Fighting words

9781911072355

Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death (edited by Jocelyn Catty and Trevor Moore, Skyscraper, 2019)

As part of my series on memoirs, I review a book first published in 1919 – in which a woman’s passionate voice finds honest expression through her letters.

‘In more than one way am I a hopeless case,’ Olga Jacoby wrote in 1911, ‘and nothing except death will stop me fighting.’ Born Olga Iklé in Hamburg in 1874, she was educated with her sisters in Paris, then moved to England in 1896 after marrying her cousin John Jacoby, known as Jack. He had been brought up in Manchester, and worked in the family’s successful lace-importing business. Olga and Jack set up home in West Hampstead, London and brought up their four adopted children there according to their progressive, ‘socialistic ideas’.

In 1909 Olga Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her doctor, a close family friend, told her he could not save her life but believed he could help to make her death easier if she followed his Christian faith. As a rationalist (and a secular Jew), Jacoby was having none of it. She is not ‘a weak-minded woman’, she tells him, and will live and die on her own terms. Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death is a collection of the letters that Jacoby wrote (mainly to the doctor) from 1909 until her death in 1913. ‘I must go on fighting as long as I live,’ she tells him. ‘I can’t help it, Doctor, and I love to have you as my opponent’.

Jacoby’s letters show her enjoyment of spirited debate about religion and science (‘Science is turning on the light,’ she tells the doctor, ‘but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out’) and humorously describe family life, and the importance of being open and honest with young children: ‘I do stir their little hearts, too much I sometimes think.’ Her children give her joy and a reason to keep living. ‘I was greatly amused by my boy explaining to me,’ she writes, ‘that even should I die they would not lose me, as they would take my skeleton to keep in a corner of their nursery’. She has adventures, travelling through Devon and Dorset, with her bath-chair pulled by a pony and her son walking alongside. She reads copiously and discusses the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Olive Schreiner and George Eliot as well as Thomas Huxley and H.G. Wells.

Jacoby strives to accept the limited years she has left (‘Know that death is not bad; it is we who make it so, and it is in our power to look at it calmly and even joyfully’) but her despair is often heartbreakingly apparent. ‘I had a sorrowful cry again last night; there is so very much I shall have to leave undone’. Despite her sadness at leaving her beloved family, the tone of the book is (like Jacoby herself) far from downbeat. She has strong views on topics of the day including tariff reform (she is against cheap American and German imports), the importance of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage (she believes women should exert their power as wives and mothers, not as MPs). Her passions help to give her the energy to put pen to paper. ‘When I am peaceful I cannot write,’ she tells her doctor. ‘A storm has to brew; some violent enthusiasm shake me; or a thought, new to me, awake my enthusiasm before the little bit of dormant vitality left in me will arise to the effort of writing.’

Words In Pain is about how to live, and also how to die. Olga Jacoby chose to end her life by taking the sleeping tablets she had saved up, at a time when suicide was still considered to be a capital crime. But  Jack, Olga’s husband, followed Olga’s lead in being honest. Under the heading ‘The Right to Die’, the Globe newspaper reported how during the inquest he sought a verdict of felo de se, and told the jury that his wife’s decision was based on the same principles by which she had lived. ‘His wife only did what she felt she had a perfect right to do, ‘ the report recorded. ‘He did not desire them to return a verdict from sentiment, because if they did it would be an insult to her memory.’

Words In Pain was first published anonymously in 1919, with the identities of the children and doctor concealed. The Times Literary Supplement of that year praised Jacoby’s ‘direct and simple literary style’, and ‘the clear-eyed, exalted spirit in which she faces death’. In 2019 Words In Pain: Letters On Life and Death was reissued in an elegant ‘centenary edition’, with an informative introduction and supplementary endnotes by Trevor Moore, a lawyer and humanist funeral celebrant. He has identified the book’s author and the doctor, and traced her surviving descendents including Olga Jacoby’s great-granddaughter, the psychotherapist Jocelyn Catty. Her excellent afterword ‘Olga in life, death and writing’ adds fascinating details, including the moving stories of what happened to Jack and Olga’s four adopted children. As Sandi Toksvig writes: ‘These wonderful letters prove that true immortality lies in what we leave behind.’

