No? Are you sure? Perhaps this part is familiar, at least:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne wrote that 1623, along 22 other meditations, as he was recovering from a serious illness. The “emergent” in the title refers to his emergence from illness back to health. Good stuff, isn’t it, for a man feeling distinctly below par?
Convalescence is a strange, liminal condition that probably hasn’t received as much literary attention as it deserves, despite Donne’s efforts. As an occasion for writing it has both pros and cons. The thought of mortality concentrates the mind, I suppose, even as it saps the energy. Having deserts of time to trek across, no obligations, a pen and paper, is in many ways an ideal state for a writer; but it’s cruelly counterbalanced by tiredness, illness, impatience and general enervation.
I mention all this because I spent a week in hospital myself last week, and am still convalescing at the house of some kind friends. Not that my condition was life-threatening, but it was serious enough to take me out of work for a while, and to present me with a wad of days marked “Convalescence”, a blank notebook begging to be filled. I’m not used to being ill, and at first I very much enjoyed being waited on – a luxuriously regressive experience. I even liked having a catheter and bag for a few days, and not having to worry about deciding when to pee. But every sweet must cloy, and now my brain crouches for employment.
Convalescence has been a friend to children’s books, both in real life and in fiction. Several children’s writers – Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliff for example – laid the imaginative groundwork of their future lives during the illness and isolation they endured as children. They needed to something to do with their minds, whether inventing their own stories or reading other people’s. If not for those prolonged periods of incapacitation, their lives might have taken a very different and less productive turn.
Within children’s fiction, too, convalescence has been a regular feature. One lineage runs from the School of Pain in What Katie Did (1872), which uses illness as an occasion to teach humility and selflessness to young children whose waywardness might otherwise lead them astray. If only Mrs Craven had had a copy in Misslethwaite Manor she might have taken note of Katie’s fate and avoided that fatal swing in the Secret Garden, thus making her own son’s prolonged convalescence towards bodily and mental strength superfluous! But it’s too late for regrets. More interesting to me is the tradition running from Katharine Pyle’s The Counterpane Fairy (1898), in which a fairy introduces a convalescent boy to the adventures to be found in the squares stitched into his bed cover. From there it’s but a short recuperative stroll to such books as Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams or even Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, both published in 1958, where the boredom of convalescence joins forces with the powers of magic to create memorable fantasies. (Admittedly Tom is not convalescent himself, at least at first – that’s his brother Peter – but he is cooped up in what we might call a quasi-convalescent state of high-pressure boredom, receptive both to Peter’s frustration and his own, as well as to the powerful memories filtering from the frail sleeper on the floor above.)
In such stories young minds starved of stimulation grow worlds from tiny seeds of crystal. Ceiling cracks, tree shadows and wallpaper patterns expand and flourish into forests. Reality becomes a Magic Eye picture in which the semi-feverish, half-focused eye of convalescence can perceive a hidden dimension. Perhaps such experiences are less common now, thanks to penicillin and the MMR jab. Children aren’t often kept in prolonged quarantine for fear of infection or sent to farms run by family friends to get their strength back in landscapes pregnant with adventure, like Will Stanton in Susan Cooper’s The Grey King (1975). I suppose we should be grateful.
And yet, children still have serious illnesses, after all; they still convalesce. Where are their stories? I wish I had time to answer that question, but I'm a little tired after all this typing. Also, some thinly buttered toast would be nice, if you really don't mind, and a pot of tea - not too strong! - to go with it. Oh, and Pointless is on in five minutes...