A grey book jacket with geometric shapes in varying shades of grey with yellow circle made of smaller squares at middle; cover reads "On Being Ill /  Virginia Woolf / The Hogarth Press."

On Being Ill (1930)

Transcript below

Francesca Wade: So this is a great example of her collaboration with her sister Vanessa Bell, who did a lot of the cover designs for Hogarth and particularly for Virginia’s books, which I think after Jacob’s Room were all published by the Hogarth Press, so it was very much a collaboration between the two sisters. And Vanessa often painted Virginia as well, often with her eyes closed, which…a very evocative portrait.

Brandon Taylor: Yeah, I mean, it must be so daunting to be… I would love to work with a sibling on a project, but also I don’t know that I could—it’s a very fraught enterprise, but everything with Vanessa and Virginia was so enmeshed and so entangled that I feel that, you know, in every… I think that in the public imagination, if you imagine Virginia Woolf, Vanessa is like the sort of ghostly presence always sort of just offstage. 

Francesca Wade: Yeah, and On Being Ill, I think is probably one of her essays that has in a way got the most kind of traction maybe in recent years. I think illness has become much more of a kind of theme in literature maybe since Susan Sontag, but really going back to this. And I think I often see On Being Ill cited by contemporary writers who are thinking much more about illness and kind of disability, but she was really one of the first to, and that’s really the argument of this book, that illness is actually a generative position to think from. 

Brandon Taylor: Yeah, and thinking being the operative word there, right? It’s an attempt, and a successful one, I would say, to theorize on what illness is and what it means in a sort of contemporary or modern context and how it informs a life, how it informs art, and turning it into a positionality in a way. And I echo what you say about it becoming incredibly entrenched in public discourse as of late. I think that it… For a long time it’s been a sort of seminal work in disability studies and disability rhetoric, and it’s often what people turn to when they want a sort of literary treatment of the idea of illness. I feel like a lot of what has entered contemporary disability rhetoric, particularly on social media, like that was the first place I discovered this essay, actually. There was a little paragraph quote from it floating around Tumblr, and I found it, and I was like, “Who is this writer? I must know everything.” And so it does feel like it is one of the essays that has the longest life and probably because its themes are so universal.

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