To be convalescent, in the nineteenth century, was to have survived a medical crisis and to be still picking up the pieces. The category of convalescence could be applied to the survival of all kinds of traumatic medical experiences—a brush with death in a cholera epidemic, an emergency amputation, even a mental health crisis. Convalescents lived in the aftermath of illness, broadly defined, and did not fully know what the future held for them: whether they should anticipate full recovery or brace for a potential relapse.
I have been researching nineteenth-century convalescence for nearly ten years, yet the urgency of recovering this historical understanding of the body never felt so pressing as now. More than a year into the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, I imagine we all can identify with the plight of the convalescent Victorian, who was suspended between illness and health for an indefinite period of time. In this past year, we have all lived in limbo, grieving lost loved ones, lost experiences, and lost senses of self. We are more vulnerable, both individually and collectively, than perhaps we once thought. Victorian convalescents worked through similar griefs as they navigated a growing awareness that their bodies and minds had changed, perhaps irrevocably, during the time of illness.
Yet for all the uncertainty of the convalescent state, Victorians also identified profound opportunities available in the in-betweenness of being neither ill nor well. The period of convalescence was a welcome respite from the relentless demands of modern work. It was an opportunity to enjoy nature, books, and friends. Yet it also represented a time of coming to terms with an emerging, more vulnerable sense of self, a self subject to illness and aging. While it was often unnerving to recognize one’s own frailty, the convalescent experience could also expand one’s horizons to recognize new sympathetic ties with fellow sufferers.
When I first started researching convalescence, I was in the midst of the aftermath of my own medical crisis. One year into my PhD program, I was diagnosed with metastasized cancer. There was little to be done; chemo wasn’t an option in this case. All we could do was carve out the cancer in a series of surgeries. Then we waited. And for years afterwards, every few months I would drive away from my life at the university to go lie in a PET scan machine, to check if the cancer had come back somewhere—to check if I was dying. Then, when the results were blessedly negative, I could go home and catch up on grading. At the time, such a suspended existence—not fully recovered and not currently in a crisis—felt alien to what I thought a cancer survivor was supposed to be. I was supposed to fight cancer, not wait it out. I was supposed to bounce back, not simply hang on for months and years.
My research into nineteenth convalescent culture finally gave me a vocabulary and a narrative structure to understand the lingering afterlife of my own illness. Slow recovery, in the nineteenth century, was not a failure, nor something to be feared. Rather, physical and psychological trauma simply required an extended period of time to process, even beyond the end of active symptoms. And in the face of a hectic modern existence, Victorians even embraced convalescent time as a necessary break from the routine strains placed on average health in the modern era. During convalescence, one had the chance to meet one’s self again, separate from the mindless routines, hectic working habits and social duties that often crowded out quiet thought. My own convalescence from cancer was an opportunity to unearth my own values and beliefs, quite apart from the hope of renewed health or the dread of sudden relapse.
Today, I imagine many of us face a quandary as we wait out the in-betweenness of pandemic life. Many of us are still processing the grief and fear of the past year, or perhaps even dreading a return to routine habits. And of course, some long-haul survivors of COVID-19 are enduring prolonged impairments with no end in sight. Our current medical culture generates tremendous pressure to recovery quickly, to get back on the horse, and above all (as we see in US politics at the moment) to get back to work. My research offers an alternative: a forgotten historical legacy in which a slow, unhurried recuperation is not only preferable, but ultimately more ethical than a headlong rush to normalcy.
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