From the Hôtel Élite on the Avenue Sainte-Luce in Lausanne, a small, ‘entirely non-smoking’ 3-star with views of Lake Geneva, with a small dining room for the serving of a buffet breakfast, a small lift with carpeted walls and ceiling, and a small reception room with yellow sofas, yellow curtains, yellow artificial flowers and glass-topped, lamp-lit coffee tables reflecting yellow pools of light, I write a postcard. Outside, through the net curtains pulled across the bank of windows, under the striped awnings, O stands, smoking. Or rather, vaping. This is a distinction he often makes in conversation and in his emails to me, that arrive as regularly as the post when we are apart—as we are for long periods of time, each living at either end of the Great Western Railway. The difference, he says (the twitch of his smile, the tease of his writing), is in the form (his emphasis) of what’s inhaled: vapour, not smoke; it’s not smoking, it’s vaping.
I breathe in, sick with love for him.
Bessie, we’re here. Plymouth to London to Paris to Lausanne. I could not have made it without O, porter-lover, who carried everything, from one station to another. I am going to REST. Drink alpine wine, take in the view.
How steep it is here. How clear, how blue.
Did your nose bleed too? Gemma
When the symptoms of her pulmonary tuberculosis prevented her from performing, London-born show-girl Bessie Bruce (1883–1921)—this, her stage name—became a health tourist, travelling in search of a cure that would not be discovered until the 1940s, some twenty years after her death. The last fifteen years of her life were spent on what was marketed as glamorous vacation in hotels across Europe and North Africa that promoted their sun-baked settings as resorts for good health: Lake Maggiore, Lake Como, Nice, Ajaccio, Biskra, Tunis, all this in just twelve months of travel from the spring of 1910 to 1911, most of it by rail. As her lung disease progressed, hotels gave way to longer and longer stays in sanatoria in what were known as climatic stations, remote locations in areas of high altitude where the air was considered especially restorative. While Bessie would continue to holiday in Italy, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands—onwards, onwards, here, there—she would always return to Leysin in the Vaud Alps, Switzerland, a village on a mountain terrace at an altitude of 1200 metres above sea level, a location deemed so ideal by the doctors and hoteliers of the local Societé Climatérique, formed in 1890, that it would be developed, higher still, at Leysin-Feydey around a further 200 metres up, into a much-feted destination for consumptives, as those with tuberculosis still described themselves in the early twentieth century.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, three newly constructed, luxury private sanatoria positioned above the village offered clinical medical environments, facilities and regimes in spaces designed in the manner of the grand European hotel for consumptives of different means. Its entry on Leysin of 1906, The British Journal of Nursing stated that the sanatoria were run ‘according to the most modern rules of comfort and hygiene, and to bring within reach of patients the best conditions of improvement and cure.’1 Of the three, the Sanatorium du Mont-Blanc was less exclusive than the Grand Hôtel, situated a few metres higher, but more lavish than Chamossaire, a few metres below (this, the economy of geography). The Mont-Blanc was where Bessie stayed. In a letter to her lover on stationery from another establishment—the Grand Hôtel Bellevue at Belvédère in Glion above Montreux, also in the canton of Vaud, of 5 January 1920—she wrote, ‘Needless to say I am more than happy to return to Leysin. There I am at Home.’2
We are not in Leysin, at least not yet. Our trip to Switzerland, to the former sanatorium in the former climatic station of the still remote alpine village, suspended in the bright blue sky over the bright blue water of Lac Léman, was delayed because I am sick. ‘I can’t go’, I’d said, ‘I can’t walk, I can’t breathe.’ I left a few days later than planned—still coughing, still shaking, still tiring—taking the train from the south-west of England to London, to the Continent, to here, the hilltop city of Lausanne, the last stop before a further journey to Leysin by rail along the perimeter of the lake and then up into the clouds, the snow-topped peaks of mountains, the very rays of the sun. In his email rescheduling the date of my lecture at the Institut des humanités en médecine at the University of Lausanne, Vincent told me I would take ‘great advantage from the visit to Leysin, with its good air for the lungs.’ Véronique, the local guide who had come down the mountain to a dinner of exquisite Swiss cuisine at the Café du Grütli on the rue Mercerie to attend my lecture (‘Eat, you must eat!’), agreed. I’d nodded that yes, I would have a good breakfast, wrap up warm, leave for the mountain, I promised, the very next day, before the rain, the damp, the cold blew over from where I cannot remember—oh, the deliciousness of succumbing to their solicitous care, of the filets de perche, of the mousse au chocolat noir, of taste suddenly, joyfully, returned.
