Janet Todd is the author of the new book Radiation Diaries: Cancer, Memory and Fragments of a Life in Words. Her many other books include studies of the works of Jane Austen and a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft. She is a professor emerita at the University of Aberdeen and honorary fellow of Newnham College, as well as a former president of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. She lives in Cambridge, England, and in Venice.
Q: You write, "So why the compulsion to relate and reveal?" Why did you initially decide to write these diaries, and at what point did you decide they should become a book?
A: I wrote for myself as a prophylactic against fear. Because I had had three diagnoses of cancer, I was readying myself for a failure of treatment and an inevitable death.
When frightened or especially miserable, I find that writing composes and at the same time gives a kind of energy. I suspect any creative activity might do the same, but writing is my response. In this case, writing became a counterpoint to the disease and the rather barbaric treatment of radiotherapy.
As for publishing the account some years after, I have four reasons.
First, a publisher read it and said she'd like to publish it! Then when I re-read it myself and recrafted it a little I thought its description of treatment and the effects might be useful for someone about to go through a similar experience or caring for someone in treatment; it would give an idea of what to expect, while my survival could, I think, be encouraging.
The Diaries describe the way early memories bubbled up during this isolating and debilitating time. My childhood was remarkably solitary, taking place in British colonies and in a repressive boarding school.
It’s the kind of childhood that would be rare now with kinder educational methods, phone technology and social media. (The displacement and solitude I experienced are probably the reason I admire Mansfield Park more than any other Jane Austen novel.)
Finally, as the ending of the Diaries makes clear, my father died at 100. He and I are from private generations and so I would not have published this work when he was alive.
However, my years with 1970s American feminism have made me franker than I might otherwise have been—and to value psychological and physical frankness.
Q: What do you think the book says about cancer in general, and about how it affected you specifically?
A: As I make clear in the Diaries, cancer has not been my only disease but it has a dignity and distinction not accorded to the others. This makes it both more frightening and more expressible. A diagnosis of cancer tends to displace all other fears--and embarrassments.
I have had asthma since infancy in the Second World War, and during my childhood there was not a great deal of understanding or sympathy for an ailment that was not supposed to be life-threatening. Having cancer and being able to talk about it has helped me confront the other ailments of my life and accept their effects.
When I was young, cancer was not mentioned or was spelt out or given euphemisms. Now, thankfully, many sufferers are writing about it and demystifying it a little, but its magnitude remains. In the Diaries I have candidly described the symptoms of pelvic cancers and the effects of treatment on an older woman.
I emerged from the cancers and the treatment with debilitating symptoms that will always continue but also (I think) with a more positive outlook on life.
I haven't quite managed to hold onto the euphoria of moments during treatment when a blade of grass or raindrop glowed brilliantly, but I feel the present time has been given to me as a gift and is welcome.
Q: The book also includes descriptions of your father's own health issues toward the end of his life, as well as stories about your childhood. How did you decide on what to include in the book?
A: I didn't make conscious decisions on what to include; I wrote daily of what happened and it occurred that my father fell ill at the time of my treatment. As time went by, I felt humbled to realise that his pain was undoubtedly greater than mine and that he was facing it with far more stoicism than I could muster.
I hope my book is something of a tribute to a man who lived through and suffered from two world wars and many setbacks in life, but who retained to the end his optimism, courage and generosity of feeling.
Q: How did writing the diaries, and then the book, affect you, and what do you hope readers take away from it?
A: I wish I had known more of the experience of radiation before I began; so I think my work might help prepare someone about to suffer it or who is caring for a sufferer.
Literature is embedded in my mind and body and perhaps some of my allusions to writers such as Jane Austen, Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot will comfort--or amuse--readers.
I learnt a lot of poetry by heart as a child and, on the whole, it was this early material that has stuck and that floated into my head when I was under the machine or writing about the experience.
Literature does not cure or ameliorate cancer but thinking (involuntarily) about poetry, novels and the lives of the women writers I have studied such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Aphra Behn became a great distraction. As Jane Austen remarked, it is as well to have as many holds on happiness as possible.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am completing a novel about the effects and aftermath of the Second World War on a self-taught, lower-middle-class English woman.
With its austerity continuing into the 1950s, its ending of the British Empire (which underpinned so much British patriotism), and its result in mass immigration, for which many in the country were unprepared, this war could be a trauma to those not physically injured in battle.
There is also a specific inspiration. As a child I was told of a girl from my original Welsh town who had become a doctor, something unusual in my limited experience. She had had a “breakdown” and returned home to her mother.
The house they lived in had its curtains closed most of the time and I never saw the daughter, although I often passed the house. The idea of this mother and daughter imprisoned together, as it seemed, haunted me and has provided the germ of my next book. It is called Don't You Know There's a War On?.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Inevitably I now have a sense of limited time and want to use it to write the fiction I can finally let myself write, now I am retired and in my 70s.
However, I can't quite leave literary scholarship which has filled half a century of my life. I recently contributed to a conference on Jane Austen's wonderfully ebullient last fragment Sanditon, the story of a speculative seaside resort set up to exploit invalids.
I edited the work with a colleague for the Cambridge Edition of Jane Austen, but I am now bringing it out in more available gift format, together with some jolly contemporary pictures of English bathing resorts. Jane Austen is all things to all people but I especially relish her boisterous humour which is to the fore in this lively fragment.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Janet Todd.