Words in Pain

Book Review by Kelechi Anucha

Olga Jacoby. Ed. Jocelyn Catty, Trevor Moore, Skyscraper Publications, 2019.254pp, £15.00.

Words in Pain is a collected volume of letters by a young woman named Olga Jacoby, written over a four year period from 1909 to 1913. It follows the inexorable progression of her terminal illness and is addressed to her close friends and adopted children. Beginning with these essentials brings into focus its strange, elusive temporality as a text that manages to be completely a product of its time while forcefully resembling ours—a text that is able to time travel.

Published first in 1919, Jacoby’s letters were rediscovered and brought to light through the combined efforts of Trevor Moore, a retired Lawyer and Humanist celebrant and Jocelyn Catty, a Psychotherapist in research and clinical practice, and Jacoby’s great granddaughter. Coincidentally, both were separately researching and developing the letters for publication before coming together to produce this special centenary edition.

Early reception identifies a cluster of qualities as particularly striking: 1919 The Times Literary Supplement review praises Jacoby’s lucid and elegant prose style, the strength with which her charming personality is conveyed and her personal philosophy of Rationalism. Of these three, Jacoby’s secularity seems to inspire the most interest and awe in her early reviewer, who writes: ‘even those who hold far other views on the great issue cannot fail to rise from the perusal of these impressive pages calmed, strengthened and urged forward into a truer altruism’.1 As such the text is firmly situated in the turn from religion to a secular morality that seemed increasingly more amenable to real social progress, and as such is part of the historical context of modernism.

Words in Pain potentially stands out as an early intervention in debates around euthanasia and assisted dying and might be a useful reference for those researching disability and chronic illness in the modernist period and beyond. The book is also an early example of the illness narrative genre, and adds nuance to genre origin stories that focus on the Tuberculosis sanatorium narratives of the 1920s or the Christian tradition of conversion narratives and ars moriendi.2.

Of particular note to those working in the traditional medical humanities is Jacoby’s remarkable friendship with her doctor. She reminisces to him: ‘about that time I first dared to ask you for your friendship, but it was some weeks before you gave me clearly to understand that I had got it’. It provides a rich material for a study of evolving patient-physician relations throughout the twentieth century from a paternalistic to consumer-centric model.

However, Words in Pain might be most valuably understood in the context of its epistolary form. As a creative practice, the peak of epistolary writing is situated in the Eighteenth century with the success of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Fanny Burney’s Evelina standing as testament to the narrative potency of the form. There is also of course the more longstanding tradition of letters as part of a literary estate, as a supplement to texts within the literary and theoretical canon and as the beginning of a biographical mode of criticism that inaugurates criticism itself as academic discipline. Jacoby’s letters sit somewhere between these two rubrics.

In this first sense, she is able to write herself into posterity as both an affectively engaging main character in her own self-orchestrated narrative; her force of character and infectious personality are realised most fully through the particularities of the epistolary form. Her insights and philosophy might have been conveyed far less effectively through the mode of (auto)biography or personal essay—and while these other forms might have been practically available, there are obviously certain cultural mores that exert their influence on Jacoby: for example, the gendered nature of personal letter writing.

Letter writing has a certain functionality—the length and stylistic conventions of the medium seem to afford a measure of accessibility for an ill woman living in pain, compared to the greater demands of larger biographical or theoretic projects. In this way, Jacoby’s letters might draw comparison with the personal blogs and columns about illness that emerge in the 1990s.3,[3] that are produced under similar material conditions and still influence the way we write and read illness today. The omission of the counterpart responses, particularly those of Jacoby’s doctor, also markedly alter the quality of the text. In this way, it exceeds expectations that, as a collection of letters, it might straightforwardly represent a prosaic version of “history” as an exhaustive, linear record of events. The text’s apparent limitations thus become the source of its timelessness and success.

In the second sense, this form evokes Jacoby as independent intellectual and thinker. There is the suggestion that, circumstances permitting, Jacoby might have developed her ideas and become more established in the circles of the day. She reads widely, her letters scattered with references to Rousseau, Shelley and Swinburne, as well as late-Victorians George Meredith and H.G. Wells. She models herself as a woman of letters, more explicitly still upon George Eliot, quoting at length from one of Eliot’s letters in her own (p. 166). We might retrospectively create connections between Jacoby’s dedication to cultivating her own mind and the emerging modernist intelligentsia, reading Words in Pain, for example, alongside Virginia Woolf’s influential essay On Being Ill. Among the drawbacks Woolf sees regarding illness as a topic for writing is the ‘poverty of the [English] language’.4 Elaine Scarry echoes and expands Woolf with her influential dictum: ‘physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it’.5 Indeed Jacoby seems to write around her pain rather than directly of it. It is primarily in her very last letters that we see her use language to try to convey her suffering—her ‘difficulty breathing and the great done-upness that comes after the coughing fit’ (p. 197).

Originally published anonymously, the letters tread the distinction Kelly Elissa Sullivan identifies between the epistolary form both as a type of public speech and a form of private expression.6 Sullivan further identifies an additionally curious quality of letters – their lack of immediacy means that they are always already too late. This notion of lateness takes on a particular significance in the context of Jacoby’s long illness—the sense, as the first edition foreword has it, that she is living ‘under the sentence of death’.

For a general audience today, this centenary edition of Words in Pain inspires deep interest for other reasons. Chief of these is Jacoby’s surprising progressive approaches to parenting and her prescient support of adoption—now an established alternative and inclusive family-making system, but at the time a relatively rare practice.

Words in Pain is a rich text—researchers and lay readers alike stand to benefit significantly from its rediscovery and publication.

Kelechi Anucha
PhD Student, Waiting Times Project
University of Exeter

[1] ‘List of New Books and Reprints’, The Times Literary Supplement, 23 October 1919, p. 593+, The Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive.

[2] Ann Jurecic, Illness as Narrative, Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), p. 7; Anne Hunsaker Hawkins, Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography, 2nd ed (West Lafayette, Ind: Purdue University Press, 1999), p. 31.

[3] Roger Luckhurst, The Trauma Question (London ; New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 130.

[4] Virginia Woolf, ‘On Being Ill’, The New Criterion, 4.1 (1926), p. 34.

[5] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 4.

[6] Kelly Elissa Sullivan, Epistolary Modernism, 2014. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global .

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