Emasculation, Eugenics and the Consumptive Voyeur in The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Story of a Nobody (1893)

in Critical Survey
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In nineteenth-century Britain, pulmonary tuberculosis – known as phthisis, decline or consumption – killed more people than any other disease. Furthermore, the social and ideological impact of consumption extended far beyond mere mortality. The common belief in an identifiable, hereditary ‘consumptive type’ of person, combined with the often chronic nature of tuberculosis, caused the disease to be regarded as a permanent, identity-conferring condition. Popular belief in the hereditary ‘consumptive type’ long predated the publication of Darwin’s theories of human evolution in 1871 and survived long after 1882, when the disease was proven to be contagious rather than hereditary, indicating that consumption carried a complex cultural significance independent of its scientific status.

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