I am not ill very often and when I am it is generally a mild cold that requires I soldier on, something more dramatic like the flu in which I heave my guts out until there is nothing left and then fall into bed exhausted, or something completely out of left field like vertigo. It seems on the infrequent instances I find myself in bed I can never manage the sort of illness that lets me spend hours reading until my body recovers. Therefore Virginia Woolf’s essay, On Being Ill, is a foreign encounter for me. For Woolf, illness offers flights of creativity.
In this marvelous essay she begins by wondering why literature doesn’t include much about being ill. Obviously, she was writing before the misery memoir brought illness and knowledge of someone else’s bodily functions to a whole new level. Woolf wonders if part of the trouble in her day has something to do with a poverty of language to describe illness. Even today, aside from medical terminology, do we have any better vocabulary that doesn’t resort to metaphors left and right? Woolf does not dwell long here, however. She quickly moves on to describe the lonely business of being ill.
No one can truly understand how someone who is sick feels though those of us in the “army of the upright” attempt to offer sympathy, Woolf wants nothing to do with it. Sympathy is nothing but an illusion, “We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others,” so how can sympathy be real? I agree with her on this. When I don’t feel well I am like a sick animal who goes and hides in a cave except I hide in bed. I curl up in my misery and just want to be left alone. Except of course when I want something — more water please, or ginger ale, or a cracker to nibble on. But just give me what I want and then kindly disappear. When Bookman is unwell he is completely opposite. I will not say more though in the interest of marital harmony.
The rest of the essay is a literary flight of wonder in which Woolf moves us seamlessly along her train of thought. One moment we are enjoying the chance to lay and look at the sky through the window and notice all the tricks the clouds play — do they do that all the time? and if so, why don’t we ever notice? Then suddenly we are talking about roses. And next onto the topic of Heaven and how difficult it is for people to really imagine and believe in because if it were easy to create Heaven we’d all be leaping right into it off Beachy Head.
Woolf moves quickly into to how being ill makes the mind more receptive and how, when ill, one might suddenly understand a poem or passage in a book the meaning of which had previously eluded. But one must also be careful what sort of reading one chooses when ill. Madame Bovary is out but Shakespeare is delightful. Even more delightful is bad literature such as a novel by Augustus Hare. Woolf goes on for pages about Hare and finally closes with the haunting image of
the curtain, heavy, mid-Victorian, plush perhaps, was all crushed together where she had grasped it in her agony.
I’ve read On Being Ill before but it is now out in a new edition from Paris Press (a kind person there sent me a copy) and includes an essay by Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen, Notes From Sick Rooms. According to an introductory essay to Julia Stephen’s essay, Julia could truly be described as the Victorian “Angel in the House.” Her own marriage to Leslie Stephen was delayed so she could go take care of a sick relative. Woolf recalls wanting to be sick as a child so she could get attention from her mother who was always out taking care of other people.
While Woolf’s essay presents to us illness from the vantage of the unwell, Notes From Sick Rooms was written as a sort of nursing guide for those who were not professional nurses. Julia tells us all the things a good nurse should do from remaining calm and unflustered and quiet to how to give a bath, make the bed, brush hair, all the practical things one might do to ease the suffering of the ill. The best part of the essay is about crumbs in the bed. No matter how careful one might be to keep them from getting into bed, they always manage to find their way in. She advises nurses to always believe the patient when she says there are crumbs because there are few things that are as irritating and sure to make a patient uncomfortable.
Where Woolf believes sympathy is an illusion, her mother believed that a good nurse was completely sympathetic (though no pity please). Julia is not concerned with the patient’s mind or thoughts except as how it concerns keeping the sick calm and comfortable and able to rest. The body comes first. And oddly, though Woolf bemoans how literature is so concerned with the mind and not the body, her own essay on illness very quickly leaps from body to flights of the mind.
Paris Press did well to reissue On Being Ill and including with it Notes From Sick Rooms. Mother and daughter set up and interesting comparison and conversation in print. The book is a good afternoon’s reading and if you are a Woolf fan then it is a must have.