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)