“As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.”― Virginia Woolf

The concept of a woman’s autonomy over her own body is not a new concept, however it still seems that society hasn’t quite grasped it. Our latest read takes readers to the 19th Century, when women found themselves all too familiar with being caught under the thumb of men.

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

In her novel debut Clare Beams encourages her readers to squirm as her characters find themselves silenced when trying to voice their autonomy in this feminist read.

Caroline has grown up with her father, a respected writer who lives with his head in the clouds of loftier ideals. When a flock of strange red birds called trilling hearts suddenly arrives on her family’s property, her father and his protege decide to open a school for girls, where the young women will be taught academics instead of etiquette; Caroline finds herself concerned that their dreams don’t factor in practicalities. The birds that appear to be so captivating to everyone else, disturb Caroline with their aggressively red feathers and sharp beaks. Once the girls arrive it seems the school might work out after all, until the students develop a series of strange maladies. When Caroline tries to send the students home to be cared for by their parents, her father overrules her and brings in a friend, a physician with questionable medical practices.

In “The Illness Lesson” Beams highlights how the students are taught to ask questions, are trained to seek answers, but are silenced by their teacher when they try to ask about their own health. The men in charge at the school choose to ignore the girls’ suffering, believing their illnesses to be rooted in a psychological instead of physical issue, ignoring their students’ complaints.

Beam’s novel is a vividly delicate story of women being encouraged to think as long as it doesn’t contradict with the thoughts of the men in the room. The moment Caroline or the students speak up for themselves, the men in the novel dismiss them even to the point of dismissing their refusal to be molested as a form of medical treatment. “The Illness Lesson” simmers with the slow burning rage of a tea kettle as Caroline finds herself repeatedly silenced until she can find a way to shout.

From the book jacket…

At their newly founded school, Samuel Hood and his daughter Caroline promise a groundbreaking education for young women. But Caroline has grave misgivings. After all, her own unconventional education has left her unmarriageable and isolated, unsuited to the narrow roles afforded women in 19th century New England.

When a mysterious flock of red birds descends on the town, Caroline alone seems to find them unsettling. But it’s not long before the assembled students begin to manifest bizarre symptoms: Rashes, seizures, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. One by one, they sicken. Fearing ruin for the school, Samuel overrules Caroline’s pleas to inform the girls’ parents and turns instead to a noted physician, a man whose sinister ministrations—based on a shocking historic treatment—horrify Caroline. As the men around her continue to dictate, disastrously, all terms of the girls’ experience, Caroline’s body too begins to betray her. To save herself and her young charges, she will have to defy every rule that has governed her life, her mind, her body, and her world.

If you enjoy…

Those looking to find more books with a feminist voice might also enjoy reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay “We Should All Be Feminists.”