What to Read When You’re Ill: Novels with Memorable Scenes of Illness

My husband caught a cold at the office.  I blame it on paper clips, post-its, and office supplies.

And now everyone has it. The city is stricken with the common cold.  And I’m surprised there’s not a quarantine.

And so I am coughing and drinking Cold-Eeze and wondering if there’s a yoga pose that will banish the cold.  Meanwhile, I’m making a list of novels with memorable scenes of illness.  Alas, I cannot remember many scenes with the common cold.

1.  In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennet catches a violent cold while visiting Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst at Netherfield Park, the home of her future fiance, Mr. Bingley.  She becomes so ill that they refuse to let her go home and she sends a letter to her sister Elizabeth.


“I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc.”

2.  In Turgenev’s On the Eve, the  heroine, Elena, an intense young woman who wants a purpose, falls in love with Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary, and educates herself about the cause.  Alas, he catches pneumonia, and though he recovers for a time, he does not live long.  Elena is heartbroken but she lives to fight another day.

‘Elena!’ sounded distinctly in her ears. She raised her head quickly, turned round, and was stupefied: Insarov, white as snow, the snow of her dream, had half risen from the sofa, and was staring at her with large, bright, dreadful eyes. His hair hung in disorder on his forehead and his lips parted strangely. Horror, mingled with an anguish of tenderness, was expressed on his suddenly transfigured face.

‘Elena!’ he articulated, ‘I am dying.’

She fell with a scream on her knees, and clung to his breast.

‘It’s all over,’ repeated Insarov: ‘I’m dying… Good-bye, my poor girl! good-bye, my country!’ and he fell backwards on to the sofa.

3.  In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the hero, Hans Castorp, visits his tubercular cousin at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, and laughs at the easy life-style there before he, too, is diagnosed with TB.

It would not have taken much for Hans Castorp to be seized by another fit of laughter.  “What?  You lie out on your balcony rain or shine, night or day?” he asked, his voice wavering on the edge.

4.   In The Painted Veil, one of my favorite novels by W. Somerset Maugham, Kitty’s husband Walter is furious when he learns she has had an affair.  He takes her with him to mainland China, where he must deal with a cholera epidemic.  Needless to say no one is safe from the cholera, but Walter and a group of nuns put up a good fight. Kitty wants to help the nuns.

“There is no need to scrub the floors.  That is done by after a fashion by the orphans.”  She paused and looked kindly at Kittty.  “My dear child, do you not think that you have done enough in coming with your husband here?  That is more than many wives would have had the courage to do, and for the rest how can you be better occupied than by giving him peace and comfort when he comes home to you after the day’s work?  Believe me, he needs tthen all your love and consideration.”

5. I’ve run out of respiratory illnesses and cholera and am on to a zombie novel.  There is some beautiful writing at the beginning of Carrie Ryan’s  The Forest of Hands and Teeth:

My mother used to tell me about the ocean.  She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and that it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away.


The narrator, Mary, has grown up in a village behind a fence, to secure the villagers from zombies, known as the Unconsecrated, who infect human beings with  their bites.  After her mother becomes a zombie, Mary becomes an outcast.  The Sisters, a group of secret-loving nuns who know the true history of the world, shelter her for a while after her mother “turns”–her mother chooses to become a zombie rather than to die.  Although Mary is badly treated by the Sisters, she learns that the nuns have contact with the outside and that a young woman named Gabrielle has come in with news.  Is there any hope?  Not much.

6.  Graham Greene’s A BURNT-OUT CASE deals with leprosy, but I’m too tired to write about it!


26 thoughts on “What to Read When You’re Ill: Novels with Memorable Scenes of Illness

  1. The other great novel about TB is The Rack, by A.E. Ellis. More clinical – literally and metaphorically – than The Magic Mountain. Just to add confusion, there are two versions available; the original published version and a version edited by Alan Wall for Zephyr books which is closer to the original.


  2. I hope you feel better soon! In Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne gets a terrible cold in June and laments the lack of romanticism to her plight. More tragically, in an earlier Anne book, maybe Anne of Avonlea, Ruby Gillis gets galloping consumption and dies (arm yourself with many hankies before reading that scene).

    Levin’s brother in Anna Karenina also has consumption and dies from it during the book, as does the teenage Ippolit in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a book full of sickness scenes (the hero has epilepsy).

    FYI, a friend of mine from grad school was studying TB. A billion (not a typo) people are currently infected, and drug-resistant cases are appearing.

