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!


The Jane Austen Workout

prideprejudice annotated shepard

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

It is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.

This would be my desert island book, if I didn’t practically know it by heart.

I celebrate instead with my favorite Austen novel,  Emma.

Later, when I put down my book to stretch to an old Jane Fonda workout tape,  I absent-mindedly asked, “Does anyone know where the Jane Austen Workout  is?”

There was much laughter, but I’m sure if we developed the Jane Austen Workout we would get rich.

S0 I have developed some archetypal Austen workout activities in honor of the bicentenary.


Lizzie and Wickham

Lizzie and Wickham

1. There is a hell of a lot of walking in Austen.

Do Emma and Harriet ever sit still?  Does a day go by when the Bennet sisters don’t take a walk?

Take a walk when the characters in Austen’s novels do, and you will soon be physically fit.   If you read P&P, you may meet the cute, caddish Wickham, with whom giddy Lydia Bennet falls in love.  You may also meet sensible, dull Darcy, as Lizzie does when she walks through his park and decides he’s not so bad after all.  I would far rather converse with the delightful Wickham, though Darcy is the marrying kind.

And if you are Emma, and who wouldn’t rather be, you might meet Frank Churchill, so charming and funny, or Knightley, the stern advisor/friend with whom she is in love.  Frank is much more fun.

As you can see, I am into the bad boys of Austen.

2. Ride a horse when an Austen character rides a horse.  Think of the rivalry between Fanny and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.  Pert Mary Crawford keeps borrowing Fanny’s horse, and Edmund, who rides with her, forgets that shy, sickly Fanny needs her horse for her workout.  Why does Fanny martyr herself?

We want Fanny to get her horse back.  That Mary!

3.  Read any Jane Austen novel at a club, and dance every time a character dances.  The very sight of you with a Jane Austen novel will attract every man in the place, or…   Oh, well…  I’m only joking. No heterosexual man I know has ever read Jane Austen except for a class.

The Jane Austen Workout!

The Jane Austen Workout!


Forget kickboxing!  The elliptical is for sissies!  Carry all six of Austen’s novels, which I’m sure you have, in a backpack or bike pannier, and if they’re the annotated editions, you’ll soon be exhausted. Add a couple of biographies to make it really tough.  Go uphill for a couple of miles, or climb a mountain with your Austen for a more strenuous workout.  DON’T DO THIS IF YOU’RE ON BLOOD PRESSURE MEDICATION.  Heck, I just made that up, but there has to be a warming with a workout.  For all I know, people with high blood pressure carry Jane Austen books up mountains all the time.

And then go home and go to sleep.

Now here are some links to a challenge and an article (not part of my workout).

1.  THE PRIDE AND PREJUDICE BICENTENARY CHALLENGE.  At Austenprose, a very good website, you can sign up to read P&P or related books and watch the movies during this anniversary year.  It is complicated, like all of these challenges, and involves putting a logo up at your blog, commenting, counter-commenting, and…but there are prizes.

2.  At The Guardian, several writers take a look at Pride and Prejudice.  (Some of them are men, which disproves my theory that men don’t read Austen.)  Sebastian Faulks says, “Mr Darcy may not be the first depressive to feature in an English novel, but he is almost certainly the first to be a romantic lead.”