On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf

It’s no secret that Virginia Woolf is a favourite writer of mine; I’ve rambled on enough about her on the blog to make that abundantly clear. So whenever we have a club, I do cast around to see if there are any of her works that I can revisit (or indeed read for the first time!) as part of our reading week. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve managed this in previous club weeks, but when I did a little research about 1930, I discovered that an essay she first published in 1926 was issued as a standalone volume by Hogarth Press in 1930. I don’t currently own it, but was able to find a digital version of the original online (as it appeared ion T.S. Eliot’s “New Criterion”) – and fascinating reading it makes.

Woolf was, of course, well placed to discussed the pros and cons of being ill, having suffered recurring bouts of numerous ailments (both mental and physical) over the years. But any piece of work by her is never going to be straightforward, and her essay considers all manner of things relating to the problem of illness. In particular, she finds herself surprised that the subject is not dealt with seriously in literature, a thing she considers a failing. Certainly, the topic was one she featured in her own fiction, and I could name a number of novels and characters for whom illness is pivotal to their actions and indeed their lives in her books.

Parties, he said, bored him – such were English aristocrats before marriage with intellect had adulterated the fine singularity of their minds. Parties bore them; they are off to Iceland…

Woolf being Woolf, the prose ricochets off on all manner of tangents, which is part of the joy of reading her, and she considers the relationships between human beings, the tendency of people to behave so differently when ill, and how poetry is the ideal reading when one is poorly and a chunky novel is too taxing. She considers the effect of the physical body on the mind, and how we do not always get the sympathy we expect.

That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you – is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others.

Watching Woolf’s mind at play, ranging over all manner of topics, is always a pure delight, and reading this reminded me that I have several volumes of her essays crying out for my attention. Her prose is unique, completely individual, and her authorial voice unmistakable. Although I read her for the insights she brings, I also read her for the sheer joy of watching what she can do with the English language. “On Being Ill” was apparently a little neglected, although in recent year a new edition was brought out (which is now rather expensive….). Proof, if it was ever needed, that as well as being a genius of a prose writer, Woolf was also a stellar essayist. I really *should* dig out those essays… ;D