cover image On Being Ill: with Notes from Sick Rooms by Julia Stephen

On Being Ill: with Notes from Sick Rooms by Julia Stephen

Virginia Woolf. Paris Press (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-930464-13-1

“In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality,” writes Woolf, and she proves her observation correct in this essay (originally published in 1930), which leaps from observations of clouds to heaven to Shakespeare in stream-of-consciousness prose that, by design, borders on delirium. Her immersion in this mental state rings all the clearer for its contrast, in this edition, with “Notes from Sick Rooms,” an essay written by Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen in 1883. While Woolf believes illness in literature should be no less stirring than war or love, her mother offers gentle instruction on things like pillows, baths, and the omnipresent scourge of crumbs, in what amounts to a nurse’s how-to guide. Hermione Lee’s introduction provides much appreciated context for Woolf’s essay, though at 34 pages to Woolf’s 28, it seems unnecessarily long-winded. Separating the two original texts is Mark Hussey’s introduction to Stephen’s essay, which notes that Stephens died when Woolf was 13, one potential explanation for the profound isolation Woolf experiences in illness. The book closes with a more personal note from internist Rita Charon, founder and director of Columbia University’s Program of Narrative Medicine. In the conjunction of the two essays, Charon finds “the necessary equilibrium between knowledge and feeling.” The book may have a surplus of commentary, but Woolf and Stephen will certainly change the way readers think of illness. (Nov.)