Words in Pain: Letters on life and death, by Olga Jacoby

by
24 May 2019

John Arnold reads the letters of a rationalist in the face of death

THIS is a work of piety, a monument to a remarkable woman, and a testament to the value of friendship. The letters of Olga Jacoby (1874-1913) first appeared 100 years ago, and are now re-published in a centennial edition, together with the eulogy at her funeral, helpful notes, and an afterword by her great-granddaughter telling the story of her life and death and of her friendship with an unnamed doctor, who is the recipient of most of them.

They are written in the shadow of death, and they serve largely to express her love of life and to expound a robust and rationalist humanism. Her guides are T. H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer. The doctor is a Christian, and she uses him as a sounding board and, just occasionally, as a punch-ball. But he is a beloved physician, and the overwhelming impression is not so much of argument, though there is plenty of that, as of a deep and enduring friendship.

She really hates religion, and is concerned to preserve her children from its harmful effects. Many of her strictures are, or at least were, justified; and Christians need to heed them. Some go too far. For example, she claims that the “main request” of the Roman Catholic Church is “do not think”; but the contributors and readers of our contemporary The Tablet give the lie to that now.

The year 1913 was the last in which it was possible to maintain intact the world-view of “the long 19th century 1789-1914”, with its confidence in science, in progress, and in human goodness, freed from the shackles of religion. In “the short 20th century 1914-1989” and the even more apocalyptic 21st, many would wish to supplement her big-hearted and admirable love of humankind with faith and with the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life. The doctor did.
 

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.


Words in Pain: Letters on life and death
Olga Jacoby
Jocelyn Catty and Trevor Moore, editors
Skyscraper Publications £15
(978-1-911072-35-5)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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