December 2012

Mary Mann


On Being Ill with Notes from Sick Rooms by Virginia Woolf and Julia Stephen

"Considering how common illness is... it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature."

So begins "On Being Ill," an essay written by Virginia Woolf, in 1925, during one of her own many bouts of illness, and reprinted in a new edition from Paris Press. Woolf was at different times in her life diagnosed with influenza, pneumonia, and something called a "tired heart." In the essay's introduction, Hermione Lee speculates that Woolf may have had a "chronic febrile or tubercular illness." Whatever it was, Woolf spent long stretches of her life in bed with fevers and headaches, always accompanied by agitation or depression -- part of the mental instability that eventually resulted in her suicide.

Whether her mental sickness contributed to her physical sickness or vice versa, there is no question that Woolf found creative inspiration in being ill. She writes that while ill she is unburdened of all normal responsibilities and distractions. She can read the books she wants without a critical eye or guilt for her choices. She can stare out the window and admire the world. She dreams and hallucinates when her fever is high. In sickness her thoughts wander through a mind that is like "a snowfield where even the print of birds' feet is unknown." Reading this essay also shines a light on Woolf's works of fiction, which often feature bouts of illness -- whether fatigue or hallucination, physical or mental -- as "moments of being" in an otherwise normal life.

Woolf notes that one of her favorite illness pastimes is gazing at the sky, something that would be an annoyance to pedestrians if she were to do it on the street while well. Two pages of "On Being Ill" are devoted to a gorgeous exploration of a changing sky, the clouds and light, and in her ill and admiring state she is perplexed that people don't talk about this daily show more often. "Ought not someone to write to The Times?" she wonders.

Paris Press has paired Woolf's lovely essay with another essay on illness from the point of view of the caregiver. "Notes from Sick Rooms" is by Woolf's mother, Julia Stephen, who wrote a few practical pieces and many letters over the course of her productive life as a caregiver. Notably, Stephen also values a view of the sky as being beneficial for an ill person. While Woolf's description is pure poetry, Stephen is the very soul of practicality: "A looking-glass so placed that it can reflect the sky and trees... will be a refreshment to the eyes." She then sweeps on as the no-nonsense mother of eight that she was, instructing nurses to warm clothes and towels before touching them to the patient, how to skim the grease off of a cup of beef tea, and how to make and remake a bed with utmost caution so as to guard against the "torment of crumbs."

In this second essay's introduction by Mark Hussey, the reader learns that Julia Stephen was devoted to caring for the sick, and when not looking after her own large family, she plunged herself into her community, visiting the poor and the suffering. Stephen was such a good caregiver that former patients were moved to tears by her memory even a decade after her death.       

All these good works kept Stephen busy, and a young Woolf soon found that falling ill was the only surefire way to get time alone with her beloved mother. Some of the comforts that Stephen describes in "Notes from Sick Rooms" seem tailored to Woolf's own symptoms, especially her delicate nerves. Indeed, there is a whole section titled "Nerves," as well as sections on potential causes of irritation, including "Crumbs," "Fancies," "Visits," and "Noises." Every minute detail is covered in earnest, from the importance of hollowing the palm inward when cupping a patients head to the need to remove all stray hairs from a brush before taking it to a patient's head, because "few things are more aggravating than to have a long hair brought slowly over the face each time the brush comes round."

Stephen's simple -- sometimes humorous -- writing is like a cup of palate-cleansing sorbet after the complex richness of Woolf's prose. The combination of styles is a pleasing balance, and for this alone these essays work well together. Dr. Rita Charon writes in the afterword that the combination of these essays into one volume is especially valuable for her because it illustrates so well the dual roles of the caregiver: to try to anticipate all the patient's needs, while at the same time acknowledging that the patient is having a personal experience that no one else can possibly understand -- every illness, like every person, is different.

An excellent read for both nurses and patients, this is also a book about mothers and daughters. The things that Woolf appreciates in sickness (even in her forties) are also the privileges of childhood: reading whatever she wants, staring up at the sky, long hours of doing nothing in particular. As a child her illnesses provided the only opportunity to get the undivided attention of her mother, and as an adult she enjoys the care that others lavish on her when ill because it gives her the feeling of "maternal protection which, for some reason, is what I have always most wished from everyone."

Stephen seems to get a similar amount of pleasure out of mothering as Woolf gets from being mothered. Her descriptions of caregiving are satisfying in their simplicity and practicality. Back-rubbing is an art. Reading people to sleep requires continuing for a time after they fall asleep, to insure they stay that way. Washing the ill's feet or putting flowers in their rooms is an easy way to make them feel a lot better. The boundaries between nurse and mom blur. This mother-and-child dynamic gives the work a timeless quality, relatable to everyone who's ever had or been a mom. In Stephen's words, illness has "much of the leveling power of death" -- everything is irrelevant, except love.

On Being Ill with Notes from Sick Rooms by Virginia Woolf and Julia Stephen, introductions by Hermione Lee and Mark Hussey, afterword by Rita Charon
Paris Press
ISBN: 978-1930464131
160 pages