In 2002, Paris Press, the Ashfield, Mass., nonprofit publisher, rescued a little-known work by Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill. The 64-page essay, originally published by Hogarth Press in 1930, about what it’s like to “cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright,” contained elements of autobiography and satire. As Woolf biographer Hermione Lee observed in the introduction, “it ‘treats’ not only illness, but language, religion, sympathy, solitude, and reading.... And, hiding behind the essays, is a love-affair, a literary quarrel, and a great novel in the making [To the Lighthouse].” To mark the first decade in print of the Paris Press edition, the press is reissuing On Being Ill in November in paperback for the first time in an expanded edition (to be reviewed in PW’s Oct. 15 issue)—and as its first e-book, due out later this year.
But the new paperback goes beyond reproducing the 2002 edition. It includes another long out-of-print essay, Notes from Sick Rooms by Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen, which was originally published in 1883 by Smith, Elder & Co. (Charlotte Brontë’s publisher). For Paris Press director Jan Freeman, the addition of the new material—which also includes an introduction to Notes from Sick Rooms by Woolf scholar Mark Hussey and an afterword by physician Rita Charon—has transformed the book into a “conversation in text” between Woolf and her mother (who died when Woolf was 13), patient and nurse. “There are wonderful parallels between the two texts,” said Freeman. “You learn about Woolf by reading Notes from Sick Rooms, and you learn about Woolf’s mother’s life. There’s a familiarity in [Woolf’s mother’s] voice. Woolf didn’t become a writer exclusively from the influence of her father.”
Stephen’s book is more than just a counterpart to her daughter’s work. Written as a guide for caregivers, the essay is one that Freeman found herself turning to recently during the illness of a close friend. Although she cautions readers about following Stephen’s suggestions too closely in the sections on food and remedies, which have information specific to 19th-century treatments, most of her other recommendations on lighting and dressing hold up today. Certainly there is still the “crumbs” problem, which Stephen identifies as “the greatest” of the small evils of illness. “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,” she writes.
To give the paperback a new look and feel, the anniversary edition has a new cover, yet with many of the same design elements as the original Vanessa Bell design used on both the Hogarth and the first Paris Press editions. And what Freeman described as “a ghost image” will appear on the inside cover of the paperback, which will have French flaps. At 160 pages, the trade paperback is more than double the size of the hardcover and will sell for $16. A first printing of 7,000 is planned.
As part of its funding efforts for the anniversary edition, Paris Press is relying on two sets of limited editions of the Woolf essays. The press is selling 30 “regular” ones with a unique paste-paper handsewn binding for $500, of which $350 is tax deductible. Five “deluxe” limited editions, which sell for $1,000, with a $700 tax deduction, are bound with boards and have two different paste papers, linen-covered cases, and the title in leather on the spine. Some are signed by both the printer and Hermione Lee.
Freeman will launch the anniversary edition with a reading by Hussey and Charon from their favorite passages in mid-November at Columbia University. She is also planning a panel for the Association of Writers & Writing conference in Boston in March, which will feature On Being Ill along with a celebration of the centennial of Muriel Rukeyser, whose The Life of Poetry, was the press’s first book. In addition, Paris Press is creating a study guide and reader’s guide for On Being Ill, and is in the midst of trying to obtain audio book rights. —J.R.