The Illness Lesson is a quiet, eerie novel about a women’s school gone awry in nineteenth-century New England. Caroline is the adult daughter of Samuel Hood, an essayist and educator whose work has attracted some devotees, including David, a former soldier and Caroline’s crush, who comes to live with the Hoods and teach at their experimental girls’ school. When one spirited young pupil, Eliza, begins to show signs of a mysterious illness, the men invite a doctor who begins a humiliating and violating course of treatment. Soon, all of the girls fall ill, including Caroline, who struggles all at once with the sickness, her responsibility towards the girls, her feelings for David, and her growing awareness of her father’s tyranny, a tyranny made all the worse by his convictions that he is doing the right thing. At the same time, the natural world sends its own strange omens in the form of trilling hearts, rapacious red birds who settle in the woods around the school and build a series of nests out of the ailing girls’ things.
Beams is really good at conveying a Gothic mood through description and exposition. A dress is “splayed across David’s desk chair as if it had fainted away with passion” (113). Caroline wonders about a rival school teacher’s response to an impudent comment, imagining an “underground chamber in the center of the classroom springing open, the offender fed to the dark mouth of impudence” (63). She is equally good at conveying unstated feelings between characters. David waits until the last possible moment to tell Caroline that he has a wife, Sophia, and they form an uneasy relationship: “[Caroline] heard herself and laughed. Sophia laughed with her. The moment was companionable until they caught it being that way” (170).
The book jacket copy compares Beams to contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, but this novel put me more in mind of the Romantic and Victorian Gothic traditions. The schoolgirls’ secret, collective yearning for David is reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), in which a boarding school of female students all admire Dr. John, a love interest of the teacher and protagonist. The girls at Hunt’s school also take delight in reading a forbidden romance, and are roundly criticized for it. “‘It’s certainly a very exciting book,’” says their sinister physician, Hawkins, “‘Full of all sorts of alarming occurrences, and of course a physical languishing too…. I could see how such a book might seem…suggestive to all of you” (182-183). This idea of sensational books causing female hysteria was often centered on Gothic fiction, and is charmingly satirized in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817). For all these reasons, I see the book as sort of neo-Victorian: a clear commentary on gender prohibitions that uses the nineteenth century to think through these issues.
This is a novel that sneaks up on you. It’s gently paced, but that’s one of its strengths: I admire how Beams builds up a mood of dread in the chapters that lead up to the climax. My main quibble might be with the recurring appearances of the trilling hearts–the birds seemed so clearly to function as omens or commentary that their appearance took me out of the story a bit.
A smart, ominous work of contemporary literary fiction with Gothic flair.