Views & Reviews Between the Lines

And in this manner he died

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 22 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1205
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, published in 1857, two years after its subject’s death, caused a controversy and produced the threat of several libel actions (there were changes to the second edition). One of the reasons for the controversy was Mrs Gaskell’s description of Miss Brontë’s death, which was thought at the time to be indecently graphic. Recently married, Charlotte Brontë was pregnant:

She was attacked by new sensations of perpetual nausea, and ever-recurring faintness . . . A wren would have starved on what she ate during those last six weeks . . . Martha [her maid] tenderly waited on her . . . and from time to time tried to cheer her with the thought of the baby that was coming.

From this it seems that she died of hyperemesis gravidarum (BMJ 2012;344:e567, doi:10.1136/bmj.e567), though her death certificate said phthisis, which is certainly what her sisters Emily and Anne died of. These two sisters had a distinctively different attitude to medical attention: Emily refused it completely; Anne accepted it. Of Emily, Charlotte wrote only eight days before her death, “her repugnance to seeing a medical man continues immutable­,—as she declares ‘no poisoning doctor’ shall come near her.”

Anne was altogether more tractable. She took all that was prescribed because “she was too unselfish to refuse trying means, from which, if she herself had little hope of benefit, her friends might hereafter derive a mournful satisfaction.” The means in question were cod liver oil: “She perseveres with the cod-liver oil, but still finds it very nauseous,” wrote Charlotte, the doctors having thus added to her symptomatology without saving her life: an old, but I hope not continuing, tradition.

At the beginning of the biography, Mrs Gaskell illustrates the forthright nature of the Yorkshire people among whom the Brontë sisters were born with a couple of anecdotes.

We [Mr and Mrs Gaskell] were driving along the street, when one of those ne’er-do-well lads who seem to have a kind of magnetic power for misfortunes, having jumped into the stream that runs through the place, just where all the broken glass and bottles are thrown, staggered naked and nearly covered with blood into a cottage before us. Besides receiving another bad cut in the arm, he had completely laid open the artery, and was in a fair way of bleeding to death—which, one of his relations comforted him by saying, would be likely to “save a deal o’ trouble.”

Then there was a squire who “died at his house, not many miles from Haworth” (the Brontës’ home):

His great amusement and occupation had been cock-fighting. When he was confined to his chamber with what he knew would be his last illness, he had his cocks brought up there, and watched the bloody battle from his bed. As his mortal disease increased, and it became impossible for him to turn so as to follow the combat, he had looking-glasses arranged in such a manner, around and above him, as he lay, that he could still see the cocks fighting. And in this manner he died.

This was hardly an instance of the good death of which our medieval ancestors once spoke, but of which we speak no longer. The modern equivalent of the Yorkshire squire’s death, I suppose, would be to die while playing a video game and sending last messages on Facebook.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1205