel, seek­ing respite in the pop­u­lar health re­sorts of the pe­riod – sea bathing in Brighton, hot springs in Clifton, and fi­nally the warmer climes of Europe. When Mary died in France on 26 June 1792, aged just 35, Thomas was dev­as­tated. He never re­mar­ried and the por­trait, ap­par­ently shrouded in muslin, was handed over to a sis­ter and even­tu­ally be­queathed to the Na­tional Gallery in Scot­land, where it re­mains today, one of the loveli­est in its col­lec­tion.

Gains­bor­ough him­self ob­served of the pic­ture that it was “the com­pletest” he had ever painted, a com­ment that makes sense in terms of com­po­si­tion, but also, per­haps, in terms of the life (and death) that it in­tu­its of the sit­ter. The ruby brooch that picks up the heated stain of her cheeks, the pil­lar against which she sup­ports her­self, the dark­ened woods and sky that en­cir­cle her, all feel freighted with un­spo­ken sug­ges­tion.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Carolyn A. Day’s Con­sump­tive Chic, which is con­cerned with what it calls the “aes­thet­ics of con­sump­tion”, be­gins with Mary’s ro­man­ti­cally sor­row­ful story. The book is a well-re­searched and dili­gently com­piled cul­tural his­tory of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. The dis­ease was, she notes, at its peak at the be­gin­ning of the 18th cen­tury, with high mor­tal­ity rates caus­ing around 25 per cent of all deaths in Europe, and it only de­clined from around 1850. Any reader of the Bron­tës, Jane Austen, Sa­muel Richard­son or Charles Dick­ens might have some dim sense of this; the dan­ger of “con­sump­tion” hov­ers con­stantly over hero­ines with sus­cep­ti­bly weak con­sti­tu­tions, a mark of their bod­ily in­fir­mity and soul­ful sen­si­tiv­ity. It is to Day’s credit that she thinks to in­ves­ti­gate this fur­ther, trac­ing pat­terns in the cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the dis­ease in lit­er­a­ture, art and fash­ion.

In the 19th cen­tury, con­sump­tion be­comes more than sim­ply a med­i­cal con­di­tion. It takes shape in a cul­tural imag­i­na­tion, an in­dex of char­ac­ter and re­fined sen­si­bil­ity. “I should like to die from con­sump­tion,” By­ron fa­mously de­clared. John Keats, of course, did. Percy Bysshe Shel­ley wrote to him sym­pa­thet­i­cally in July 1820: “This con­sump­tion is a dis­ease par­tic­u­larly fond of peo­ple who write such good verse as you have done…” Keats, trained in medicine and hav­ing wit­nessed his young brother rav­aged by it in 1819, un­der­stood its fatality bet­ter than most. In Ode to a Nightin­gale, he re­mem­bers his brother, record­ing a ter­ri­ble mem­ory of “youth” that “grows pale, and spec­tre thin, and dies”. He is con­scious too, per­haps, of his own im­pend­ing fate. His friend Joseph Sev­ern recorded his fi­nal days in Rome in graphic de­tail: dis­in­te­grat­ing lungs, dis­tended stom­ach and vol­umes of coughed blood.

The term “con­sump­tion” it­self has a kind of Ro­man­tic al­lure. “Tu­ber­cu­lo­sis” came into wide­spread use in the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury and is de­rived from the “tu­ber­cles” or nod­ules that de­vel­oped in the lungs as a re­sult of in­fec­tion by the path­o­genic bac­te­rial species My­cobac­terium tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. Cer­tainly, it doesn’t have the omi­nous ring of “con­sump­tion”, whose se­vere weight loss seemed to “con­sume” the pa­tient from the in­side, leav­ing them gaunt and brit­tle, nor the aw­ful evoca­tive­ness of the “white plague” that sug­gested the blanched and eti­o­lated com­plex­ion of those in­fected. And these symp­toms,

weight loss and pal­lor, are cru­cial to the dom­i­nant pre­sen­ta­tion of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis as a “fash­ion­able” dis­ease. Day con­sci­en­tiously gath­ers the ev­i­dence of a kind of cul­tural com­plic­ity in the cast­ing of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis as an as­pi­ra­tionally “beau­ti­ful death”, specif­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with fem­i­nin­ity and re­fine­ment.

She notes one J. S. Camp­bell, rhap­so­dis­ing in his 1841 Ob­ser­va­tions on Tu­ber­cu­lous Con­sump­tion over the propen­sity in tu­ber­cu­lar pa­tients for pal­lor and “tran­sient vigour”, the “sud­den flashes of the coun­te­nance from triv­ial causes of men­tal emo­tion, which fre­quently suf­fuse the cheek of beauty with a blush orig­i­nat­ing in a fa­tal ten­dency”. Day enu­mer­ates the spe­cific ways that the

The tu­ber­cu­lar look, as the late his­to­rian Roy Porter has writ­ten, had be­come ‘pos­i­tively de rigueur’ in the 18th cen­tury

ill­ness could man­i­fest it­self – hec­tic flush, breath­less­ness, ema­ci­a­tion, glassy eyes sunk into their or­bits, prom­i­nent cheek­bones, whitened teeth, the vis­i­bil­ity of veins on the sur­face of the skin – point­ing up the cul­tural ideals of beauty with which it be­comes so trou­blingly in­ter­twined. The tu­ber­cu­lar look, as the late his­to­rian Roy Porter has writ­ten, had be­come so “pos­i­tively de rigueur” in the 18th cen­tury that bright young things de­lib­er­ately sought to cul­ti­vate it, as if “del­i­cacy and a ten­u­ous grasp on life made them ap­peal­ing”. Day pur­sues this thought, un­earthing the prints and fash­ion plates in which thin­ness in­creas­ingly emerges as the sig­ni­fier of a de­sir­ably del­i­cate soul, dig­ging up the corset de­signs that would place un­due pres­sure on the res­pi­ra­tory or­gans, the beauty trea­tises that blithely noted how “some dis­eases” could “greatly improve the beauty of par­tic­u­lar com­plex­ions”.

In Con­sump­tive Chic, Day as­sem­bles the data, in­di­cat­ing the ways in which a de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­ness came to be con­fig­ured as aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing at a par­tic­u­lar pe­riod of time. If she never quite tack­les the ques­tion of why experiences of in­fir­mity and ema­ci­a­tion should come to con­fer fem­i­nine beauty, it is per­haps be­cause it is too dif­fi­cult to an­swer. It is a ques­tion for the ages, on­go­ing and ur­gent in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, too. Ab­stemiously schol­arly, Day re­sists the temp­ta­tion to stray into spec­u­la­tions about mod­ern par­al­lels, although they are ap­par­ent: the heroin chic of 1990s fash­ion, the pro-anorexia move­ments of the present day. The suf­fer­ing of women re­mains in­sep­a­ra­ble from dom­i­nant con­cep­tions of beauty.

Tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, Day re­minds us, re­mains a global pub­lic health is­sue. The merit of this study is that it un­der­stands the ways that dis­ease can also take form in the imag­i­na­tion and how bod­ily life is doc­u­mented in cul­ture, as well as medicine.

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