Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Cold season

There is a nasty Two Week Cold that is making the rounds in England.  And it's really cold here, too; unseasonably, record-breakingly cold.  The one thing is not supposed to have anything to do with the other, and yet why did ancient language-makers decide that the one word would suffice for both conditions?

More than two weeks ago, when I first got sick, I was reading a charming book called Period Piece -- written by Gwen Raverat, who was Charles Darwin's granddaughter.  One of my favourite chapters is called Aunt Etty, and it covers, among other topics, the Darwinian tendency to the "cult of bad health."  Raverat describes how a young Aunt Etty, who was suffering from a "low fever," is advised to take her breakfast in bed.  As a precautionary measure, perhaps, she never got up to breakfast again in all her life.  Aunt Etty's attention to health, both her own and that of everyone in her orbit, is scientifically precise.   Raverat remembers how her aunt's personal maid would put a silk handkerchief over one foot if it felt slightly colder than the other. 

Truly, it made me feel that hypochondria (not to mention persistent ill health) was a luxury of a bygone age and class -- one that enjoyed the ministrations of lots of servants.  Certainly we have the Internet now, which contributes greatly to the pleasures of self-diagnosis, but for sheer wallowing in illness there is nothing like the Victorian Age in which Aunt Etty lived.  Whether slightly sick, or well and truly sick, most of us just have to soldier through these days.  But if you have the chance, and are feeling slightly off-colour, do read Period Piece and see how illness used to be done.

As my Two Week Cold persists into a third week, I sorrowfully acknowledge that I could have been a bit more Aunt Etty-like in my dedication to my own health.   There should have been more cups of warm broth, more shawls, and definitely more mornings in bed -- and far fewer shopping trips, houseguests, long sweaty walks, transatlantic flights, temperature extremes and opportunities for sleep deprivation.  I'm sure it doesn't do the sinuses (not to mention one's ears) any good to be assaulted by 87 degrees in Texas on one day -- and freezing temperatures in England on the next.  And as I can't seem to stop coughing, I'm sure the person next to me on the plane would have appreciated if I had been wearing the Aunt Etty patented anti-cold mask.

And when there colds about she often wore a kind of gas-mask of her own invention. 
It was an ordinary wire kitchen-strainer, stuffed with antiseptic cotton-wool,
and tied on like a snout, with elastic over her ears. 
 In this she would receive her visitors and discuss politics in a hollow voice
 out of her eucalyptus-scented seclusion,
oblivious of the fact that they might be struggling with fits of laughter.
(from Period Piece, by Gwen Raverat)


steven said...

bee! i bicycle from march to december. the temperature drops to way below zero celsius most days after october. i don't get colds. maybe there's more to it. daily real ale? a happy disposition? a refusal to be laid low? luck? i dunno. i sure hope you get better soon and that england warms up!!!! steven

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Bee

Sorry to hear you have been under the weather--hope you will feel much better soon!

Period Piece seems to be a good read--will check into buying the book.

Tracy :)

elisa rathje said...

oh dear, i had one of those too-busy/taking flights/not resting-induced colds. i fear it took me a good month to recover! if i had the luxury of staying in bed for days i would most certainly take it, and all the broths and stacks of good books to go with it. sigh. i hope you feel better soon. despite the snow!

Plantaliscious said...

Eugh, miserable! Transatlantic flights always make me ill. Hope you find a shawl to cosset yourself with and preferably someone willing to bring you breakfast in bed and regular top-ups of tea/coffee/hot toddies. Failing that, full on cold meds can give a semblance of health back. Where are the good servants when needed! Recover soon...

rachel said...

How I sympathise with that never-ending cough! Steam is the only answer - whether from a wallpaper stripper or a long hot shower. Rest and recuperation is advised, preferably with someone else administering the silk handkerchiefs and hot drinks.

When you're better, can we request that you recreate that face mask of Aunt Etty's, and model it on your blog? You know it would entertain us enormously!

slommler said...

Colds are the pits!! Sorry you are still under the weather.
It has been very cold here as well and windy...,which make the cold even more severe!!
And I am fighting off a cold as I write you...so far I am winning. But also, I fear it may catch me! Yikes!!

Marion Williams-Bennett said...

I think I need a visit to Aunt Etty's doctor - breakfast in bed for a week, please!

This is a lovely reminder, though, or maybe a hopeful wish that when we get sick, it's out chance to say I just don't have it, and treat ourselves to the goodness of naps and broth and rest and, if you can find a good soul to serve it, breakfast in bed.

Lovely post! Wishing you warmth!

Tess Kincaid said...

No colds here yet, thank goodness. But the weather has been unseasonably balmy. I think all the cold air has traveled east across the sea to you! I'm actually a bit too warm in my woollies this morning.

ArtSparker said...

Sorry to hear you are ill. I don't think hypochondria is about to die out any time soon- it's alive and well as the self-help movement, particularly here in California.

How like gods we will be when we are cured!

linda said...

how dreadful to have the weather be so assaulting ... I'm glad I live in sunny [haha] California... I am just recovering from pneumonia so it can happen anywhere but I didn't have any maids around unfortunately just one unfortunate husband. :) ill health is what it is, servants or not, and I am certainly happy to stay home rather than fly across oceans just now. I did love the photo, it looked rather Christmas-y! Have a good one and feel better despite all the stuff to do!

Teresa O said...

I too wonder how the word cold jumped from one meaning to the other. I'm thinking...Aunt Etty may have been on to something, yes I have a small strainer in my kitchen and perhaps a smear of Vicks on cotton fabric would do the trick.

