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Victorian Novel Disease

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"Romantic opera usually deals with the subject of some romance which never comes off owing to the untimely demise of the prima donna through one of four causes: murder, suicide, madness or TB."

If you're the star of a Victorian Novel or an opera which could have been adapted from one, you're preferably blonde and blue-eyed, with an alabaster brow and feet light as the entrance of Spring. So pure are your thoughts that you faint at even the sight of blood, and have little stomach for gory tales.

You're also dying of a disease which will probably be called "consumption" if it isn't The Disease That Shall Not Be Named. Fortunately, this ailment has no ill effects other than adding a poignant cough to the appropriate sentences, and making your eyes even brighter, your skin even paler, and your complexion even more striking. In operas, it won't prevent you from singing at least one aria in your death scene.note 

Standards of beauty are a funny thing. When the lower class is poor and thin and haggard looking, the nobility commissions portraits depicting themselves as Rubenesque, with rosy cheeks and dimpled arms, to show off their indulgent dining habits as a way of immortalizing their wealth. However, when the economy stabilizes and the poor are able to be plump and rosy-cheeked, then the standard of beauty... shrinks. Women become diminutive, frail, wan little things, and prone to fainting spells and headaches. Rather like Dr. Seuss' star-bellied Sneetches, the "haves" set as the height of desirability whatever quality the "have-nots" cannot achieve.

Alternatively, if you experience something extremely harrowing or frightening, you can expect to fall into a subtype of VND, where you might ‘faint from exertion’ then spend several months in bed beset by a mysterious half-physiological, half-psychological conundrum of a condition; for more information on this particular subtype of VND see Brain Fever.

When suffering from Victorian Novel Disease, you can expect to meet plenty of people Oop North or from Zummerzet, who will probably end up teaching you a thing or two about class, life in the mills or in the hills (or both), and how to love someone for real, amongst numerous other lessons. That is when they aren't dying of VND themselves.

The epitome of the fragile, delicate woman is that she is Delicate and SicklyAlways Female, always innocent and pure, almost always youngnote , always dying of some disease that is very slow at actually killing her. As she lies enthroned in her beautiful sickroom, everyone around her spends countless hours musing poignantly on her death and/or trying to surround her with the things she loved most in life. Her proximity to the eternal gives her immense wisdom and insight, and she will be a never-ending source of advice and comfort to her caretakers, to the point where it's hard to tell who is comforting whom. And, of course, since Women Are Delicate, no aspect of her disease (whatever it may be, if it's named at all) is "icky" in any way, even if it would be total Body Horror in Real Life: she will never suffer from vomiting or diarrhea, never sweat more than a light glisten despite possibly running a fever, never develop any unsightly skin rashes, lesions, or lumps, and any blood or mucus she coughs up will always land delicately (and unseen) in her lace handkerchief. Even when her weakness becomes so great that she can barely move, she will never succumb to anger, despair, sorrow, regret, sadness, or frustration. When at last she slips the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God, those around her (one of them likely holding her frail form in his arms) will smile through their tears and rejoice that her pure soul has taken its flight from this dirty world. Gag.

In modern times, a virulent strain has developed as the Soap Opera Disease. The Littlest Cancer Patient is usually more upbeat about their impending death. A common treatment for this is Healthy Country Air or a trip to a Healing Spring. Contrast Dangerous Drowsiness, where someone does get tired, and it's serious. Dangerous Drowsiness can also affect both sexes.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Parodied and subverted in Count Cain, wherein several vain girls are tricked into ingesting various parasites to get that lovely white pallor.
  • Rin's mother in Kodomo no Jikan. Though they actually stated she had lung cancer.
  • Takiko Okuda in Fushigi Yuugi: Genbu Kaiden. She contracted tuberculosis, as a result of taking care of her mother (who had the disease and died of it at the beginning of the story), before she entered the book. Unlike most examples of this trope, she does not die of her tuberculosis, but becomes the victim of a Murder-Suicide by her father (who wanted to spare her more suffering).
  • The Rose of Versailles strikes three different characters with tuberculosis:
    • The first is Louis Joseph, the Dauphine of France. In spite of being male he's the only one who plays it straight... And may have infected the other two, given their close contact with him during his illness.
    • The second is Oscar, who discovers her condition in the lead-up to the French Revolution. This sudden reminder of her mortality may have played a part in her actions, that culminated in leading the French Guard in joining the Parisians as they assaulted the Bastille... And being shot and killed by the defenders as she was commanding the artillery.
    • The final one is Marie Antoinette, Louis Joseph's mother, who discovers her illness during her imprisonment and trial. It doesn't stop her from putting in his place the one man depraved enough to accuse her of incest with her other son, or from showing everyone how the Queen of France faces the guillotine.

