The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Illness Lesson
The Illness Lesson
by Clare Beams

Paperback (9 Mar 2021), 288 pages.
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN-13: 9780525565475
Genres
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

Sarah Waters meets Red Clocks in this searing novel, set at an all-girl school in 19th century Massachusetts, which probes the timeless question: who gets to control a woman's body and why.

The year is 1871. In Ashwell, Massachusetts, at the farm of Samuel Hood and his daughter, Caroline, a mysterious flock of red birds descends. Samuel, whose fame as a philosopher has waned in recent years, takes the birds' appearance as an omen that the time is ripe for his newest venture. He will start a school for young women, guiding their intellectual development as he has so carefully guided his daughter's. Despite Caroline's misgivings, Samuel's vision--revolutionary, as always; noble, as always; full of holes, as always--takes shape.

It's not long before the students begin to manifest bizarre symptoms. Rashes, fits, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. In desperation, the school turns to the ministering of a sinister physician--based on a real historic treatment--just as Caroline's body, too, begins its betrayal. As the girls' conditions worsens, long-buried secrets emerge, and Caroline must confront the all-male, all-knowing authorities around her, the ones who insist the voices of the sufferers are unreliable. In order to save herself, Caroline may have to destroy everything she's ever known.

Written in intensely vivid prose and brimming with psychological insight, The Illness Lesson is a powerful exploration of women's bodies, women's minds, and the time-honored tradition of doubting both.

Listen to an audio excerpt of The Illness Lesson

Excerpted from The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams. Copyright © 2020 by Clare Beams. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Why do you think the author chose to begin the story with the red birds, or "trilling hearts"? How did they set the tone for the rest of the novel?
  2. Each chapter begins with a quote from the novel-within-a-novel, The Darkening Glass, which represents a cultural touchstone for the characters. Can you think of a literary work that carries similar popularity and relevance in our current time?
  3. Caroline observes that her father imagines the students as "a kind of beautiful clay: dense, rich, formless, and waiting for him." What do you think this says about his intentions as a teacher? Have you ever had a teacher who wielded this kind of influence?
  4. Eliza is the students' ringleader and she is also the first to fall ill. How did your feelings towards Eliza change over the course of the novel?
  5. The "treatment" that Dr. Hawkins administers is based on a real historical treatment for "hysteria." What do you think his methods say about the 19th century understanding of women's bodies?
  6. How does the atmosphere of the school change after Sophia's abrupt departure? What effect does being the only adult woman left at Trilling Heart have on Caroline?
  7. What did you make of Caroline's decision at the end of the novel? If you were in her position, do you think you would have made a different one?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Set in 19th century Massachusetts, The Illness Lesson is a suspenseful historical narrative about the perils of discounting a woman's personhood and capacity to understand her own experience.

Print Article Publisher's View   

There is nothing particularly new or revolutionary in considering the ways men have controlled women's lives and bodies throughout history (and to some extent still do today). Fortunately, Clare Beams' luminous, intense debut The Illness Lesson offers a more layered and complex version of this story in which the men who may appear, and even believe themselves to be, progressive champions of women's rights fail utterly to live up to their own ideals.

The novel's protagonist, Caroline Hood, is a young woman living with her father, the renowned author and thinker Samuel Hood, in 1871. Caroline's mother died when she was five, shortly after the failure of Samuel's first grandiose venture, a collective farm called the Birch Hill Consociation run by his devoted acolytes. Now, Samuel has attracted a new young admirer, and the two men conceive of a plan to open a school for teenage girls that will offer instruction beyond what is typically taught to female students—subjects like math, philosophy and science. Caroline is tasked with teaching literature. But when the girls arrive, things begin to go south quickly. It turns out that one of the students has a personal connection to the Hoods from the Birch Hill era, which Samuel would prefer to forget. Then a mysterious illness sets in, affecting each of the girls slightly differently, and Samuel calls in a longtime associate, Dr. Hawkins, to investigate. Hawkins diagnoses the girls with hysteria and Caroline balks at the intrusive treatment he recommends. When she tries to express her reservations to her father, he is dismissive, asserting that they should defer to Hawkins' medical expertise.

