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Peter Fifield, Modernism and Physical Illness: Sick Books

Florence Marie
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Modernism and Physical Illness: Sick Books, Peter Fifield, Oxford: OUP, 2020 (248 p.), ISBN 9780198825425

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1Modernism and Physical Illness addresses the experience of physical illness in modernist texts, suggesting there are similarities between sickness and modernism. Not only were modernist texts often considered as diseased texts by those who decried them, but more interestingly, ‘in sickness and modernism alike, a world that may otherwise appear self-evident is made newly strange by an altered, tickly-textures means of engagement: everything is transformed utterly’ (3). Thus some modernist writers may have been prompted by the presence of illness in their lives and texts to develop unconventional aesthetic work. Taking as a starting point Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘On Being Ill’ (1926)—while asserting she was wrong to contend the topic had been neglected so far—Peter Fifield examines the singular links she posited between writing and illness so as to outline the forms and meanings given to illness in the works of D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Richardson and Winifred Holtby, devoting one section to each writer.

2The opening chapter focuses on D. H. Lawrence and the wide array of experiences sickness is associated with in his novels. Although Lawrence himself refused to be seen as an invalid and although the values of illness varied from his essays to his novels and from novel to novel, there are times when the failures of the body in his works of fiction are indeed connected with ‘moments of insights or rapture’ (32). Inconsistency, however, predominated. In his non-fictional works one sees Lawrence playing but also grappling with the metaphorical use of disease-based imagery, so adamant was he about the necessity to look at disease from the point of view of the individuals and their bodies. In his novels, his insistence on the sick body as such makes this clear whether illness is attributed a positive quality or not. Sickness is thus one of the different angles Lawrence uses to scrutinize embodied experience under its different guises: ‘In all cases, however, illness sees the body invested with more rather than less meaning’ (71).

3There existed an ambiguous link between ill-health and writing in Woolf’s life. For doctors Woolf’s writing was a symptom of her illness, for Woolf herself, a ‘rehabilitative practice’ (76). No wonder physical illnesses (as well as mental ones—but Fifield is not interested in them) figure prominently in her works, at least in her first works. Yet, Fifield contends that sickness in Woolf’s fiction falls short of fulfilling the potential it is said to have in ‘On Being Ill’. Focusing on The Voyage Out, Fifield convincingly demonstrates that Rachel Vinrace’s ‘sickness is where Woolf’s modernism emerges’ (87); analysing Woolf’s technique he shows Rachel’s reactions exhibit signs of fragmentation, loss of bearings, disrupted time and space and fluctuation of the self. It is thus somewhat surprising that he should round off the chapter by asserting that Rachel’s sickness dovetails above all with ‘the cultural discourses of empire and public health’ (110) and cannot be said to ‘provide the fresh start for a new type of writing’ (110). Then Fifield examines the haunting presence of the Spanish flu in Mrs Dalloway and links it with the notion of inscrutability while suggesting that the reader should be on the lookout for signs of the pandemic to be found here and there in the communal urban experience.

4In Eliot’s poetry, illness is almost always a symptom of the degenerate modern world, which once again belies what his more personal writing on illness intimated, linking as they did ill health and artistic sensitivity (he himself suffered from severe skin disorders). But the graphic allusions to physical sickness (skin diseases and tooth pains) in The Waste Land offer no redeeming features; they only convey disgust at the overwhelming presence of the abject in the metropolis whether the poem refers to two Jewish figures or to ‘the young man carbuncular’, whose skin is a warning—in a Baudelairian fashion—against some notorious infectious diseases. Fifield’s illuminating comparison between Eliot’s draft material and Pound’s editing yields new vistas on the polysemous richness of the poems and the fear of oozing surfaces. With the passing of time and his later involvement in Christianity, Eliot somewhat relented; sickness was no longer the symptom of a diseased world but an ‘elaborate metaphor’ (144). This transformation, however, meant it was no longer a mesh of bodily sensations either.

5The following chapter focuses on Dorothy Richardson’s contributions to The Dental Record during World War One as well as on her long modernist novel, Pilgrimage. Indeed in The Tunnel, the fourth volume-chapter of Pilgrimage, Miriam the main protagonist, becomes a dental secretary-assistant. The dentist surgery where she works is at the core of The Tunnel (1919), Interim (1919) and Deadlock (1921). Peter Fifield convincingly demonstrates how ‘Richardson uses illness to examine the nature of sympathy and the structures of responsibility in a complex, modern, urban society’ (145). In other words, illness is rarely presented in Richardson’s works as an individual experience solely concerning the sufferer. It inevitably raises the question of responsibility—the responsibility of the medical professions and more generally speaking of society in general as well as that of the sufferer’s friends—in a probable allusion to Richardson’s own unbearable position during her own mother’s illness (although Fifield does not elaborate on this biographical event). This argument is most welcome when referring to a character, Miriam, whose self-absorption has been commented on by various critics; it is likely to urge the reader to read these volumes-chapters from Pilgrimage anew. The debates of the time concerning charity, state intervention and the rise of collectivism as well as the encroachment on individual liberty that they imply, seep into them. More indirectly, this new ethics of care can be seen at work—and here Fifield draws on Meghan Marie Hammond’s work—in the use of free indirect discourse. The reader is expected to develop not only his or her ‘empathic quality’ but also his or her awareness of how limited his or her probing into other minds is, which seems to favour maintaining a necessary balance between the two.

6The last chapter is devoted to Winifred Holtby, who unlike the previous authors did not use illness as a springboard for innovation but as a regular topic, in a vein similar to that found in Victorian novels. Sticking to gender-prescribed roles, Holtby could not but disagree with Woolf’s approach to illness ‘as a distinctive literary challenge’ (205). She considered it as simply one theme amongst many others in middlebrow writing, although one which particularly impacted the lives of women as nurses and caregivers, as most obvious in her novel South Riding (1936). No wonder the two authors entered into a dialogue via their essays in 1926 and 1927, a dialogue they even exhibited in their conflicting attitude towards the cinema and its presentation of ailing bodies. Fifield rounds this chapter off saying that ‘Holtby’s oeuvre, both fiction and journalism, constitutes a vital counterbalance to the highbrow agenda that Virginia Woolf advocates in “On Being Ill”’ (221).

7One of the most compelling assets of Fifield’s fine piece of scholarship is that while juxtaposing biographical elements and literary texts in a fascinating manner, he also minutely examines these authors’ well-known works of fiction or poetry together with their letters, journals, essays and contributions to periodicals. These miscellaneous texts give him the opportunity to delve deeply into the issue, even if it eventually means laying bare the contradictions at the heart of each author’s corpus. Clearly no unifying perspective on illness can be found, which does not imply the five distinct sections are not related. Each writer has his or her idiosyncratic way of treating illness, but the echoes between the different sections are multiple—Lawrence, Eliot and Woolf all seem to have wavered between alternate versions of illness; Eliot and Lawrence grappled with the idea of illness as a metaphor and indirectly broached the topic of venereal diseases in their works while Richardson and Holtby both tackled the sociological consequences of physical illness. Fifield’s focusing on Winifred Holtby in the last chapter is intriguing and illuminating; the point is not to redeem a lesser-known writer but to put into perspective and qualify what the famous novelists and poets said about physical sickness—a happy reminder that modernism should not be restricted to highbrow writers indeed.

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Florence Marie, « Peter Fifield, Modernism and Physical Illness: Sick Books »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 64 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Florence Marie

Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour (ALTER – UR 7504)

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