← Return to On Being Ill


Excerpts from On Being Ill with Notes from Sick Rooms


From On Being Ill

Finally, to hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way. The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out. Probably it will be something laughable. For who of English birth can take liberties with the language? To us it is a sacred thing and therefore doomed to die, unless the Americans, whose genius is so much happier in the making of new words than in the disposition of the old, will come to our help and set the springs aflow. Yet it is not only a new language that we need, more primitive, more sensual, more obscene, but a new hierarchy of the passions; love must be deposed in favour of a temperature of 104; jealousy give place to the pangs of sciatica; sleeplessness play the part of villain, and the hero become a white liquid with a sweet taste — that mighty Prince with the moths’ eyes and the feathered feet, one of whose names is Chloral.

But to return to the invalid. “I am in bed with influenza” — but what does that convey of the great experience; how the world has changed its shape; the tools of business grown remote; the sounds of festival become romantic like a merry-go-round heard across far fields; and friends have changed, some putting on a strange beauty, others deformed to the squatness of toads, while the whole landscape of life lies remote and fair, like the shore seen from a ship far out at sea, and he is now exalted on a peak and needs no help from man or God, and now grovels supine on the floor glad of a kick from a housemaid — the experience cannot be imparted and, as is always the way with these dumb things, his own suffering serves but to wake memories in his friends’ minds of their influenzas, their aches and pains which went unwept last February, and now cry aloud, desperately, clamorously, for the divine relief of sympathy. [pp. 6–9]


From Notes from Sick Rooms

Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery which it can cause, though the smallest in size, is crumbs. The origin of most things has been decided on, but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer. I will forbear to give my own explanation, which would be neither scientific nor orthodox, and will merely beg that their evil existence may be recognized and, as far as human nature allows, guarded against. The torment of crumbs should be stamped out of the sick bed as if it were the Colorado beetle in a potato field. Anyone who has been ill will at once take her precautions, feeble though they will prove. She will have a napkin under her chin, stretch her neck out of bed, eat in the most uncomfortable way, and watch that no crumbs get into the folds of her nightdress or jacket. When she lies back in bed, in the vain hope that she may have baffled the enemy, he is before her: a sharp crumb is buried in her back, and grains of sand seem sticking to her toes. If the patient is able to get up and have her bed made, when she returns to it she will find the crumbs are waiting for her. The housemaid will protest that the sheets were shaken, and the nurse that she swept out the crumbs, but there they are, and there they will remain unless the nurse determines to conquer them. To do this she must first believe in them, and there are few assertions that are met with such incredulity as the one — I have crumbs in my bed. After every meal the nurse should put her hand into the bed and feel for the crumbs. When the bed is made, the nurse and housemaid must not content themselves with shaking or sweeping. The tiny crumbs stick in the sheets, and the nurse must patiently take each crumb out; if there are many very small ones, she must even wet her fingers, and get the crumbs to stick to them. The patient’s night-clothes must be searched; crumbs lurk in each tiny fold or frill. They go up the sleeve of the night-gown, and if the patient is in bed when the search is going on, her arms should hang out of bed, so that the crumbs which are certain to be there may be induced to fall down. When crumbs are banished — that is to say, temporarily, for with each meal they return, and for this the nurse must make up her mind — she must see that there are no rucks in the bed-sheets. A very good way of avoiding these is to pin the lower sheet firmly down on the mattress with nursery pins, first stretching the sheet smoothly and straightly over the mattress. [pp. 57–59]


From Hermione Lee's Introduction to On Being Ill

On Being Ill, one of Virginia Woolf’s most daring, strange, and original essays, has more subjects than its title suggests. Like the clouds which its sick watcher, "lying recumbent," sees changing shapes and ringing curtains up and down, this is a shape-changing essay, unpredictably metamorphosing through different performances. It "treats" not only illness, but language, religion, sympathy, solitude, and reading.… And, hiding behind the essay, is a love-affair, a literary quarrel, and a great novel in the making. This net or web (one of the key images here) of subjects comes together in an essay which is at once autobiography, social satire, literary analysis, and an experiment in image-making. By its sleight-of-hand and playfulness, and its appearance of having all the "space and leisure" in the world for allusion and deviation, it gallantly makes light of dark and painful experiences. [pp. xiii–xiv]


From Mark Hussey's Introduction to Notes from Sick Rooms

'We think back through our mothers, if we are women,' Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own.… Bringing together Woolf’s On Being Ill and Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms in a single volume gives us an extraordinary opportunity to hear a kind of dialogue between Woolf and her mother, who died when she was just thirteen. Stephen’s detailed manual of instruction — for those who find themselves caring for a sick person — foreshadows the wit and sharp observation that is so characteristic of her famous daughter’s style.… In On Being Ill, Woolf laments that literature has largely neglected the "daily drama of the body" during illness. Notes from Sick Rooms is filled with commentary on that very drama, played out every hour in the presence of the nurse caring for that body. [p. 33]


From Rita Charon's Afterword

Reading On Being Ill immediately after reading Notes from Sick Rooms reproduces for me, a general internist, the precarious interior balance I try to achieve when seeing patients. I am pretty sure that neither text by itself could have done so. Instead, either one might have thrown its weight behind one extreme or the other of the many polarities that swing through clinical practice, making all the more elusive the necessary equilibrium between knowledge and feeling, the singular and the universal, the private and the public, the embroiled and the safe, and the body and the self that every nurse or doctor or social worker or therapist seeks. But together, these Stephen women wrote me into a shocking recognition of exactly what it feels like to be in the presence of a sick person in my care. [p. 109]