In my TLS review last year I compared Words In Pain to W.N.P. Barbellion’s outstanding The Journal of A Disappointed Man, coincidentally also first published in 1919. One hundred years on, both books are well worth re-issuing and re-reading, and have new relevance in the ongoing debate over assisted dying. ‘But this is not a letter for the Doctor only,’ Olga Jacoby wrote in her first letter, as if aware that she would have, in time, a larger audience for her words.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 5 February 2020 (all rights reserved)

Hidden Lives

Clarke

“Women’s lives were meant to be hidden,” Norma Clarke writes in her memoir Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019). Her Greek mother Rena moved from occupied Athens to London when she married a British soldier in 1945. Unable to speak English, far from family and friends, she had to learn how to survive in a society that did not make her welcome. It was no wonder, Clarke writes, that for Rena and women like her, “those lives came to be all about subterfuge. Secrecy, silence, subterfuge.”

Clarke is a retired professor and literary historian who began to understand her mother better only when she started writing about her. Watching “my untaught mother’s scholarly zeal” with religious pamphlets and icons, Clarke realized that they had more in common than she thought. Themes in Clarke’s book Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019) include romantic and family love, historical war and the effects on those who survive it, and the battle to communicate. My review of this moving and insightful memoir appears (with a lovely photograph of Rena) in the first Times Literary Supplement of 2020, and can be read here with no paywall. My next review – of three fascinating new group biographies of 20th-century women’s “hidden lives” – will appear in the next TLS. It’s published on 17 January 2020 and I’m pleased that my review features on the cover.

Good life-writing has the intensity and narrative pacing of fiction, and the best memoirs have a ruthless honesty about them. “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying,” George Orwell wrote, “since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” In a future blogpost I will list some of my favourite memoirs; I hope you will tell me about yours.

How to write a biography

Virginia-Woolf

“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1938. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) had already overturned accepted conventions that all biographies should be serious, worthy, and long; before that, the Dictionary of National Biography, co-founded by Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen, also introduced a new approach to writing short lives. Today there are lots of inventive and imaginative ways to write a biography. As Michael Holroyd, the great biographer of Lytton Strachey, said in 2011: “People are writing lives backwards; people are writing parts of lives. Look on the bright side: biographies are getting shorter.”

About a year ago I started compiling a list of the biographies that changed my own thinking about what biography and life-writing can do. Now I have put together my personal ‘top twenty’ out of these, in a strand I called ‘Life of the day’: here they are listed in no particular order. At Number 20 is the revived digital edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, constantly updated, illustrated and with more focus on women’s lives than ever (available online in public libraries; information about the latest update here). Leslie Stephen might not recognize his original Victorian creation that was published in multiple heavy volumes, but Virginia Woolf would surely approve.

