Notes From Sick Rooms

By | 15 September 2022

Notes from Sick Rooms is a poetic erasure of a Victorian nursing manual published in 1883 for the home-nurse at a time before public health provisions, before mass hospitalisation and the widespread use of anti-biotics. The most that could be done for the ill (who is always referred to in the manual using the female pronoun) was to keep ‘her’ comfortable, clean and pacified at home. The resulting text provides a marvellously florid voice of the invalid, domestically confined woman of the nineteenth century that Gilbert and Gubar famously called ‘The Mad Woman in the Attic’.1

This is a work of discursive autobiography, a method of life writing that Mary Cappello advises ‘requires that we turn in the direction of the discourses that have made us who we are rather than start from a place of what we think ’happened’ to us’2. I come from a lineage of the mad and the miserable. There are generations of stories of stifled lives and suicide. Some of my female ancestors found themselves in mansion attics of nineteenth-century colonial Australia, and these women, no doubt, at least lived with the privileges of being white and ruling class. Such privileges have been used by many women over the past century to get out of the attic, so much so that the stifled suffering of the Crazy White Woman (as a Singaporean poet I know calls her) can sometimes be considered an anachronism, or a joke. But not in my family. For me she is still a live and present threat.

My grandmother did not have an attic, but she had a ‘downstairs’ where my closeted, unhappy uncle lived until well into his forties. My mother doesn’t have an attic, but she has a ‘spare room’ which, in a malignant gesture, she frequently suggests I move into. Retreating to the psychic attic, confining myself to a sick and creatively riskless life, is a dark wish (a suicidality of sorts) that has been the theme of many periods of incapacitating misery for me. When I set out to tell an autobiographical story of this illness, as much as I wanted to tell it I wanted also to refuse it. Instead of the pen, I found myself turning toward the scissors, the scalpel, and the ink-eraser. Notes from Sick Rooms is the resulting work. It is a piece that speaks both personally and discursively to a toxic stream of misogyny and self-annihilation that runs through a family history of settler Australians who made their fortune running sheep on unceded Ngadjuri Country / South Australia.

There is one more contextualising note to make about this work. Julia Stephen, the author of the original nursing manual Notes from Sick Rooms, was Virginia Woolf’s mother. This fact is an incidental rather than central thread here, I was attracted to Stephen’s book for its almost camp voice of invalid womanhood (echoes of Wilde) rather than its connection to Woolf. That this voice arises in a text written by the mother of one of literature’s most famous female depressives is simply an exquisite bonus. By chance again, I discovered a full hi-res digital scan of Notes from Sick Rooms online, made freely available through Google’s ambitious and as-yet incomplete project to scan 25 million books from university libraries. The original copy scanned by Google and used here is kept in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

  1. Gilbert, S M, & Gubar, S The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press. 2020
  2. Cappello, M ‘Propositions; Provocations: Inventions’ in Singer M and Walker N (eds) Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, Bloomsbury Academic, New York & London, 2013, p. 70
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