An Analysis Of Virginia Woolf On Being Ill

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HIS 40760: Approaches to Medical History
Dr. Laura Kelly
David Kilgannon
MA in the Social & Cultural History of Medicine

Essay Prompt: How valuable are fictionalised representations of an illness to the historian of medicine?

‘Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache’

The above quotation from Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘On Being Ill’ (1926) helps to capture some of the piece’s central argument around sickness and art, bemoaning that ultimately ‘illness has not taken its place with love, battles, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.’ Indeed, for Woolf, fictional works remain woefully incapable of accounting for the ‘daily dramas of the body,’ as from deadly disease to shortsightedness, fiction persistently addresses Illness in a circumspect, refractory manner. Of course, in attempting to make such an argument, Woolf must commit a myopia of her own in ignoring a broad swath of literature,
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Such a narrative of ‘false confidence, now, as a warning’ is clearly reminiscent of Burney’s didactic purpose, highlighting the social role of Belinda as a breast cancer narrative. Initially, Lady Delacour asks her quack practitioner to perform a mastectomy, but “he was afraid to hazard it, and he prevailed upon her to give up the scheme, and to try some new external remedy from which he promised wonders” (259). When Belinda discovers that Lady Delacour has been undergoing these fraudulent ‘treatments’, the medicines have weakened Lady Delacour having ‘affected her head in the most alarming

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