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Starting this year reminded me of that alleged (as in very probably made-up) quote from the diary of Tsar Nicholas II : “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better”. By March 1917, he’d abdicated and his family were imprisoned.

2017 didn’t start so well. I was going inwards on myself, fighting infections. A’s bike accident left her temporarily immobilized, unable to move from the sofa bed we had to prepare. It was becoming a small world with very little in it. I took to reading Harriet Martineau, the Victorian essayist and proto-feminist, who was very ill with a uterine tumor and spent five years from 1840 confined to her sick room. She wrote “Life in the Sickroom” as a sort of manual for invalids and their carers. As she said: “When an invalid is under sentence of disease for life, it becomes a duty of first-rate importance to select a proper place of abode.” Get it right, and the whole thing can be quite pleasant: “it is a comfortable season, if it may but last, when one’s friends have ceased to hope unreasonably, and not grown tired of despairing.” Those she charmingly called “the friends of my brighter days.

The only problem for us was that we were two invalids, and it was tricky trying to switch between the roles of the caring Housekeeper and the failing Invalid. I suppose it didn’t matter that much in the end. After all, as Harriet says: “how unavailing is luxury when the body is distressed and the spirit faint.” Sickness applies a filter that makes sensation less bearable. It’s like Sylvia Plath in her white-walled hospital when she is given a bouquet of red flowers: “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here. Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.

I have ignored Harriet’s other piece of advice: “There is no point of which I am more sure than that it is unwise in sick people to keep a diary.” She advised this as she was herself keeping a diary, as a sick person. Where did that reputation for Victorian hypocrisy come from? I suppose we can’t be too smug. We look on death in the same way that the Victorians looked upon sex.

Harriet recovered (the tumor probably moved to a less painful spot) and went to live in the Lake District. She was a changed woman, post-illness, and took to describing the local scenery in magnitude rather than the sick room in miniature. She entertained, and each guest was encouraged to plant two trees in the grounds. Her visitors included Elizabeth Gaskell, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charlotte Bronte.

I too wanted that post-illness release. Peter Wildeblood was a gay man trapped by the same laws that did for Oscar Wilde. He fought back with a book published in 1955 that is often credited with changing the law. When he was released from prison he took off for a quiet life in the Canadian wilderness. There is a line in his 1999 obituary that resonates: “Here he cooked oriental meals, created a minute garden of exotic plants to attract hummingbirds, and photographed an amiable raccoon, which liked to sit in the branches of a pear tree.” That is what I craved most – an amiable racoon. Or, perhaps even just a sanguine squirrel. The other bits sound OK too.

But we came through our small-world existence in the sick room. Taking inspiration from those fine Victorians we discovered that one could simply scribble an order and then an errand boy from J.Sainsbury, the village grocer, would come tootling along with our victuals and other provisions. What a step forward in human progress!