Bestselling Author Wilbur Smith Has died in South Africa, aged 88. He wrote some 49 books, including the Courtney series and one that I have only just finished, ‘River God,’ the first in his Ancient Egypt series.
Bizarrely, the idea that Branwell Brontë had sex with his sister Emily appears to have been more palatable than the idea that he might have given her tuberculosis – or that the infection might have passed to Anne from either sibling. Those documenting the lives of the Brontës since the late 19th century have been curiously reluctant to acknowledge this fact.
Branwell, Emily, and Anne all died from various forms of tuberculosis between September 1848 and May 1849. All three had lived together at Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire with their sister Charlotte (who managed to last until 1855 when she too succumbed to tuberculosis). Branwell and Emily died there, and Anne died on a final trip to Scarborough, where she is buried.
We know today that tuberculosis is contagious, and particularly so between family members living in close quarters. Yet the idea that one Brontë sibling might have infected or been infected by another still seems to be taboo in Brontë biography and adaptation.
Only Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë (2015) and Beth Torgerson’s Reading The Brontë Body (2005) have suggested the possibility of infection, even briefly. So how and why has contagion largely been written out of the story of Branwell’s, Emily’s and Anne’s deaths?
The contagion taboo
The way we think about tuberculosis has changed dramatically since Robert Koch discovered the tubercle bacillus in 1882. As Katherine Byrne has explained in Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination, before Koch’s discovery “consumption” had often been thought of as a “mysterious, ethereal wasting disease”. It became “an identifiable bacterial infection” by the end of the 19th century, and this was also when the term “tuberculosis” started to replace “consumption”.
By the mid-20th century, the tuberculosis sufferer was no longer thought of as delicate or exceptional. Now that the infection could be clearly seen in X-rays, and treated with often brutal surgery, the tubercular body seemed much less Romantic. TB was a public health problem, and those who contracted it often faced isolation and social stigma.
Yet in this same period, biographies about the Brontës described their deaths from rather personal, individual illness, as though the discoveries made about the disease in the intervening century had never happened. The “consumption” from which the siblings died in these accounts often seems to have little in common with the disease which was by then commonly known as tuberculosis.
In 1947 alone, Ernest Raymond, Laura L Hinkley and Phyllis Bentley all told a story which stressed Branwell’s alcoholism, Emily’s grief, and Anne meekly following her two siblings to the grave. These biographers, and many more in the late 1940s and the 1950s, stressed both weather and emotion as causes of death. They created an aura of predestined tragedy around the Brontës which proved difficult to displace in the years which followed.
Films and TV dramas showed the same causes for the Brontës’ deaths. Granada TV’s The Brontës of Haworth (1973) has Branwell’s burial immediately followed by Emily clasping the table as a whistling wind comes in through the parsonage door. She coughs, sickens and dies, and Anne quietly follows.
Andre Téchiné’s Les Sœurs Brontë (1979) portrays an unusually close relationship between Branwell and Emily throughout. So when Branwell dies, Emily is emotionally, not bacterially, infected. She puts on his coat and sobs until her sobs become coughs. She is soon on her deathbed refusing the doctor, while Anne stands timidly in the hallway, meekly taking her own medicine from a spoon.
In 2016, BBC Two’s documentary Being the Brontës described the sisters’ “frail bodies” giving up on them “so young,” again suggesting a kind of fatalism about their deaths. Carl Barnes’s brilliantly funny musical Wasted, however, seems to deliberately reference the sheer absurdity of so much death in one family. Branwell is handed copies of his sisters’ published works and then immediately dies. Emily sings that she is a “Goth before my time” and then dies. Anne laments a miserable life in which she has never been touched by a desiring hand – and then dies.
Whether with surreal humour or with pathos, the Brontës’ deaths have often been presented as though they were all characters in a novel. It seems as though we want Emily, in particular, to have died because she was ready to do so, or because a tragic fate willed that it was her time.
A little more reality
Perhaps the more mundane suggestion that one sibling caught the disease from another, or from anyone else, undermines the idea that the Brontës were as unique or Romantic as we have often liked to think.
Wasted contains swearing, anachronism, and sexual references. Sally Wainwright’s To Walk Invisible (2016) also invited us to contemplate the Brontës with Yorkshire accents, and a swearing, drug-addled Branwell. There seems to be space now for a less reverential, Romanticised approach to the siblings. Perhaps it is time to accept that the Brontës didn’t die from melancholy, weather, or death wishes, but because they were infected with bacteria.
A drama or biography which allowed this possibility would open up some fascinating new ways to think about the Brontës and their work. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of contagion theories and the rabies virus in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, but there is still more to be said about contagion, disease, and the Brontës.
All three sisters wrote about “consumptive” characters, from Jane Eyre’s Helen Burns to Wuthering Heights’s Frances Hindley to Agnes Grey’s labourer Mark Wood. Widening our understanding of tuberculosis in the lives of these extraordinary women would help us to read their novels afresh.
