Clare Beams’ debut novel The Illness Lesson depicts a cohort of late 19th century young woman educated at an experimental Transcendentalist-based girls’ school where plans go awry when they all succumb to the “female illness” of hysteria. This one drew me in immediately with questions pivoting on appropriate education, and by extension role, for 19th century women. Beams sets the historical novel in the late 19th century during the second, lesser-known wave of Transcendentalism; however, the question of women’s education was at the forefront as this period witnessed the first flux of women attending colleges and universities. While some of the allusions in the book seem unresolved, the strength of the book is its probing of 19th century feminism and women’s illnesses.
Samuel Hood is a Transcendentalist who starts a girls’ school at his Massachusetts farm house in the 1870s. His school will defy the normal expectations for the era, as instead of focusing on “womanly” subjects of needlepoint and music, his school aims to educate them no different than boys in such subjects as natural history, philosophy, and literature. Also helping educate the teenagers are David Moore, an acolyte from Hood’s earlier educational experimental school Birch Hills and his daughter Caroline, who herself has been educated in all the same subjects by her philosopher father. The school is named Trilling Hearts, after a newfound breed of reddish-hued birds that dot the landscape on the Hoods’ rural property. The school opens swimmingly with a core of earnest students. That is until the arrival of one in student in particular.
Eliza Pearson, daughter of Miles, a novelist who wrote a scandalous book called The Darkening Glass based on Caroline’s own deceased mother and her very much alive father, joins the first ranks of students. Miles also worked briefly at Samuel’s first educational endeavor Birch Hills School. Thus, Samuel does not take kindly to the arrival of Miles’ daughter to his school. After several months at the school, mysterious behavior is manifest in Eliza. Initially, she has frequent fainting spells, and later, odd flurries of rashes covering her body, and fits of uncontrollable bodily contortions better known as hysteria. The other seven pupils at Trilling Hearts later begin to show similar manifestations. To address these bizarre symptoms Samuel beckons his friend Hawkins, a physician and former Birch Hills teacher to diagnose and treat the girls. Yet, Hawkins doesn’t have the best of intentions with treatment. The book has the semblance of a Gothic period novel as Beams does a top-notch job maintaining the language of the book. There are questions raised about the nature of women’s education and illness, both are the strengths of the story.
Women’s education was beginning to make an uptick at the end of the 19th century. This is the generation of the “New Woman,” so called because of her aspirational leaps to receive a college education and become employed. Celebrated feminist writer of the era Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of The Yellow-Wall Paper and Herland, and Progressive reformer, Jane Addams, reflect the cohort of New Women receiving early college educations. Beams creates the fictional Trilling Hearts School to reflect some of the changes in women’s education of the era. It is a fascinating development as women of this time even if educated formally lacked outlets of employment besides writing and volunteering. To be certain, this is the context for white middle class and upper middle class women of the period.
It is the question of women’s illnesses during the 19th century that kept me rapt as I have been a fan of a woman who typified this era for years—Alice James. Unlike her famous older brothers, well-known existential philosopher William James and equally successful novelist, Henry James, Alice James succumbed to much of the characteristics exhibited by Beams’ Trilling Hearts students. Alice James, known mainly for her private diaries, had extraordinary talent but societal expectations for women dashed her hopes for a career. Jean Strouse’s Alice James is a timeless, exacting, and award-winning biography of the younger James. What then of the illnesses fictionalized in The Illness Lesson?
The understanding and treatment of 19th century women’s illnesses were generally said to be rooted in their physical differences from men. Put simply, educated women were said to have these rash of illnesses because they possessed a womb. Laughable by today’s standards and entirely debunked by the 20th century, at the time, as in The Illness Lesson, all sorts of treatments attempted to tamp down womanly sicknesses. Historian Cynthia Russett in her masterful work, Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood maps out the terrain of sex differences to reach the conclusion that “The great division of labor was here brought to bear: men produced and women reproduced.” (Russett, p. 12). Curiously, why did upper and middle class white women seem likely to suffer from inexplicable illnesses?
The best book I’ve read on the history of women’s illnesses and medicalized treatment of such illnesses is the masterful For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women by feminist scholars Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. This book covers everything from understanding of colonial midwives and those accused of being witches to excellent chapters on the “the sexual politics of sickness.” All of which, of course link illnesses to the ovaries. While women such as James and Gilman were prescribed the famous rest cure which the latter poignantly fictionalized in The Yellow Wall-Paper, in Beams’ work, girls are offered a more “hands on” treatment with sinister repercussions.
In the end, Beams clearly shows the chains of patriarchy in the decisions made by Samuel, David, and Hawkins. Caroline, too, leaves behind the authority of her father in the book’s final chapters but how I wished she sought out a college education or turned her private writings into a book for public consumption. Minor details like using the modern parlance of gender difference instead of the 19th century language of sex differences appear in Beams’ book. And, the symbolism of the trilling heart birds seems to lose their meaning, or perhaps seemed less clear to me, in the later chapters of the book. Still, The Illness Lesson is an engaging read, especially for those interested in good historical fiction. The questions it raises about women’s education, illnesses, and treatment put this squarely in the camp of contemporary feminist literature.
The Illness Lesson
By Clare Beams
266 pages. 2020.