The situation is morally complicated (to the men at least) by their faith not only in Hawkins but the significance of their project, and by extension, their own integrity. Samuel and his protege David refrain from contacting the girls' parents or seeking other medical opinions because they believe doing so would be an admission of defeat for the school—proof that girls are insufficiently intelligent or robust for a proper education. Then there's Birch Hill to consider. Would Samuel's legacy withstand another failure, or would he be judged harshly if the school closed amid controversy after its first term? Caroline wants to protect the girls from potential harm, but she is deeply entangled in her father's ambitious plans. The novel is taut with these constricting knots of loyalty and responsibility and the agonized indecision they provoke in Caroline.

The irony is that Samuel raised his daughter in the manner in which he teaches his students—educating her, insisting that her gender should hold her back from nothing, inspiring her toward moral courage. Yet he has also held her as something of a captive to his dreams and needs. Caroline has her own ambitions, her own desires; but with her mother gone, she can't imagine leaving her father alone. And despite his posturing about gender equality, Samuel clearly expects his daughter to support him and agree with his every plan. He brought her up to be an independent, free-thinking woman, but when she behaves as such, he is flummoxed. "The soul does not have a gender," Samuel tells her when introducing the idea of the school. But Caroline wonders about the implications of this statement: "She had no way, really, of evaluating its general truth. She knew only that her life had a gender."

While Caroline is the novel's central figure, Beams breathes life into the students as well, capturing the distinct low-grade madness adolescence can sometimes inspire, particularly in teenage girls. The most intense among them, Eliza, holds the other girls in her thrall; they are all desperate to be her best friend and imitate her behavior. In fact, the Hoods' students truly do seem to be suffering from mass hysteria, but the novel is less concerned with why or what this means than it is with Caroline's inner conflict. This is perhaps the narrative's only flaw. Given no insight into what is really going on, one might very well think that the girls are simply mentally and emotionally ill-equipped for what the school is asking of them, just as Samuel fears.

Nevertheless, the novel is a clever critique of the paternalism and subtle condescension often present just below the surface of supposedly forward-thinking men. The author sustains a deeply discomfiting atmosphere of dread throughout, making The Illness Lesson a quiet feminist thriller about the perils of respecting male authority over one's own moral instincts.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

Esquire
Frightening, suspenseful, and timely, The Illness Lesson explores the crushing weight of oppression and the indefatigable power of female defiance.

O, the Oprah Magazine
A meticulously crafted suspense tale seething with feminist fury.

New York Times
There’s plenty to mull over between the puzzling fowl, the classroom dynamics and our complicated protagonist’s eerie ability to better intuit how to police her young female charges than Samuel can. Best of all is Beams’s tone: ironic and arch when relaying the spirited optimism of Samuel’s precious experiments, urgent and sinister when depicting their nightmarish outcomes. Astoundingly original, this impressive debut belongs on the shelf with your Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler collections.

New York Journal of Books
An astonishing book...Beams shows a kind of mastery in yoking the natural to the surreal and linking grief and fear to rage.

Publishers Weekly
Beams excels in her depiction of Caroline, an intriguingly complex character...This powerful and resonant feminist story will move readers.

Library Journal
Bard Prize winner Beams successfully shapes the characters who tell the story, capturing the mores of the times and delving deeply into the psychological aspects of the situation. The underlying secret creates a tension that is resolved only in the final pages. Readers of general fiction will enjoy.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Beams takes risk after risk...and they all seem to pay off. Her ventriloquizing of the late 19th century, her delicate-as-lace sentences, and the friction between the unsettling thinking of the period and its 21st century resonances make for an electrifying read. A satisfyingly strange novel from the one-of-a-kind Beams.

