By Jessica M. E. Kirwan
The Journal of Emily Shore chronicles nine years in the life of a remarkably prolific and erudite young naturalist who died of tuberculosis at 19 years old. Published in 1891 by Shore’s sisters more than 50 years after Emily’s death, it includes 350 pages excerpted from a set of diaries amounting to over 1,200 pages. Shore begins her diaries from her home in Woodbury, England, a few years before contracting tuberculosis, and it ends just days before her painful death in Madeira, Portugal. Shore’s life was rich in a variety of experiences, but one of the most intriguing aspects of the journal is how it develops from a text principally about natural history to one about coping with illness. In this way, it can contribute to our understanding of the network of knowledge that sustained the popular belief that landscape and geography can alleviate the symptoms of illness.
Owing to the entire family’s general poor health, the Shores were frequently on the move. Although principally residing in Woodbury most of her young life, Emily also occasionally retreated to the seaside in addition to living in Hastings, Exeter, Devonshire, and Funchal, Portugal, until finally settling in Madeira, Portugal, among a community of English citizens with tuberculosis. In the early nineteenth century, the cause of consumption was unknown and its rise in industrial cities prompted theories that specific environments could help or hinder its natural progression. A change in geography or landscape was a common prescription for many mysterious Victorian illnesses thought to be caused or exacerbated by the cold, damp environment of England and its industrial pollution. Throughout her life, Shore wavered in her opinions on the healthfulness of specific environments. Regarding the seaside, for example, she at one time believed it would restore her to health, but soon later said that sea air is stunting, showing a certain skepticism towards environmental prescriptions to illness.1
In the case of tuberculosis, doctors could do little to prevent its progression. As medicine, in general, became increasingly concerned with quantitative research to determine disease incidence and treatment in the early nineteenth century, doctors began to rely on epidemiological studies that analyzed earlier tuberculosis epidemics in specific geographic regions. As Alan Bewell has explained, “Having made disease a geographical phenomenon, physicians were very much concerned with constructing and interpreting landscapes, with indicating those aspects of the environment that produced dangerous airs.”2 As a result, physicians began to prescribe geographic treatments based on deductions about the location of the data collection.
Victorians read such medical theories in periodicals like Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, a weekly magazine on history, religion, language, and science founded a year after Shore’s journal begins and to which she alludes in her diary. Scientific and medical topics were discussed in layman’s terms in Chambers’s weekly magazine for general education, including topics like the “Geographical Distribution of Diseases,” with an account of the incidences of consumption in various nations.3 The data reported by Chambers’s came from military records recording disease incidence and weather observations. As a well-educated and scientifically inclined family, the Shores would have paid heed to medical advice in Chambers’s magazine, which stated in 1832 that a quarter of deaths in Great Britain in 1808 were attributable to consumption.3 Other articles in other issues of Chambers’s concerned themselves with the prevalence of disease in Great Britain compared to other European countries. Some articles in Chambers’ espoused the benefits of traveling for health while others warned of over-optimism for such treatments. For the consumptive considering traveling to Italy, for example, Chambers’s warned against humidity, which could expose the ill traveler to malaria and other diseases.4
Consumption was a recurring topic in Chambers’s journal not only in regard to its causes but also its incidence in relation to specific occupations and moral dispositions; tuberculosis-related mortality rates for different geographic locations seemed of primary concern to Chambers’s readers. It is within this context that traveling to improve the family’s overall health became a priority to the Shores. And despite some expressed apprehensions, Emily was hopeful that leaving England would elongate her life, even if she was never to return to her beloved home in Woodbury again: “I continue to be an excellent sailor, and enjoy myself thoroughly on board. My cough is almost gone, and I never wake up feverish and throbbing as I did in England.”1 Ultimately, Emily succumbed to the inexorable destiny of a sufferer of tuberculosis, but a view into her journal alongside the medical advice she read illustrates the geographic distance Victorians would go for a better quality of life.
- Shore, Emily. Journal of Emily Shore. Ed. Barabara Timm Gates. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1991. Print.
- Bewell, Alan. “Jane Eyre and Victorian Medical Geography.” The English Literary History. 63.3 (1996): 773-808. Print.
- “Geographical Distribution of Diseases.” Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal. 7 Oct 1832, pp. 307-308.
- “Italian and British Climate.” Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal. 1 Sept 1832, p. 244.