  1. Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997), showing new ways of combining scrupulous research,  brilliant writing and inventive structure: “There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” (Lee)
  2. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial, 1985) – a highly influential and inspiring book about travelling in the footsteps of your biographical subject: “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway.” (Holmes)
  3. Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983) is a classic study of love and power, soon to be reissued by Daunt Books: ‘If we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’
  4. A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (Faber& Faber, 1965) by Alethea Hayter is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes the searing personal crises of a group of writers and artists over one suffocatingly hot summer.
  5. A Suppressed Cry by Victoria Glendinning (1969; reissued by Virago with a new introduction in 1995): the heartbreaking story of Newnham College, Cambridge student Winnie Seebohm’s short life. ‘I could, had I waited, have written a longer and different book. It might not have been a more telling one. Too much information can blur the issues.’ (Glendinning)
  6. Marianne Thornton, 1797-1887: A Domestic Biography (1956) by EM Forster. A biography of the great-aunt who helped him to become a writer, and Forster’s only published memoir: my Slightly Foxed essay is here. The Times critic observed that ‘Mr. E. M. Forster, one of the most reticent of authors, has adopted an unusual way to tell us something about himself’
  7. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 1990): “This is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air.”
  8. Janet Malcolm’s brilliant and acerbic The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993): “The biographer at work… is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house.”
  9. Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber& Faber, 1996) opened my eyes to the fascinating woman overlooked by most of Tennyson’s biographers: ‘I have always been interested in the lives of nineteeth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.’ (Thwaite)
  10. Frances Spalding’s sensitive, imaginative and scrupulously researched Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill, 2001): ‘running through her work, both her art and her writing, is a deep sense of the importance of life, and a reverence for the texture and fabric of the everyday world.’ (Spalding)
  11. Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber & Faber 2008): ‘Dorothy walked out of the life that she and others expected of her.’
  12. Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Cape, 2003): ‘Darwin was one of the most human of men … his biography is in part the biography of Victorian family life – of what it was like to make and live with science.’
  13. Grand Pursuits: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar (2010) is about the tragedy and triumph of great economists’ lives 1850-1950 (especially good on Alfred and Mary Paley Marshall and Beatrice Webb).
  14. John Aubrey, My Own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2016) by Ruth Scurr: “Because I chose to write Aubrey’s life in the form of a first person diary, I had to get as close to him as I could, despite the passage of time”
  15. Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (Virago, 2017) Lyndall Gordon’s group biography of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf: ‘All were readers before they became writers, which is to say each heard the one before her in a chain of making.’
  16. A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney is an enjoyable, beautifully written book; I wrote about it here. Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, ‘the only woman with whom I long to talk work.’
  17. Jenny Uglow’s delightful, beautifully illustrated Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, 2017): ‘If we follow him across land and sea, to the borderlands of self, can we see where the art and nonsense are born?’
  18. Combining research, parody, diaries, interviews, lists and wicked gossip, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017) is a skilful, experimental and very funny biography.
  19. Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (HarperCollins 2005), the heartbreaking life of a homeless “chaotic” Cambridge man, told with sympathy and humour: ‘Stuart does not like the manuscript. He’s after a bestseller, “like what Tom Clancy writes.”‘
  20. The revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, now in its 58th update with 61,184 articles and 11,724 portraits, researched in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery London. The ODNB has an increasing number entries on women (making up past oversights), and I’m proud to have contributed three of these (about the Ladies’ Dining Society, Caroline Jebb and Mary Martin Ward) in the past three years.

 

A sense of home: ‘Period Piece’

 

‘This is a circular book. It does not begin at the beginning and go on to the end; it is all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of a wheel from the hub, which is me.’ Gwen Raverat, Period Piece: A Memoir of a Cambridge Childhood (1952)

 

Period Piece

Gwen Raverat’s account of growing up as a member of the extended Darwin clan in Victorian Cambridge has never been out of print since it was first published in 1952, and it has recently been reissued as a collector’s hardback by Slightly Foxed. ‘Humour, tenderness and affection are the keynotes of Period Piece,’ Hazel Woods writes in her introduction, ‘but there is a fierce and passionate undercurrent that tells you something about the artist Gwen became.’ Period Piece features punting, picnics on Grantchester Meadows and problems with corsets and bicycles, all illustrated with Raverat’s delightful drawings, often featuring the family’s put-upon dog. “My mother had the first lady’s tricycle in Cambridge. Our dog Sancho was horrified to think that anyone belonging to him would ride such an indecent thing”. It’s the perfect book to read in a garden on these sunny summer days.

I’ve been thinking about Period Piece again because tomorrow evening I’m giving a talk for Literature Cambridge (see their website here for details of courses in 2019 and 2020). My talk is part of the final evening of this year’s ‘Fictions of Home’ course, and will take place in Darwin College, which was founded as Cambridge’s first graduate college in 1964 and incorporates both of Gwen Raverat’s former riverside homes, Newnham Grange and the neighbouring Old Granary. I’ll be discussing three women who changed Cambridge: Anne Clough, Helen Gladstone and Ida Darwin. Ida’s later sister-in-law Maud was an American from Philadelphia who married George Darwin in 1884. They hired an architect and turned Newnham Grange into their family home. Their first child Gwen was born there in 1885.

