IMG 4118
Postcard of the train to Leysin, posted in 1904, from the collection of Véronique Bernard. Photographed on a table in her home, one of four villas constructed especially for the village’s doctors from 1897–1900, April 2022

Loved ones were so missed because visits to Leysin were so rare. This remains a faraway location, reached by trains of diminishing lengths and widths, higher and higher, slower and slower, in fewer and fewer carriages, the journey then barely differing from the journey now. On the back of a postcard of the Place de la Palud included with our restaurant’s bill, Véronique had written the route by rail from Lausanne: down towards the water and then along the edge of Lac Léman, past villas and vineyards, pleasure boats and the Belle Epoque paddle steamer, commissioned in 1910, before the steady ascent to Aigle where we would change trains, walking across the station to a carriage strung to just one other on the narrow-gauge line which would take us to the village of Leysin and the sanatorium complex of Leysin-Feydey just above it, which opened in 1900, the first track of its kind in the region, rising from its terminus in Aigle to its summit, a private station with concealed walkways to ensure discreet entrances and exits for patients at the Grand Hôtel at 1471 metres altitude.1 For the first kilometre on the narrow-gauge line, we would slide through the streets of Aigle, from the station to a depot where the train would come to a halt before reversing for its continuation uphill (so steep, she had said, it would feel vertical), rising backwards through forests of pine, sheets of rock and lines of fog, through atmospheres so increased in altitude that our stomachs would heave and our ears would hiss and pop.

The last locomotive used by Bessie on the Aigle-Leysin line was constructed in 1915 (it had three predecessors, purpose-built for the line in 1900). It was known by locals as ‘Le Train des malades’, the Sick Train, with its compartment for patients who needed to lie down for this last stage of their journey across Europe by rail, its curtains to conceal their sick faces, its slow, even decorous mode of ascent-in-reverse, its ghosts reflected in the windowpanes.

Carriage as coffin, procession, discretion.

The sick time of the sick train, rolling slowly back and forth, down, down, down, up, up, up.


From Bessie’s contemporary Arthur Schnitzler, whose novella Dying was published in 1895.

Felix is diagnosed with a terminal illness, with what is never named as tuberculosis. He weakens, pales, recovers, hopes, falls, rises, falls again. He plans to head to the south, to the Riviera and after that—yes, even Africa! He lives a life suspended, as does his lover Marie who promises to…

‘Remind me of your promise’ he said quickly. ‘Your promise to die with me.’ As he spoke these words he had moved very close to her. She felt his breath brush her mouth, and she could not get away. He was speaking, as close to her as if she were to drink in his words with her own lips. ‘I’m taking you with me. I don’t want to go alone. I love you, I’m not leaving you here!’2

The English translation of Schnitzler’s Dying, small enough to slip inside a pocket, little more than a postcard in size, my paperback for travel to Switzerland, is published by Pushkin Press with this epigraph:

After great pain, a formal
feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious,
like Tombs –

—Emily Dickinson

I find the original poem, completing the lines of the first stanza:

The stiff Heart questions ‘was
it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

Yesterday, or Centuries before? This sick time, Bessie, that does not seem to pass, that resists the souvenir’s insistence on time past, that rolls forward only to pull backwards (down, down, down, up, up, up).

Sick time rolls. Sick time glides. Sick time elides.


Correspondence offered proximity in writing, a language of stroking, holding, accompanying, of waiting with. Leysin, though small, had two post-offices—one located next door to the Mont-Blanc—and the first telegraph communication system in the area. Letters and telegrams were as fundamental to the patient’s sense of survival as the ready supplies of milk, cream, eggs and cheese (provisions so plentiful they sustained the village’s economy), the clean water, the gentle exercise, the rest. Treatment in Leysin included long periods of bedrest, supervised perambulations around mountain paths of different gradients, clinical observation of sputum, collected in cobalt blue bottles to minimise the contamination of fabrics, surfaces, persons, and surgical procedures deemed minor, which included the collapsing of an infected lung through the injection of oxygen or nitrogen to reduce the spread of the disease through the rest of the body. In sanatoria like those in Leysin, which were highly regulated, consumptives were schooled to think of themselves as ‘perpetually infective’, as Alison Bashford has described.4 The minutiae of living—coughing, yes, but also eating, drinking, speaking, kissing, touching, washing, sleeping, loving, travelling—was a matter for clinical re-education. Postcards were substitutes for an intimacy that could no longer be practiced for fear of contagion, protecting lovers, little siblings, children—those we long for. (CARTE-POSTALE, Sanatorium du Mont-Blanc: Ma chere petite sœur, Je t’envoie une petite carte car je t’aime beaucoup. Je t’embrasse de tout mon petit cœur…)

For all their distance, for all their caution, for all their care, I imagine these postcards—sent with such love, with ‘all my little heart’—as tubercular transmissions, infecting all those they touched, because to write to the contagious one—even across time—is to correspond in other ways, becoming like, meaning sickening too.

Who pursues who?

Your face in the windowpane.

My face in the windowpane.

On the glass, the vapour of condensed breath.

From his mouth, rolling fog.


To be transmitted is to journey, to exist in some kind of motion—some kind of potential—between two positions (geographical, but also temporal). It is a beautiful way of imagining the life of postcards between their sending and receiving, their experience—these paper-letter-bodies—of being en route. (From John Berger and Anne Michaels’ Railtracks on long-distance love, night-time messages on answering machines, nocturnal transmissions of voice: ‘Sometimes I wept to think how far each word, each note, had travelled, through how many leave-takings. From one language to another. From one to another.’5) In the language of biomedicine – which sought to understand contagion especially in relation to tuberculosis, a disease caused by a bacterium made to survive—to transmit is also to spread ‘communicable’ (as they are sometimes called) diseases. Communicable disease passages too, journeying from one body to another by air, by the touching of an infected individual or a contaminated surface such as panes of glass, pieces of paper, wooden frames of sick train carriages, keeping sick time across the centuries.


It is 6 April 2022. I am writing from Lausanne. I am writing en route.

Outside the Hôtel Élite, red geraniums spurt from the stony throats of urns.

The receptionist offers a stamp for the postcard that cannot be sent and now there is O, sauntering in, vape in hand.

He pulls me up from the sofa, up, up, up to the room, his fingers brushing the cross-sections of carpeted floors as the open-sided elevator glides past.

I am laughing, burning, licking, wanting.

(sick with love for him)

In the morning, I say, when I am well, we will take the train to Leysin.

Part 1

With thanks to my correspondents: Vincent Barras, Véronique Bernard, Alice Butler, Sharon Kivland, and O.


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,, and I care by… (Research Communiqués: RCA School of Arts and Humanities, 2022).


1 Gaston Maison, 75 ans du chemin de fer Aigle-Leysin (Aigle: Revue des amis du rail, 1975), p. 104.
2 Arthur Schnitzler, Dying (Sterben), (1895), translated by Anthea Bell (London: Pushkin Press, 2006), p. 118.
3 Emily Dickinson, Poems: Packet VI, Fascicle 18. Includes 13 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862,
4 Alison Bashford, ‘Living with tuberculosis: the prehistory of HIV/AIDS’, Perspectives: The Art of Medicine, The Lancet, Vol. 375, Issue 9728, P17774-17775, 22 May 2010.
5 John Berger and Anne Michaels, Railtracks (London: Go Together Press, 2011), p. 10.