SOUVENIR du MONT-BLANC
I have a collection of patient ephemera from the Mont-Blanc and its neighbour, the Grand Hôtel, bought online for very little money from paper dealers in Geneva. It comprises menus of elaborate dinners with multiple courses, receipts on illustrated sanatorium stationery itemising meal upon meal of rich alpine food because this was part of the consumptive’s regime, provided to counteract the wasting of the diseased body; but in the main it consists of postcards, endless postcards depicting the views, the sumptuous sanatorium interiors with their vast dining rooms, the water falls, the winter sports—pictures of health and of wealth to reassure the sender as well as the recipient that all would be well. This, after all, was travel, this card a memento of a time – a stay, a vacation—that would come, surely, to an end. The picture-postcard was a souvenir as Susan Stewart has theorised: an object that denotes a lived experience which—crucially—is not ‘repeatable’ but ‘reportable’, which distinguishes ‘events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative’; an event, then, in the case of patients in Leysin, to look back on, to tell, meaning to survive.3 ‘The souvenir’, Stewart continues, ‘generates a narrative which reaches only “behind”, spiraling in a continually inward movement rather than outward toward the future.’4
Was the future too terrifying to contemplate? Despite the sanatorium’s proclamation of the climatic station’s anti-tubercular, curative environment, only palliative care could be offered to those with pulmonary tuberculosis. There was comfort, I imagine, in the sending and receiving of a postcard, a piece of paper that marked a time soon to pass, a period that would become a story that moved in one direction only: backwards. The tender cheer of the writing from here… The hopeful anticipation of health returned, of time to come. When I am well, I am well, I am well.
‘The souvenir moves history into private time.’ (Stewart again)5
The Souvenir du Mont-Blanc moves history into sick time too.
Sick time is the shared private time of the chronically ill. Sick time is slow, resisting the fast forward momentum of well time. Sick time does not hurtle along tracks to the future. Sick time moves forwards only to be pulled backwards. Sick time is suspended time. Sick time is waiting time.6 Sick time is writing time, too.
Gemma Blackshaw is Professor of Art History at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and Academic Associate at the Freud Museum. An interdisciplinary scholar, writer and curator specialising in what she has termed ‘clinical modernism’, she works on the intersection of modernist art and literature with clinical medical cultures in early twentieth-century Europe. ‘The Sick Train’ offers a window on to her epistolary biography-in-pieces, BESSIE, which draws upon her creative approach to the writing of sick women’s lives in histories of modernism, to the archive, to cross-historical correspondence as a practice of care, and to art historical research as an expression of lovesick attachment to the object of study. She is the originator and convenor of the CARE research group at the RCA, which meets to develop creative research methods that prioritise the care of bodies, materials and environments across time, and co-editor of its two anthologies: CARE(LESS). A supplement to ON CARE (Ma Bibliothèque, 2021, https://mabibliotheque.cargo.site/CARE-LESS-A-SUPPLEMENT-TO-ON-CARE-2021), and I care by… (Research Communiqués: RCA School of Arts and Humanities, 2022).
1 ‘Sanatoria in High Altitudes’, The British Journal of Nursing, 8 September 1906, vol. 37, p. 192.
2 Teilnachlass Adolf Loos, ZPH-1442, Wiener Stadt- und Landesbibliothek, Vienna, Inv. 5.1.20.
3 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 135.
5 Ibid, p. 138.
6 I am indebted here to Lisa Baraitser’s work on time’s suspension. Baraitser, Enduring Time (London: Bloomsbury Collections, 2006).