    Comic Books 
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: Margo Vandergilt's illness is never named and she is pale, weak enough that she needs leg braces in order to walk, and pretty; all of which make her an appealing target to a blackmail gang that decides to operate out of the young widow's mansion.

    Fan Works 
  • A staple of Sidhemail's work, especially I Am Stretched on Your Grave.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 1970 weeper Love Story offers an infamous example in Ali McGraw, whose terminal illness just makes her prettier.
  • In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Irene dies from "a rare form of tuberculosis", due to Moriarty poisoning her tea.
  • Dark Victory offers a peculiar example. This trope is initially averted, as Bette Davis suffers from relatively accurate symptoms of brain cancer — dizziness, headaches, blurred vision, numbness. However, it's played utterly straight after her brain surgery, which fails to cure her but somehow leaves her with a form of brain cancer that has her feeling healthy and vigorous and looking lovely until an attack of blindness that signifies her death is mere hours away.
  • Lampshaded in Heavenly Creatures. Juliet had tuberculosis as a child and suffers a relapse as a teen, but is aware enough of this trope to note, "All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It's all frightfully romantic."
  • In the 1970s, a series of European films - one of which was The Last Snows of Spring - played with this trope. The afflicted were always children or young teens, who run around quite happily and healthily, notwithstanding the occasional Deadly Nosebleed or fainting fit, before dying prettily in a parent's arms. In one case, the dying teenage boy even managed to complete a swimming race before dropping dead.
  • In Cinderella (2015), Ella's mother is seemingly dying of an illness but still looks beautiful, if a little thin. It may be justified by being cancer, which before chemotherapy was less disfiguring unless visible tumors were involved, but also inevitably fatal in the era in which the film is ostensibly set.
  • Moulin Rouge! is based on The Lady Of The Camellias. Satine develops a fatal case of consumption and dies at the end of the film, but not before singing her last song.
  • In 1932 tearjerker romance One Way Passage, Joan is dying of—well, something, something that apparently makes any exertion dangerous, and will kill her in a matter of weeks, although she still looks not just healthy but gorgeous. A throwaway reference to a sanitarium vaguely implies that it's tuberculosis, but she doesn't cough once, although she does faint a couple of times.
  • Shown in the cheesy historical romance novel that Joan Wilder is writing at the start of The Jewel of the Nile. The handsome hero and the beautiful heroine are on a sinking ship being attacked by pirates. There's only room in the lifeboat for one more person, so one of them has to make a Heroic Sacrifice.
    Heroine: You take it, my love.
    Hero: Never! Those maggots will not have you.
    Heroine: They will not have me for long. I have consumption and will be dead before the year is out.
    Hero: You were gonna marry me with consumption? Why didn't you tell me?
    Heroine: I didn't want to spoil things.
  • In Wuthering Heights (1939), Cathy dies romantically in Heathcliff’s arms of a disease that the doctor can’t identify: the main symptoms are fever and inflammation of the lungs, but the doctor thinks it all comes down to “the will to die.” This is a Lighter and Softer change from the novel, where her despair triggers a brutal Brain Fever, leading to her death in premature childbirth.