    And of course Marianne Dashwood develops a putrid fever and ends up weakened for months because of it. On a lighter note, the hero of Dick Francis’s Trial Run is prone to chest infections and packs a whole pharmacy of remedies when he sets off to Moscow in the middle of winter. He puts them to good use after being thrown in the Moscow River by the bad guys and having to swim through the icy waters to safety.

    Borislav Pekic’s The Time of Miracles, which I highly recommend, starts off with the story of a young bride who contracts leprosy and is exiled. Jesus heals her, but it isn’t a happy-ever-after ending. The whole novel is the story of those who receive Jesus’s miracles, and the negative effects on their lives, so lepers are healed, the lame walk, and the dead rise, but they can’t reintegrate back into society.

    On the non-fiction side, there are some good memoirs about being sick:

    Porochista Khakpour’s new memoir Sick is about her experience with Lyme disease, drug addiction, and mental illness. Extremely interesting, although I think people who haven’t had Lyme can find it a little off-putting to read about just how crazy it can make you and just how hard it is to get treatment.

    Julie Rehmeyer’s Through the Shadowlands is her story of developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, losing her job, her boyfriend, and most of her ability to walk, and finally getting miraculously better after trying an approach she, as a science writer, initially dismissed.

    “The Opposite of Fate,” the last essay in Amy Tan’s collections of essays by the same title, also describes her plunge down the rabbit hole of Lyme disease, which for a few months even made her forget her own novels!

    There are more but I should stop now…


    • What a list of fascinating books! My knowledge of Anne is rusty, but I do laugh thinking about her wish for a romantic cold. There is a lot of consumption in Tolstoy, come to think of it: doesn’t Kitty try to be an angel at a health resort, too, but she is just too attractive? I have not read the others, but they do sound fascinating, and there are many brilliant memoirs of illness. I know “Sick” has been widely reviewed.


      • Haha, yes, Kitty does work as a nurse in a spa for a while after developing a mysterious complaint following Vronsky’s rejection of her, but she’s too full of liveliness to be a good nurse. Her skills come in good stead when she nurses Levin’s brother during his last days, though, while Levin himself can hardly stand to be in the same room with his brother.


        • Kitty is great! I do remember an artist with TB falling in love with her, and that was a great embarrassment, but she does really know how to take care of Levin’s brother.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. As you say The Magic Mountain is all illness and A Burnt Out Case should be about recovery, but that is almost as bad as the illness. The Russians do lots of illness, for example, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In Fathers and Sons the young doctor dies of something or other that he contracts from a patient. Victorian novelists have lots of illness in their books, probably because they saw lots of illness in real life. Its also a convenient plot device for removing a character or breaking up a romance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I almost don’t dare pick up A Burnt-out Case again! And it’s true the Russians are dying like flies. Poor Bazarov! I know he gets an infection that should have been treatable. Yes, and Dickens especially makes me cry over all the deaths!


    • Bazarov dies after failing to follow proper safety procedures during an autopsy, I think maybe of a typhus victim, and cutting himself, so it’s a kind of suicide.

      Another couple of Russian stories that focus on sickness are Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and, of course, Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences of being treated for stomach cancer after getting out of prison camp.


  4. It’s not easy to remember novels I loved where someone has a bad cold — you ask for both in one novel 🙂 Still in Sense and Sensibility Marianne develops a very bad cold, it seems to endanger her life but she recovers. In Little Women Beth dies — probably of TB. In Gaskell’s North and South Bessie dies of lung disease (from the terrible conditions of her employment). Little Eva dies of malaria in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (not a favorite novel but one I remember vividly). This is a favorite novel: in Winston Graham’s Demelza, Francis and Elizabeth Poldark and their son, Geoffrey Charles and Demelza Poldark all catch cold which become the morbid sore throat (diptheria) but all recover; Demelza’s baby, Julia, sickens though and she dies.In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Thomas Cromwell becomes very sick at one point, comes near death but lives; but his wife dies of the “sweating” or “sleeping illness” and so do his two daughter: this is a disease that was contagious and killed people in great numbers at the beginning of the 16th century but it came and disappeared and today we don’t know what it was.

    So I came up with a few …


    • Ellen, what an excellent list! There are a lot of respiratory diseases in 19th-century English novels but I had forgotten about the American Little Eva’s malaria, which must mean Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a favorite of mine, either, though I admire it. All these are great books!


  5. Although I’ve read several of the books on your list, I’m an admitted hypochondriac and have nothing to add. I tend to avoid books about illness or in which illness plays more than a passing role because there’s a good chance I might come down with leprosy!


    • I do know the feeling. I feel safe from Victorian illnesses, but what about more “modern” diseases like Lyme disease. A Burnt-out Case is a very bleak book, and the leprosy is just one more thing we don’t really need anyone to catch.


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