Date of Award

Fall 2022

Document Type

Open Access Thesis


English Language and Literatures


School of Information Science

First Advisor

Rebecca Stern


Disease was a constant and unavoidable facet of life in British society during the Victorian Era. Despite the overwhelming prevalence of disease, the true cause of these illnesses remained mysterious until the turn of the century. With the origins of many of these diseases being either unknown or ascribed to mistaken sources, effective treatment was an impossibility. Tuberculosis is a prime example of this conundrum. Even with an estimated twenty-five percent of the British population dying from this particular disease during the nineteenth century, the actual provenance for infection was not discovered until 1882 with Robert Koch’s identification of the tuberculosis bacillus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

It is unsurprising, given the scourge of tuberculosis, that this illness would be depicted in the art created during this time. By examining this art, we can learn how this disease was perceived before the acceptance of germ theory. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in 1851, exemplifies this mode of cultural anthropology. In Jane Eyre, the pivotal character of Helen Burns succumbs to tuberculosis. Helen’s death from tuberculosis exemplifies the societal conception of tuberculosis prior to Koch’s discovery, which places the disease in the realm of the spiritual rather than the temporal. Tuberculosis, typically, causes death after a slow deterioration of the body that left the mind intact, which gave rise to the notion that the sufferer was gradually leaving worldly plane for a heavenly one. The consumptive Helen Burns becomes a religious mystic who converts the titular Jane Eyre to Christianity and, thus, shapes the entirety of the novel’s plot. Brontë’s use of tuberculosis as a foundational element in Jane Eyre is unquestionably due to the pervasiveness of the affliction in not only Victorian society as a whole but in her own life, as well. Tuberculosis as a spirit-making disease is emblematic of the Victorian perception by and large.


© 2022, Haley Highfield