  • Marguerite aka The Lady Of The Camellias (from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils) is dying of a Victorian Novel Disease. Because nothing, not even the deterioration of one's lungs, should stand in the way of one's career as a successful courtesan!
  • In Anne of the Island, Anne's childhood playmate Ruby Gillis is revealed to be dying of "galloping consumption" (acute tuberculosis of the lungs). May be considered a play on this, as in childhood Ruby, instead of fainting gracefully at the scene of a drama, would usually just go into hysterics. However, it's still a Tear Jerker. Especially since Ruby, having been rather shallow all her life, is terrified to die and leave everything she's always considered important behind her. While she says she "doesn't doubt but that she'll go to Heaven", she's afraid because frivolity is all she's ever known, and now she's facing the unknown rather unprepared for it.
  • Agatha Christie describes in her autobiography how her elderly grandmother tried to make Agatha seem more interesting to suitors by speaking of how frail and sickly she was. This resulted in the suitors (being 20th-century boys) becoming very concerned, and Agatha very annoyed, since she was as healthy as anything.
  • A gender-flipped example in Wuthering Heights where it is Edgar who dies of a wasting illness. Actually there is a lot of this kind of thing in Wuthering Heights - Brain Fever in particular. Emily Bronte appears to flipflop on whether brain fever is caused by intense emotion (when Cathy seems to be suffering more from hypermanic episodes), or by getting soaking wet or actually contagious. People get it all three ways, and it kills at least three people.
  • In Boris Vian's ''L'écume des jours'', Chloé dies from a water lily growing in her lungs (yes, it's a weird novel), the effects of which, besides a cough, are largely to make her beautifully pale and languid.
  • Sherlock Holmes:
    • The novels contain a notable subversion. Evidently, the only thing more wringing than the plot development where someone turns out to have consumption is the plot development where it turns out no one has consumption.
    • The Holmes canon has a couple of cases of Brain Fever, usually brought on by severe stress, which reads to the modern reader as a much more scientific version of this. (Both Doyle (in Real Life) and Watson (in the story) were doctors, and as such, not likely to tolerate the usual version of this trope, with such a vague diagnosis and such a vague cause—but brain fever was an actual, contemporary diagnosis made by actual doctors, and still is, under the more specific headings of "Encephalitis", "Meningitis", "Cerebritis", Scarlet Fever, and, as in the case of the brain fever in The Naval Treaty, possibly "stress-induced psychotic break".)
    • Played perfectly straight in "The Missing Three-Quarter", where the titular rugby player went missing because his Too Good for This Sinful Earth fiancee died of tuberculosis.
  • In one Doctor Who Eighth Doctor Adventures novel, Camera Obscura, the Doctor and his companions visit the Victorian era, and the Doctor is a bit under the weather and is recovering from having a sandbag dropped on him, and consequently his lungs crushed flat and his heart punctured by his broken ribs. He gets into a fight, goes ash-white and faints, and is suspected of having consumption. Note that he's kind of a prettyboy and his usual costume is a bottle-green frock coat, a cravat, a double-breasted waistcoat, etc., so it doesn't take much to make him look like a consumptive Victorian poet, which may have some connection to the fact he generally swoons an awful lot.
  • Parodied, or Played for Drama, in Dracula, depending on how you read the novel. In classic literature, tuberculosis was used as a stock disease. It was rarely referred to by name, but the symptoms were always the same: a young lady would become pale and sleepy, and a blush would show on her sickly face. When Van Helsing refuses to name Lucy's illness, the reader of the era would have assumed that she has tuberculosis. But actually, Van Helsing realizes that she's becoming a vampire.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has three consumptives: Johnny's brother Andy, neighbor Henny Gaddis, and Sergeant McShane's wife, Molly. Henny is the only one Francie actually meets, and she can't believe he's dying because he has such bright eyes and rosy cheeks.
  • In Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, the "Time of Isolation" is a period of history on the planet Barrayar when they were cut off from galactic society and regressed to a feudal society. In Komarr, Ekaterin Vorsoisson mentions that when girls pretend it's the Time of Isolation they always leave out all the bits about dying in childbirth or of dysentery. If they're ever dying romantically of a disease, "it's always an illness that makes you interestingly pale and everyone sorry and doesn't involve losing bowel control."
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell:
    • Subverted by Lady Pole. Superficially she would have appeared to have something like TB (exhaustion, languor, weight-loss, depression, etc.) but in fact, she was being harassed (i.e. slowly tortured to death by being forced to dance, night after night) by faeries. Quite a few people were seriously worried about her health but her mother refused to hear a word of it. Stephen Black, meanwhile, has the same affliction, but notes that unlike Lady Pole (a wealthy white woman of high social standing) he, being a black servant, doesn't get the dignity of calling it an "illness" and is simply considered to be poorly disciplined.