Author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin has been the subject of critical debate, analysis and discussion for generations. She died this week at the age of 88.
Le Guin published her first paid work April in Paris in the September 1962 issue of the magazine Fantastic Stories of the Imagination – and I am the proud owner of an original copy. I am a lifelong Le Guin fan, but also an academic exploring how science fiction is a cultural artefact that acts as a lens on changing attitudes and specific issues of its time. For me, Le Guin hit the sweet spots of her time powerfully and frequently.
Le Guin explored what it is to be human, faults and all, and the impact and influence of her work is undeniable in the world of fantasy and science fiction.
I first encountered Le Guin as a child through the Earthsea Cycle, and it set the bar high for what I considered ever after to be good fantasy literature, leaving me disappointed by many otherwise quite respectable authors.
A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was the first of three books exploring the life of Ged, a young wizard. Spoiler alert: Ged grows and matures into an adult, starting with his attendance at a secretive wizarding school, where he is scarred on the face by a dark power (which he discovered is inextricably linked to him) and that he later defeats.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not the first to note it. Regarding the story of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin didn’t say that J.K. Rowling “ripped me off” in her Harry Potter series, but felt that Rowling should have been “more gracious about her predecessors”.
In the Earthsea series, we are introduced to the complex responsibilities of becoming an adult, and asked to consider the values of life and the nature of death. It’s heavy, but significant and humanly realistic reading for a teenager.
Professionalism and style
Le Guin was fiercely protective and supportive of other authors. In 1973, she made a humorous critique of the problems faced by writers trying to make their worlds fantastical and strange in From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, encouraging and emphasising the importance of appropriate style.
Style is something Le Guin seemed to be able to master effortlessly and consistently. I consider her short story Semley’s Necklace – first published in 1964 and later included in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters – to be the finest of its kind in fantasy writing, its crystalline prose equal to Semley’s tragic fate.
Le Guin maintained an interest in encouraging writers and sharing her art. I have an original and much-thumbed copy of the elegantly titled (and naturally masterfully written) Steering the Craft: a 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, published in 1998: it didn’t make me a better writer, but it made me respect and appreciate the craft of writing.
For me, Le Guin has been such a powerful influence in science fiction and fantasy literature that I can’t imagine how it might have developed without her.
The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, inspired and informed a generation of gender writing in fantasy and science fiction. Yet, in her 1976 introduction to this novel, Le Guin maintained that androgyny was not what she considered the theme of the book – it was more to do with essential human feelings about fidelity and betrayal. Her employment of what were to become tropes of science fiction and fantasy was in service of the story, not the other way around, and this was a characteristic of her work.
More than many other author, she employed language, culture and concept in service of writing significant stories about the condition of being human.
Where writer Philip K Dick might be considered the expert of the “what if” scenario in science fiction, for me Le Guin is the expert at “what is?” She asked questions about our nature, aims and desires. She was consistently writing at the coalface of cultural change, or anticipating it.
Her short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, written in 1973 is a devastating, slow-burn exposition of the implications of taking the utilitarian route in our exploitative relationships with other people.
The power of this writing has only increased with time, as we become more aware of “ethical outsourcing” and labour inequalities. These are portrayed in the film The Last Train Home, where the lives of those in the “developed world” become more comfortable, but at the expense of people we don’t know and can’t see.
The Dispossessed, published in 1974, was my introduction to a reader-friendly explanation of comparative ideologies – I suspect it was the same for many people.
But it was also a story about scientists, and the duty they have to be responsible, ethical and honest. It is another very human story in which Le Guin skillfully portrays the difficulties of presenting complex concepts to an unwelcoming world – something that is still pertinent in an age of climate change denial, anti-vaccination lobbying and fake news.
Le Guin was not a universal fan of scientific progress, but always took a human perspective. She was horrified by the “deal with the devil” of the Google book digitisation project, which although a great technological innovation, she recognised as a potential assault on the rights of authors.
Le Guin was a prolific novelist, and I only realise how small a proportion of her work my collection includes when I look look her up on the Internet Science Fiction Database.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Le Guin consistently wrote thoughtful and artful science fiction and fantasy throughout her life, without becoming fixed in any particular style.
Like Ged in Earthsea, she matured gracefully and elegantly with age, and continued to be powerful force and influence in the world of science fiction and fantasy writing.
The world has lost a great and influential writer and humanist. When I heard the news of her death I was heartbroken.
By now most people familiar with books and authors will know that Tom Clancy has died. Tom Clancy wrote the Jack Ryan series of novels, including ‘The Hunt for Red October,’ ‘Patriot Games’ and ‘Clear and Present Danger.’ He was perhaps the author I favoured most and he will be sadly missed.
The links below are to articles that report on the life and death of Tom Clancy.
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