Thanks to detective work by Dulwich local Trevor Moore, the centenary edition of a hitherto anonymous work, Words in Pain, will be published on 7th March. The 1919 edition of the work bore no author’s name because the family wanted to keep private her identity following her tragic death (now explained in an afterword). Trevor not only worked out the author’s identity from clues in the book, but also traced her living descendants, one of whom - Jocelyn Catty - has co-edited the new edition.
Words in Pain represents the collected letters of Olga Jacoby, a writer, thinker and rationalist who wrote them ‘under sentence of death’ due to a terminal heart condition. Born in Hamburg in 1874, she lived in West Hampstead, London, and adopted four children, to the consternation of her social circle.
As well as painting a picture of family life and love, interspersed with clear-headed musings on the nature of illness, loss and death, the letters offer inspiration to those trying to come to terms with dying without religion as a solace.
Jacoby’s adopted children appear in vivid colour:
“I was greatly amused by my boy explaining to me…that even should I die they would not lose me, as they would take my skeleton to keep in a corner of their nursery.”
Her letters reveal a progressive attitude to child-rearing and adoption, as well as a passionate commitment to moral logic and social justice. They show her to be as strong of mind as she was increasingly weak in body, and a woman both of and ahead of her time.
Trevor - who says bringing this powerful, previously anonymous writer out into the light is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the project - has compiled a series of supplementary notes that illuminate for the reader the many literary and socio-historical references peppered throughout the letters. By pure chance he has also located a vibrant portrait of Olga Jacoby that appears on the book’s cover.
Words in Pain is published in hardback by Skyscraper Publications on 7th March 2019