    • Played straight, however, with the disease that kills Lady Pole in the first place- she's shown having a coughing fit, is pale, can't gather the strength to rise off her couch, and is never diagnosed because her mother never let her see a doctor (causing a number of doctors to sniff and say that while Mr. Norrell's feat of magic was impressive, if they'd been allowed to practice their trade he wouldn't have needed to bring her back to life at all).
  • This is precisely what Delicate and Sickly Peter dies of in the treacly 1982 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross novel Remember The Secret. He's even taken to heaven by angels.
  • In Crime and Punishment, Katerina Ivanovna dies of consumption after Marmeladov's funeral.
  • In Susann Cokal's Breath And Bones, Famke suffers from TB in a curious way - she coughs a lot, then coughs blood a lot, then gets treatment, and then it eventually returns...though it is not what actually kills her in the end.
  • Averted in Anthony Trollope's 47 novels in which the heroine is generally quite healthy and suffers only in agonizing over the choice of a beau. To be fair, however, Trollope wrote mostly about the middle classes while Dickens wrote mostly about the lower classes. Trollope doesn't avoid death, it's just that his characters die realistically and unsentimentally - when they die on stage.
  • Averted—or perhaps subverted— in Betty MacDonald's The Plague And I which shows us what it was really like in a TB sanitarium.
  • Discussed in Sense and Sensibility — overly romantic, teenage Marianne Dashwood initially considers the thirty-five-year-old Colonel Brandon to be decrepit, citing his complaints of joint pain on a rainy day. Her more practical sister Elinor remarks that if he'd been flushed and hollow-eyed from a life-threatening fever, Marianne would have found that attractive.
  • One one-scene character in Sharpe's Regiment is a streetwalker by the name of Belle, who's got terminal tuberculosis. Sharpe spots the symptoms straight away.
    She had a scarf wrapped about a thin face that was bright-eyed with consumption. It was odd, he thought, how the dying consumptives went through a period of lucent beauty before their lungs coughed up the bloody lumps and they died in racking agony.
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin contains an absolutely textbook example of both this and Too Good for This Sinful Earth in the person of little Eva St. Clare. Fortunately, it drops in plenty of general tips about education, evangelism and (of course) equality along the way.
  • Exploited, Reconstructed and played with every which way in The Essex Serpent; Reverend Ransome's narratively doomed wife Stella is sick with tuberculosis and everyone is very much of the opinion that being Too Good for This Sinful Earth suits her to the ground; she feels closer to God and more in love with her family as a result of it. It also contrasts her with the solid, earthy, Iron Woobie heroine Cora. However, far from being The Disease That Shall Not Be Named, the characters (including a surgeon) talk frankly about TB and its symptoms, treatment and prognosis in line with the (carefully researched) medical knowledge of the era.
  • In the world of The Locked Tomb the Seventh House is prone to a distinctive form of hereditary blood cancer (possibly related to Ali Macgraw's notoriously photogenic leukemia in Love Story) that gives its sufferers a morbid beauty. (There is also a practical benefit - Seventh House necromancers can power their magic with the death energy of their own terminal illnesses.)
  • Lay Down Your Arms has a notable aversion. The Althaus estate is hit by an epidemic of a disease that is explicitly named as - no, not tuberculosis - cholera, another killer disease of the age, and its ugly effects on the patients aren't glossed over. And nine people on the estate contract the disease and die in the span of a single week, with the protagonist staying healthy by nothing but dumb luck.
  • Frankenstein: A pre-Victorian example exists through Victor's nervous illness that he comes down with after the horrifying night where he creates the monster.
  • In the backstory of The Goblin Emperor, the protagonist's beloved mother, the Empress Chenelo, died in her mid-twenties of an unspecified lingering wasting disease.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The BBC writers inserted examples into Lark Rise to Candleford. The Post Office inspector takes sick after storming out of the post office having caught Dorcas in the act of providing Irish labourers with out-of-hours service. He faints, falls off his horse and is rescued, brought into the post office in a delirium burbling about his lost love Helena (or Eleanor, it's not clear which). A similar thing happens with Thomas Brown, played for laughs, when he falls off his bicycle in high dudgeon over Miss Ellison's treatment of her brother, and Cabbage Patterson's wife takes to her bed and allows the constable to woo Pearl Pratt. None of these episodes are in the original book.
  • Parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch: the faux-Dickensian adventures of "Miles Copperthwaite" (Michael Palin). Laraine Newman portrayed a brave, dying girl — who seems to have been bravely dying for ages.
  • Also parodied in The Goes Wrong Show. When Robert has to rapidly explain the whole plot of the Generational Saga "Summer Once Again" in six minutes (having eaten up the show's airtime by resetting after mistakes in the first scene), it turns out most of the characters are secretly dying. In keeping with the Cornley Amateur Dramatic Society's talent for picking hacky potboiler scripts, the disease is typhoid—which, while deadly and period-appropriate, is a far more acute illness that would not progress over decades.


