A Literary Death  

When the Romantic imagination collided with the harsh reality of TB, it transformed the disease into a metaphor.

Death from consumption - at least among the educated classes - became an aesthetic experience, the long-drawn-out separation of body and spirit allowing hope and despair to take their turn upstage.

Two of the best-loved operas in the canon, La Traviata and La Bohème, take full advantage of this God-given plotline.

TB also seemed to pick the finest among poets, novelists and aesthetes. Those who fell victim included the Brontë sisters, Chekhov, Chopin, Dostoevsky, Goethe, Heine, Kant, Keats, Rousseau, Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson and - when the disease was on its knees - George Orwell.

The "index case" of literary TB has to be a young girl from Normandy, Marie Duplessis, sold by her father at the age of 15 to a male protector. Two years later, she had become the most famous courtesan in Paris. She died at 23 and would have been forgotten but for one of her lovers of the heart, Alexandre Dumas, fils.

He wrote her life story as a tear-jerking novel, La Dame aux Camélias, transformed by Verdi into La Traviata, an opera of such beauty, balance and sheer tunefulness that it has never been out of the repertoire.

Great sopranos, including Maria Callas, have built whole careers singing the role of the consumptive courtesan and it never fails to move.

A later generation of TB sufferers who were sent to remove sanatoriums found literary immortality through Thomas Mann. His wife spent six months in a sanatorium in Davos in 1912. From this brief experience came The Magic Mountain, a novel that hardly cast Davos or its fresh-air cures in a favourable light.

The 1940s saw the last of the literary victims of TB. The French philosopher Simone Well died in 1943 in Ashford, Kent, hastening her end by starving herself to share the pain of the occupied French.

She had fought with the anarchist militia in Spain, proving herself almost as inept a soldier as Orwell. She stepped in a pan of hot cooking oil and sensibly retired from the front.

Orwell might have planned his life in order to die from TB. Constantly neglectful of his health and embracing squalor to write Down and Out In Paris And London, he sequestered himself in a remote and uncomfortable farmhouse on Jura in the winter of 1946, when he already suffered from the disease and again in 1948, when he wrote 1984.

Orwell died in January 1950, despite the intervention of David Astor, editor of The Observer, who arranged for supplies of streptomycin to treat him. Had he lived but a little longer, he would have been saved by newer drugs.

- The Times