Booklist (starred review)
Luminous...This suspenseful and vividly evocative tale expertly explores women's oppression as well as their sexuality through the eyes of a heroine who is sometimes maddening, at other times sympathetic, and always wholly compelling and beautifully rendered.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Gilbert, author of City of Girls
The Illness Lesson is a brilliant, suspenseful, beautifully-executed psychological thriller. With power, subtlety, and keen intelligence, Clare Beams has somehow crafted a tale that feels like both classical ghost story and like a modern (and very timely) scream of female outrage. I stayed up all night to finish reading it, and I can still feel its impact thrumming through my mind and body. A masterpiece.

Author Blurb Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks
Stunningly good—a brainy page-turner that's gorgeous and frightening in equal measure. The Illness Lesson dazzled me.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Changes to Female Education Pioneered by Women in 19th Century America

Portrait of Emma Willard The plot of The Illness Lesson revolves around the establishment of a Massachusetts school for girls in 1871 by a man with ideas about female education that are progressive and experimental for this era. The protagonist's father Samuel Hood believes that his teenage students should be offered the same curriculum as their male peers, including the study of biology, philosophy and literature. Schools that catered to girls/young women in the 19th century were often essentially finishing schools, where students were offered largely moral and domestic instruction (such as sewing and childcare). However, education opportunities for women were expanded through schools like Georgia Female College (1836), Mount Holyoke Seminary (1837) and Elmira Female College (1855), among others, many of which were founded and operated by women themselves.

The evolution of beliefs about the education of girls and women was aligned with the emergence of the first-wave feminist movement and the work of activists like Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870). Willard was an intellectual prodigy who began teaching at age 17 and went on to open a school for girls called Middlebury Seminary Academy in her own home in 1814. At Middlebury, students learned about science and the classics, among other subjects. In 1821, Willard opened Troy Female Seminary in New York (later called the Emma Willard School), where girls were taught subjects like math, science and history, often learning from textbooks Willard wrote herself.

The seminaries founded by women were a big part of the expansion of young women's education in the late-18th to mid-19th centuries in America. (While today the word "seminary" is usually associated with a school of theology, it was often used at the time to refer to institutions that filled a need for higher education for women.) Catharine Beecher (1800-1878), sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, became a key figure in this development, founding the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823 with another sister, Mary. Though she was anti-women's suffrage, Catharine believed firmly that girls and women should receive education commensurate to that of boys and men. The Hartford Female Seminary taught a range of subjects, from science to philosophy to, perhaps most controversially at the time, physical education. In addition to teaching, Catharine authored several books, including Calisthenic Exercises for Schools, Families, and Health Establishments. Harriet taught at the school from 1829 to 1832. (Both Catharine and Harriet were educated themselves at Litchfield Female Academy in Connecticut, which was founded by another pioneer in women's education, Sarah Pierce.)

Like Emma Willard, Mary Lyon (1797-1849) began teaching at age 17, in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts—she was paid about $3 per month while her male peers earned $10-$12. She pursued her own education doggedly throughout her life and gained a wealth of teaching experience, and in 1837 she founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. The curriculum at Mount Holyoke was rigorous; women were expected to complete seven courses in science and math before graduation. Lyon taught chemistry and invited her students to take a hands-on approach, conducting their own experiments in a laboratory setting.

The Normal School for Colored Girls (also called the Miner School for Girls) was founded in Washington D.C. in 1851 by Myrtilla Miner, primarily as a teaching school for young African American women, though there was also an attached primary school. Although the school did not have a "radical" curriculum like the others described above, its very existence as a place of learning for Black girls and women was unorthodox for the time. The school was funded in part by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The teaching program became Miner Teachers College in 1929 and was integrated with Wilson Teachers College in 1955; collectively they became the District of Columbia Teachers College.

Emma Willard circa 1805-1815

Filed under Society and Politics

By Lisa Butts

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