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Book review
Victorian illness narratives and their meanings: a book review of Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination
  1. Claire Charlotte McKechnie
  1. Correspondence to Dr Claire McKechnie, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, 2 Hope Park Square, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9NW, UK; claire.mckechnie{at}

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Edited by Katherine Byrne. Published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011, hardback, 240 pages. ISBN 9780521766678, £55.00.

Katherine Byrne's new book Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination is a welcome addition to the recent medical humanities scholarship on the interrelationship between literature and medicine in nineteenth-century Britain. It fits well with other studies in Gillian Beer's Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture series such as Miriam Bailin's The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill (1994), Pamela K Gilbert's Disease, Desire, and the Body in Victorian Women's Popular Novels (1997), and Janis McLarren Caldwell's Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Britain from Mary Shelley to George Eliot (2004). It furthers recent study on the interrelationship between tuberculosis and literature in the work of, for example, Clark Lawlor's Consumption and Literature: The Making of the Romantic Disease (Palgrave, 2006).

Byrne's well-researched book provides an impressive array of historical sources on tuberculosis, rescued from the annals of time, and makes interesting and important cultural connections between Victorian medical knowledge and trends in nineteenth-century fiction. It examines well-known texts such as Charles Dickens's Dombey and Son and Bram Stoker's Dracula, and undertakes to explore the consumption trope in lesser-known works by writers such as Mrs Humphrey Ward and Henry James. Furthermore, in order to provide a well-rounded enquiry into the cultural significance of the disease, Byrne includes a chapter on consumption in pre-Raphaelite aesthetics, which links the disease's association with ‘fragile loveliness and sexual attractiveness’ (p. 92) with its representation in Victorian art and fin-de-siècle fiction.

Divided into six chapters, Byrne's study delivers close textual readings alongside the examinations of the wider cultural significance of consumption. Chapter 1, ‘Nineteenth-century medical discourse on tuberculosis’ provides a fascinating background to the medical history of the disease. In this chapter, Byrne offers a historical overview of how medical practitioners in the nineteenth century dealt with this disease in their …

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  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.