Cover image for On being ill
On being ill
Woolf, Virginia, 1882-1941.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Ashfield, Mass. : Paris Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xxxiv, 28 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
First published as an individual volume by The Hogarth Press, 1930.
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR6045.O72 O5 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



In this poignant and humorous work, Virginia Woolf observes that though illness is part of every human being's experience, it has never been the subject of literature - like the more acceptable subjects of war and love. We cannot quote Shakespeare to describe a headache. We must, Woolf says, invent language to describe pain. And though illness enhances our perceptions, she observes that it reduces self-consciousness; it is "the great confessional." Woolf discusses the cultural taboosassociated with illness and explores how illness changes the way we read. Poems clarify and astonish, Shakespeare exudes new brilliance, and so does melodramatic fiction!

On Being Ill was published as an individual volume by Hogarth Press in 1930. While other Woolf essays, such as A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, were first published by Hogarth as individual volumes and have since been widely available , On Being Ill has been overlooked. The Paris Press edition features original cover art by Woolf's sister, the painter Vanessa Bell. Hermione Lee's Introduction discusses this extraordinary work, and explores Woolf's revelations about poetry, language, and illness.

Author Notes

Virginia Woolf was born in London, England on January 25, 1882. She was the daughter of the prominent literary critic Leslie Stephen. Her early education was obtained at home through her parents and governesses. After death of her father in 1904, her family moved to Bloomsbury, where they formed the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of philosophers, writers, and artists.

During her lifetime, she wrote both fiction and non-fiction works. Her novels included Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and Between the Acts. Her non-fiction books included The Common Reader, A Room of One's Own, Three Guineas, The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays, and The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Having had periods of depression throughout her life and fearing a final mental breakdown from which she might not recover, Woolf drowned herself on March 28, 1941 at the age of 59. Her husband published part of her farewell letter to deny that she had taken her life because she could not face the terrible times of war.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Ten years ago, Paris Press made history publishing Virginia Woolf's forgotten essay, On Being Ill, which Woolf biographer Hermione Lee describes as daring, strange, and original. In this revelatory new edition, Woolf's inquiry into illness and its impact on the mind is paired with her mother's observations about caring for the body. Julia Stephen was famously devoted to nursing loved ones and others in need. She had no professional training but took to heart Florence Nightingale's precept that every woman is a nurse and emulated Nightingale's best-selling Notes on Nursing with her own Notes from Sick Rooms. In this long-overlooked, precise, and piquant little manual, Stephen is compassionate and ironic, observing that everyone deserves to be tenderly nursed while addressing the small evil of crumbs in bed. This unprecedented literary reunion of mother and daughter is stunning on many fronts, but physician and literary scholar Rita Charon focuses on the essentials in her astute afterword, writing that Woolf's perspective as a patient and Stephen's as a nurse together illuminate the goal of care to listen, to recognize, to imagine, to honor.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2010 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

"In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality," writes Woolf, and she proves her observation correct in this essay (originally published in 1930), which leaps from observations of clouds to heaven to Shakespeare in stream-of-consciousness prose that, by design, borders on delirium. Her immersion in this mental state rings all the clearer for its contrast, in this edition, with "Notes from Sick Rooms," an essay written by Woolf's mother, Julia Stephen in 1883. While Woolf believes illness in literature should be no less stirring than war or love, her mother offers gentle instruction on things like pillows, baths, and the omnipresent scourge of crumbs, in what amounts to a nurse's how-to guide. Hermione Lee's introduction provides much appreciated context for Woolf's essay, though at 34 pages to Woolf's 28, it seems unnecessarily long-winded. Separating the two original texts is Mark Hussey's introduction to Stephen's essay, which notes that Stephens died when Woolf was 13, one potential explanation for the profound isolation Woolf experiences in illness. The book closes with a more personal note from internist Rita Charon, founder and director of Columbia University's Program of Narrative Medicine. In the conjunction of the two essays, Charon finds "the necessary equilibrium between knowledge and feeling." The book may have a surplus of commentary, but Woolf and Stephen will certainly change the way readers think of illness. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.