Jean Court: Illness, Health and Disability – Writing Lives

Jean Court: Illness, Health and Disability

Within Jean Court’s memoir, health and illness are two main themes. She speaks of her family’s brushes with death as well as her own struggles as a child. Her father passed away from a stroke when Jean is just four years old, resulting in the family’s move to Bristol, which I write about within my introduction post. Here, we begin a journey involving bad nerves, diphtheria and the exposure to some of her grandpa’s health issues.

The Court family was struck by diphtheria when, ‘Mary’s throat was covered in yellowish spots.’ (p. 7) ‘Diphtheria is otherwise called the ‘Strangling Angel of Children’ and was a dreaded common childhood illness. It was said that the disease killed as many as 80% of the children below 10 years of age’ (Sangamithra, 2016). Luckily, after Mary complained of a sore throat, her mother identified the fatal illness straight away, ‘you’ve got diphtheria!’ Jean’s sister ‘at once burst into tears and her nose started to bleed,’ (p. 7) Fortunately, Jean did not lose her sibling, unlike poor Eleanor Hutchinson whose brother contracted diphtheria around the same time as Mary. The doctors told Jean and Mary’s mother that she had ‘saved Mary’s life by her prompt action’ (p. 7) and identification of the infection.

An Advert for Diphtheria

‘Mary was as a rule a healthy child but I noticed over the years that her throat was her weak spot and later she had quinsy,’ (p. 7) and it appears that the diphtheria affected Mary into her later years. ‘But none of the rest of the family caught it’, remembers Jean, ‘which was remarkable in my case because I had even used Mary’s fork after her’ (p. 7). Although Jean did not catch diphtheria, she did have her fair share of bad health within her childhood. As quoted within my education and schooling post, Jean’s bad health tended to be from her negative experience within mainstream school: ‘When the doctor was told of my fainting fit he said ‘’that was sheer funk’’ (p. 7). It was clear that all of the symptoms Jean had during this time boiled down to her fear of school. Her symptoms included bad nerves, poor appetite, swollen glands and persistent panic and blackouts. Despite these awful conditions she had to endure, they soon settled once she moved into an open-air school.

Jean also recalls noticing some men with severe injuries from the First World War: ‘I was too young to realise that they were war victims of course…some with arms and legs missing and one with something wrong with his eyes.’ (p. 8) J This will not have been uncommon during the 1920s, with many soldiers returning home with their disabilities from their brave work. It is quite astounding that Jean was so calm and casual about the situation; it would be rather unusual to see a group of disfigured, injured men nowadays without panic or curiosity.

Jean regularly speaks of her grandpa, and his health issues. ‘Grandpa was almost blind,’ (p. 3) we are not sure of her grandpa’s exact age, but this condition could be due to him being elderly. ‘Grandpa had lived a lonely life before we came home from Canada. When his health began to fail uncle Will his only son had had him taken to a geriatric hospital and he was very unhappy there’ (p. 6). It seems that Jean’s grandpa was not as close to his son, Will, as he was to Jean’s mother: ‘He told mother she had added ten years to his life by coming home to look after him’ (p. 6). It seems he had many health issues that could have been fatal, had he not been given the care and love provided from Jean, Mary and their mother. We are not told specifically of what these conditions are, but we are to presume they are generic issues which people tend to develop as they get older.

Jean tells us of her grandpa’s death as her memoir comes to a close: ‘Our life in the lane came to a close when grandpa died. He was not sorry to go as he told my mother’ (p. 10). She writes how he died with dignity: ‘He passed quietly away without pain,’ (p. 11)  Despite the upset surrounding his death, this is a pleasant ending to Jean’s reminiscence of her childhood as we know he was accepting and comfortable in his time of passing.


188 COURT, Jean, ‘Living in the Lane’, TS, pp.11 (c. 10,000 words). Brunel University Library. 

Diphtheria Advert 1920s. [IMAGE] URL:

Sangamithra, Dr. ‘History of Diphtheria,’ Med India. (2016). [ONLINE]

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