Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights Tuberculosis, Emily Brontë, and Victorian England

Tuberculosis is a constant presence in Wuthering Heights––it claims the lives of many characters, and its passage from one character to another often reveals the nature of their relationships. It played a similarly important role in Emily Brontë's life. She would lose her older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, to the disease in childhood, and her brother Branwell to it as an adult. It claimed Emily's life in 1848, not long after Wuthering Heights was published, and her sister Anne would also die of the disease the following year. Historians would call tuberculosis the Brontës' "family attendant" (Banerjee). This was not uncommon; tuberculosis marred the lives of many Victorian literary families, including the Trollopes, the MacDonalds, and George Eliot and her partner G.H. Lewes.

Tuberculosis is a highly contagious bacterial infection that usually affects the lungs, but it was not unheard of for it to affect other parts of the body as well––George Eliot's young son died of spinal tuberculosis. Most disturbing to many Victorians was the dramatic weight loss that the disease caused; this is why it was called "consumption" in the nineteenth century. Because the disease appeared gradually, people often didn't notice the symptoms until it was too late to treat them. This was the case with Branwell Brontë, whose laudanum addiction masked the symptoms of tuberculosis until a very late stage in the disease. In Emily's lifetime, it was commonly believed that pure air could help treat tuberculosis; this is why Catherine Earnshaw is sent to the Lintons when she gets sick––among other reasons, the characters believe that Thrushcross Grange has 'better air' than Wuthering Heights. This is also the reason for Edgar's belief that the Grange will be a healthier environment for Linton. Around the time that Emily was writing Wuthering Heights, the American Dr. John Croghan even set up a tuberculosis hospital in a cave because he believed that the unique air would cure his patients ("Cave Air Approach").

Perhaps most affecting, though, are the records of people who watched their loved ones die of this extremely painful disease. Charlotte Brontë, the last Brontë sibling to die (and the only one who did not succumb to 'consumption') demonstrated "growing anxiety and fears for Emily and Anne, and ... even more pathetic attempts to snatch reassurance from a less haggard look, the remote possibility of a cure" (Banerjee).