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Literarily sick

As anyone in the office here can tell you (honestly, maybe anyone within a 5-mile radius), I’ve been struck with one beauty of a head cold this week. I’ve gone through about 3 boxes of tissues and am finally able to (mostly) breathe out of my nose again! It’s a wonder!

But with all the hours spent lying down, drinking liquids and, of course, blowing my nose, I’ve had some time to ruminate on being sick. As you might remember, I’ve written already about my adolescent fascination with the galloping consumption, and though that’s obviously silly, it’s totally true that classic literature makes illness seem so glamorous. If not glamorous, then at least an indication of how delicate and pure the afflicted is.

Unless the sickness is used to indicate some sort of wrongdoing or as a comeuppance for a particularly deserving transgressor, there’s always some sort of quiet beauty to it. We never see the ugly side (for me, that’s the hacking cough and melodic sniffling I’ve been exhibiting) or really, any pain other than the emotional kind. And even then, it’s all very bittersweet.

I’m not talking about the more recent trend of serious illnesses (namely, cancer) that have been the subject of some acclaimed books in the recent years, à la Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That or John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, but more the kinds that seem to exist solely in the pages of old books.

Which is why this little slideshow delighted me so much. I’ve tried to explain what I mean by “literary diseases” to people in the past and have come up short. This is a pretty good list with some relatable examples. I know, of course, that these illnesses don’t appear anymore because we have since come up with new names or ways to cure them, but the impression they give still remains the same. That getting sick in the 19th century was more about mystery and fashion than it was about anything else. That it’s a really good way to get someone to fall in love with you—especially if you just happen to catch cold marching over to his estate in the rain and definitely have to stay over for a few days to recuperate (ahem, Elizabeth Bennett).

These days, getting a cold means taking a few Tylenol and lying down for a day. It’s not the be all end all focal point of a work of literature and certainly doesn’t get anyone fawning over you like you’re the purest and most doted upon soul that ever walked the earth. If only.

4 Responses to Literarily sick

  1. Jeremy Szal says:

    Sad to hear, Rachel. The best cure is to snuggle up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate and read, read, read.
    Get better soon!

  2. Bill says:

    Thanks for that link. I especially liked the reference to \”brain fever\” which for me is forever linked to the mental image of Tom Sawyer (or was it Huck Finn?) sitting at table with butter hidden under his hat and starting to melt down his face, causing his poor aunt to think his brains were leaking out!

  3. My husband and I always joke that if you emit a small cough in the first third of a classic novel, you\’ll be dead by the end.

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