In “The Dark Shadow” a chapter in his book about the failure of Ruskin's marriage, Robert Brownell explains the extent to which Ruskin, his family, and so many others in Victorian England were afflicted by tuberculosis. — George P. Landow.

Consumption was the contemporary term for tuberculosis, a potentially fatal mycobacterial infection that primarily affects the lungs. There was, and is, nothing remorely Romantic or psychosomatic about the disease. The most common form of human tuberculosis usually begins with flu-like symptoms which progress to a persistent cough, the spirting of blood caused by lesion of the lung tissue, and consequent weight-loss or general wasting of the muscles. The primary lesion of the lung can sometimes heal and the infection be contained within a protective tubercle. If this does not happen, the disease begins to consume the organ in which it has lodged, usually the lung, and the illness progresses to a fatal conclusion. This can sometimes be a protracted process with periods of remission or latency. Human tuberculosis is usually spread when asrosol droplets of infected sputum ejected by the coughing of the infected person are inhaled by those in prolonged and close contact. I his means that the disease often spreads within families: hence its description as 'the family attendant'.

The classic case was that of the Brontë family, seven of whom died from the disease, bin other notable Victorian families such as the Trollopes and the Oliphants also suffered. John was later (1863) to become a close friend of George MacDonald the writer. MacDonalds mother had died of the disease in 1833 when he was eight and George himself survived repeated attacks of consumption starting in 1850. He lost his fourteen year-old half sister Isabella in 1855 and his father and brother John to the disease in 1858. Four of MacDonalds own children died later; two of them within a year of each other. Another child. Grace, survived childhood but died in 1884 after giving birth to a baby who also died of the same disease. Although tuberculosis is environmentally transmitted, susceptibility may also be inherited. The micro-organism that causes it was identified in 1865, but the pathology of the disease, and particularly of the secondary infections it causes, was not properly understood until much later. Even today tuberculosis can be a very difficult disease to identify' and treat. It is not always confined to the lungs; indeed in some cases the lungs can be unaffected. Almost any organ in the body can be infected. Tuberculosis of the larynx is perhaps the most infectious form, whereas something like tuberculosis of the kidneys would be the least. The disease can often lodge in the lymph glands in the neck, resulting in 'scrofula, or lymphatic tuberculosis, the disease that John [Ruskin]'s father was said to have suffered in his youth. [56/57]

Related Material


Brownell, Robert. Marriage of Inconvenience: John Ruskin, Effie Gray, John Everett Millais and the surprising truth about the most notorious marriage of the nineteenth century. London: Pallas Athene, 2013 [Review in the Victorian Web.]

Last modified 7 March 2014