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Illness and yearning: Lilli Suburg’s winding path of life



The article addresses the relationships of literature and disease on the example of the life and activities of Lilli Suburg (1841–1923).

The life and creative activity of Suburg was affected, on the one hand, by a peculiarity of her appearance, notably, a scar left after a congenital tumor had been removed from her face, due to which she would wear a kerchief over her jaw throughout her life. On the other hand, for many years she suffered from hemorrhages forcing her to bed for long periods, incapacitated to help out her parents with farmwork. That affliction, however, gave Suburg a chance to engage in intellectual self-development by reading, writing a diary and teaching her younger sisters and brothers, which would hardly have been conceivable in addition to regular farm chores.

Both in her diary and autobiography Suburg admits that her intellectual development was considerably influenced by illnesses and her physical vulnerability. This is also proved by observing the facts of her life. She chose singleness, which was partly due to her health problems. However, the need for self-subsistence impelled her to act in different directions, such as journalism, creative writing, teaching, while this versatility gave her a chance to realize and develop her different abilities.

The periods of forced idleness caused by Suburg’s illness turned out to be intellectually fertile, providing time for reading and reflection. The sensibility caused by illness and physical vulnerability developed her empathy for others finding themselves in a vulnerable situation, such as children, the old and the sickly. Hence her deeply human attitude of caring underlying her worldview. More than any other published or unpublished text by Suburg, her diary reveals her sensitive, tender and vulnerable heart. 

Suburg’s autobiographically based fiction contains no direct reflection of her experience of disease. In her writing she managed to create the image of a new and better world with protagonists whose choices were not limited by physical afflictions.

Possibly, if Suburg had not suffered from an illness enabling her to engage in intellectual self-improvement, she would never have become the person she became: a public figure, author, journalist, feminist and teacher.