If you ever want to know what it was like to live with tuberculosis before antibiotics, read Sheila Rothman’s Living in the Shadow of Death. Rothman’s book spans 1810-1940, but a historical novelist can apply the stories to any era.
What was most riveting was part II, the story of Deborah Vinal Fiske, a New England woman who died at the age of 38 in 1844. Even though I was aware Deborah’s ultimate fate, I was fascinated by her story of how she tried to fulfill her duties as a wife and mother even as the disease robbed her of energy, reduced her voice to a whisper, and ultimately consumed her body.
I checked out this book from my university library when I first starting working on my novel about Queen Fastrada, Charlemagne’s fourth wife. She died young, but her illness is unknown. At first, I thought tuberculosis would be a good choice because it is unfamiliar to most of us in the West, but I decided against this disease because it is so contagious. Charles, who lived many years after her death, would not have stayed away from her. Nor would anyone else in the household.
But I could not let the information I gleaned go to waste. Thanks to this book, I learned that tuberculosis is a chronic but erratic disease. A patient could go into remission for years, and then the disease would resurface. So now it resides in my novel The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. The merchant who buys Leova (my heroine) interprets the return of his illnesses after years of remission as a warning from God, one that alters Leova’s situation.
The disease might make an appearance in my third book, after all. I recently read a scholarly paper speculating that Charles’s first wife, Himiltrude, was involved in eldest son Pepin’s rebellion against his father. Himiltrude lived 35-40 years and was buried at Nivelles. Now, if her cause of death was an illness…