Hope you're feeling better.

Lisa said...

Oh my word, how I laughed at this. For one thing, that two week cold has hit our house. I was semi-felled by it and it's dragging its runny nose and fatigue now into week three.

But your writing here is so subtly hilarious. This line, for example:

Certainly we have the Internet now, which contributes greatly to the pleasures of self-diagnosis, but for sheer wallowing in illness there is nothing like the Victorian Age in which Aunt Etty lived.

And that excerpt from the book describing her mask!!!!! Screamingly funny. I laughed until I had a coughing fit.

I hope you're feeling better soon.

Nancy said...

Oh, I must read this book. Having just had the flu, I can very much commensurate with you. Texas and England are two very different places, that's for sure. Hope you feel better soon.

troutbirder said...

Two bad colds at the same time. Not good. I stopped by after reading Sarah L's comment on my comment that you also had highly thought of Franzens "Freedom". I scan back in your posts and concured 100% with your review. Struggling with a similar post for one of my blogs I wonder if I could also post a link to your review" Thanks

Nimble said...

I hope it's tapering off now, soon to be gone. There's nothing to awaken your appreciation for good health like a cold. Breathing freely through your nostrils or being able to take a deep breath without coughing, both taken for granted until we can't do them.

Etty's mask is a hoot, she really was a martyr to her delicate health as they might have put it back then. The French seem to believe that it is very important to cover la gorge. So put a silk scarf 'round your neck while you are feeling puny. That makes more sense to me than draping one foot.

Hope the weather eases a bit so you can get outside when you're feeling better.

elizabethm said...

Oh you pooe thing! I have read the book too, ages ago and had quite forgotten it until I read this blog. I think upper class women in particular went in for illness as a sort of vocation as they had nothing else to do. You have to pass the time somehow!

Sarah Laurence said...

Lovely image! I can’t believe it’s colder and snowier in England than in Maine.

I’m sorry you’ve been sick for so long, especially over your trip. Perhaps you should visit your GP? An extra week might indicate a sinus infection or similar. I hope you were still able to enjoy your vacation. Misery!

Only you would trace the historical arc of the common cold and its treatment. I'm impressed. When I'm sick, my brain shuts down. I wish you a speedy recovery and some down time in bed to recover and read. Maybe your body is telling you something.

herhimnbryn said...

Get well soon and then please send cold and snow to me out here in all this heat.

The description Aunt Etty made me smile.

Kristen In London said...

Poor poor you! Traveling is the antithesis of self-centredness, which is what you need when you're ill... When you travel, it's all about everyone else. Do you find, though, that if anyone tries to cosset you while you're ill, you resist? I do, and then I realize how contradictory humans (I) can be.

Feel better!

kristina said...

Oh goodness. I finally succumbed to the cold last week. I did an Aunt Etty on Tuesday and stayed in bed--so unlike me--but it did work. I must draw the line at the anti-cold mask though! Hope you're feeling better very soon.

K x

Marcheline said...

I know Aunt Ettie's "cold mask" was funny, but those little white masks (a-la Michael Jackson and most Asian folks) are really effective.

What most Americans don't realize is that in Asian countries, people don't wear the masks because they are afraid of getting sick, they wear them when THEY have a cold, to prevent spreading germs when travelling in public.

If more folks here in the USA would have half that much consideration, imagine how many of us would remain illness free this winter!

Merisi said...

I imagine you with a kitchen-strainer, trying to get onto a plane in the USA. ;-)

One must have been part of the Upper Class, I suppose, to be able to indulge in hypochondria during Victorian times.

I hope you are feeling better!

Cait O'Connor said...

I hope you have got over the cold and cough - it's been doing the rounds here as well. Hope too that you are keeping warm now!

I like the sound of that novel, will seek it out.

elizabeth said...

What a splendid essay, Bee.
Do hope you are feeling better.
How much more quickly the Victorians took to their beds.
Actually being in bed bores me no end, though I remember hours and hours and days and days of it as a small child.
The crumbs in the sheets, the hotness of fever etc etc.
Period Piece is a great favorite of mine.

Cottage Garden said...

Oh Bee I hope you are feeling so much better now - that cold sounds dreadful.

Your post did make me laugh unintentionally though. Your writing is a joy. I love the description of Aunt Etty's anti-cold mask. Good idea if you ask me!! And breakfast in bed? - bring it on!

I will look out for this book. Stay warm.


julochka said...

i hope you're feeling better by now. i almost spit tea all over my keyboard with that last bit. i must get that book. and i think i might construct such a mask to wear to work tomorrow. it might ward off all manner of creepy crawlies..and let me tell you, there are plenty of those at work.

Frances said...

I had the great pleasure of sharing tea, coffee and pie with Elizabeth today, and she recommended this post of yours.

I am delighted to have followed her suggestion. Your writing is wonderful as it ambles amongst many levels and treats them all very well.

Hoping that you will soon be recovered, agreeing with you that airline travel mid-cold incubation could only help give the germs the upper hand. If germs do have hands?

Thanks also to you for the recommendation of Period Piece, which I will seek out at my fabulous library. Cheers from NYC

Barrie said...

Imagine getting breakfast in bed every morning?! Hope you're feeling better. A flu bug is going through my household. Yuck.

Yolanda said...

I hope you feel better soon.

Shaista said...

Oh Bee what an absolutely fantastic work of writing - I shall look for it immediately :)
Granny is awaiting chemo, and although I ought to feel more worried, she has been so Aunt Ettyish all her life, that I swing between despair and merriment at the things she thinks of to worry about :) xx