Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Consumption

Remember back in the dim, distant past when consumption almost always meant someone had tuberculosis?  If you were in a novel, or a stage play, and were dying of consumption, you were automatically offered an extra dose of romance, because for some reason there was something peculiarly romantic about consumptives: think of Mimi, in La Boheme, or Violetta in La Traviata.  Dostoevsky has several consumptive character in his novels, but Dickens managed to limit himself to just one: Smike, in Nicholas Nickleby.  Thomas Mann goes to opposite extreme, and in The Magic Mountain includes an entire cast of consumptives - admittedly the book is set in a sanatorium.  One of Anne of Green Gables' friends dies of 'the galloping consumption' (as opposed, I suppose, to the dawdling version).

Consumption/tuberculosis continues to fascinate more recent writers and creators: Ingrid Bergman died of consumption in The Bells of St Mary's (isn't that an unnecessary apostrophe there? - shouldn't the title have been the less alliterative, The Bells of St Mary?) as did Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge - at the end of her biggest performance. Fictional consumptives achieve all sorts of last minute heroics.  Even in anime and manga, you'll find a variety of consumptive characters.  Plainly Japan has a bit of a thing about the disease.

But tuberculosis, as it's more generally known these days, is barely visible in the Western world.  Large sanatoriums have been turned into all sorts of non-medical establishments. And those awful outside verandahs have been closed in, hopefully.  It was normal to put TB patients out in the fresh air for their health - even letting them sleep out in the open air (though under the verandah roof).  I suspect more than a few TB patients died of pneumonia rather than TB.
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