  • In Charles Hubert Millevoye's highly popular early-nineteenth-century poem "La chute des feuilles" ("The Falling of the Leaves"), in which a sick young man wanders mournfully in the woods musing on his upcoming death, the illness is not specified, but is likened to a flower withered by a cold blast of wind.

  • Bleak Expectations: Parodied to merry hell and back with Flora Diesearly, who Pip Bin meets, falls in love with instantly, and after a long engagement marries, at which point Flora comes down with frequent fainting spells, which soon render her bedridden, and are eventually diagnosed as being the dread hand of Non-Specific Weakness, which is potentially fatal. Pip's attempts to cure it wind up causing Flora Diesearly to... die early.

    Tabletop Games 
  • A GURPS technology supplement for steampunk campaigns has controlled inoculation with tuberculosis as a method for rich women to look suitably wan and feeble and hence, attractive. The squick is intentional.
  • While Deadlands has killed Vanessa Hellstromme in several ways, a mysterious terminal lung disease that made her delicate and weak, but no less beautiful, has factored in on multiple occasions. While it should have been diagnosable by the early 19th century, everything else about Vanessa's disease looks like classic fictional depictions of tuberculosis.


  • Fantine in Les Misérables dies of an unspecified disease (identified in the novel as consumption/tuberculosis) and passes shortly after singing a beautiful song to her absent daughter. Unlike most examples, she is certainly not chaste (she had been employed as a prostitute for weeks before) nor traditionally beautiful (she's already had her hair chopped off and teeth removed, although the number of the latter depends on the production and is almost always Hand Waved as her back teeth so that they don't have to perform dental work on an actress every night). In the film, she is barely able to sing and coughs the whole way down.
  • Verdi's opera La Traviata was loosely based on The Lady of the Camellias, so it's no surprise that lead female Violetta Valery suffers from this kind of thing.
  • Another operatic use of this trope is Mimi in La Bohème. She faints immediately after first entering Rodolfo's apartment; he sees her pale complexion and falls in love. In the end, not surprisingly, she dies from consumption/tuberculosis.
  • The operatic version of this trope was mocked by Anna Russell in "Anaemia's Death Scene." Anaemia, about to die of TB, claims to have no breath and no strength, but her singing defies her own description.
  • In The Saint of Bleecker Street by Gian-Carlo Menotti, Annina dies of a disease that makes her face look increasingly pale and otherworldly. Her visible wounds are supposed to be the stigmata.

    Video Games 

    Visual Novels 
  • The Pale Bride of Analogue: A Hate Story suffered a non-Victorian version of the trope. Though the exact nature of her disease is left ambiguous, it compromised her immune system and left her with only a few years to live. The situation was so bleak that her father opted to place her in suspended animation instead. When the mysterious girl was awakened centuries later, culture and technology had regressed so severely aboard the ship that her new adoptive family simply couldn't grasp that she was ill. All they saw was an unusually pale, beautiful girl.

  • In Next Town Over, Markus thinks that Vane Black looks faint and pale and might have consumption. Given her previously revealed antics, this is improbable.

     Web Original 
  • Discussed in the Overly Sarcastic Productions video on Dracula, where Red takes a moment from the summary to describe how Victorian romantic heroines had an alarming tendency to get sick, usually with tuberculosis, so the audience for Dracula would have seen Lucy's sudden sickness as more of the same- and thus get blindsided by the twist that it is both serious and plot-relevant- Lucy is suffering from anemia because Dracula's been feeding from her.

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of Drawn Together had Princess Clara contract "the consumption".

    Real Life 
  • TB was responsible for around 1-out-of-5 deaths in late 1800s UK, mostly affecting the urban poor.
  • Marie Duplessis, the famous French courtesan who inspired La dame aux camelias and by extension La Traviata, really did die of tuberculosis, and her last two lovers stayed with her until the end.
  • It was considered fashionable and romantic for young women to seem sickly. To achieve this, many turned to morphine. Some scholars have suggested that tight-lacing became fashionable in part because it mimicked the symptoms of tuberculosis.
  • It has been commented that tuberculosis lent itself for literary treatment in the 19th century because its symptoms are such that they can be aestheticized, while this is not so easy with other great killers of that era like typhoid or especially cholera, where victims die of dehydration as their bodily fluids unappetizingly leave the body via the ... end of the digestive tract. However, these are mentioned in a few later literary works, such as typhoid in Buddenbrooks and cholera in Love in the Time of Cholera and The Horseman on the Roof. The latter novel contains horrifying descriptions, prettied up a lot in the movie version.
  • Many examples of the Goth fashion aesthetic, as well as aspects of the Emo look, can be interpreted as a person who is very much alive trying to look like someone who is dying of Victorian Novel Disease.
  • Anton Chekhov, John Keats, Fryderyk Chopin, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Brontë sisters all had young deaths that were, at the very least, attributed to tuberculosis. Their deaths led to the popular notion of "consumption" being the disease of bohemian artists. There was even a romantic idea that the disease made creative geniuses even more creative during the time they had left. Lord Byron once commented that, "I should like to die from consumption." Instead, Byron died of a less romantic septic infection, though it could also be said that he died a cooler death, as his infection came while he was busy fighting for the Greeks against the Ottoman Empire.


Video Example(s):


Cinderella's Mother's Death

Cinderella's mother dies of an unnamed, mysterious yet beautiful disease.

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Main / VictorianNovelDisease

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