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The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

This debut novel’s synopsis grabbed me from the start, with its promise of 19th Century gothic contrasted with ‘a modern scream of female outrage’. There is a lot about illness, medicine and it’s treatment of women that still provokes rage in me, so I had something to connect with from the start. I wasn’t disappointed by Beam’s novel and feel the need to buy a beautiful hardback copy for my collection, as this is a book I’ll want to read again.

Living in New England, Caroline Hood is a woman in between. Thanks to her education she seems overqualified for marriage and won’t fit into the very specific roles women are allowed in Victorian society. As such she is isolated from her peers and can’t relate to their experiences. With some concerns, given her own place in society, she starts a school for young women with her father, Samuel. Soon after, an unusual flock of red birds descends on the town. Caroline finds them unsettling, but the townsfolk largely continue as normal. Then the students start to display strange symptoms, headaches, rashes and sleep walking. Caroline wants to consult the girl’s parents but her father instead sends for a well known physician whose treatments seem horrific. The men continue to diagnose and dictate the girls experience, and Caroline tries to find a way to save her pupils just as her own body starts to fail her.

I have recently been researching gender bias in healthcare where patients have chronic pain and the results are startling for the end of the 20th Century. There are still the stereotypes of ‘stoic’ men and ‘sensitive’ women. When both genders arrived at A and E with exactly the same pain symptoms, men were treated far more seriously, were more likely to have their pain investigated and more likely to be referred on to a consultant. The idea of the ‘hysteric’ is alive and well in the NHS, especially where invisible illnesses like autoimmune disorders are concerned. So for me the treatment of the young women in the novel is part of a history of prejudice that we haven’t fully left behind. Thankfully I think we have become more humane in terms of treatment. The psychological damage wrought by 19th Century treatments for hysteria is horrifying and touched upon in other novels such as The Crimson Petal and the White. The fact that others stood by and did nothing is a horrible betrayal , especially where they are supposed to love and care for the patient. This book is an important portrayal of the tendency of men to proscribe and contain women’s bodies and identities – an oppression continuing with current abortion legislation changes in the USA.

There are parts of the book that are emotionally unsettling and difficult to read, but important to understand. I was determined to know whether the girls and Caroline in particular, had the strength to defy the oppression they were under. I was also interested in the contradictory aims of providing progressive education to these girls, only to oppress them in a different way. However, because I enjoyed it and devoured it so quickly there were aspects of the ending I need to go back and fully understand. This was an intelligent, beautifully written novel that addresses important issues about women, the aims of education, and the role of illness in society.

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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