Raverat biog

Recently I re-read Frances Spalding’s excellent biography of Gwen Raverat, revealing Gwen’s unhappiness as a child and her long struggle to become an artist. She found happiness when she enrolled as a student at the Slade, and made friends in the Bloomsbury set including Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) who came to Cambridge to visit. They sat in Newnham Grange’s garden together and Virginia smoked one of Gwen’s father’s cigars. In 1911 Gwen married Jacques Raverat, part of their ‘Neo-Pagan’ circle. Then the war came and their friend Rupert Brooke was killed in April 1915, on the same day as Gwen’s first cousin and childhood companion, Erasmus Darwin. There were other sadnesses, as during the war the ailing Jacques was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Gwen and Jacques had two daughters, probably through artificial insemination, and the family went to live in Vence, but his condition slowly worsened and he died there in 1925.

His death after years of pain triggered a deep depression in Gwen, but she kept on working and became recognized for her brilliance as as the first modern wood engraver. She and her two daughters returned to Cambridge in the 1930s, and during the Second World War Gwen Raverat spent four years drawing maps for the Naval Intelligence Division. In 1946 she moved back into the Old Granary next to her former home (both houses are now part of Darwin College), and her mother Maud died the following year. Living there again, admiring the reflections on the river, and sifting through old letters and diaries made Gwen decide to write about her own life, as she had always wanted to do – though she claimed to hate writing – and capture something of her past. She told her publisher that she saw the book ‘as a social document – to be a drawing of the world as I saw it when young, not at all as a picture of my own soul (though I suppose that gets in by mistake)’ (Spalding, 397).

The memoir is a circling back to the childhood that, aged 66, Gwen Raverat could still recall vividly, especially now that she was living again in the house by the river. Reading Period Piece today in the light of Raverat’s subsequent life shows just what a remarkable book it is. There are hints of unhappiness– her parents’ ‘hands that understood nothing’, but she observes them and growing up among Victorians with humour and forgiveness. Compared to the darker times to come, the sunny days of her Cambridge childhood were bright indeed. If you get the chance, do go into Darwin College’s gardens and stand on the riverbank where Virginia Woolf once daringly smoked. The view from there is lovely.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 25 July 2019. (All rights reserved.)

Sources

Hermione Lee Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997); Frances Spalding Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill Press, 2001)

Figuring Out Popova

 

315VBtdQsdL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

If you picked up a copy of Figuring in something as old-fashioned as a bookshop and had never heard of Maria Popova, it would be hard to fathom exactly what you were looking at. It’s a hefty book with a bright yellow cover adorned with a mysterious flower-trumpet-diagram. On the back, instead a snappy blurb, there’s a meandering quotation from the book’s introduction that leaves you none the wiser. A glimpse inside gives few clues to the book’s contents, with lower-case chapter titles like “unmastering” and “that which exhausts and exalts”. It’s a disorientating experience, but the message is clear: Popova wants readers to abandon their preconceptions and simply dive in.

In my review of Figuring for this week’s Times Literary Supplement I did place it in a category, describing it as an unusual form of group biography (there’s a snippet of my review below – the rest is behind a paywall, but there’s an excellent essay by Ruth Scurr in this special ‘life writing’ TLS, free to read here.) My view of Popova’s book reflects my own interest in the stories of the women she describes (Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, Rachel Carson) and the author herself might disagree with me about labelling it as a biography. She’s a Bulgarian-born writer who lives in New York and is the author of a popular blog ‘Brainpickings.org’ that has been covering a wide range of subjects for 13 years.

Brainpickings

Paradoxically perhaps, the Brain Pickings website is an up-to-the minute format that goes against what Popova sees as the Internet’s tendency to place a high value on everything new. “It suggests that just because something is more recent, it’s more relevant,” she says, “yet, in culture, the best ideas are timeless, they have no expiration date.” (Guardian interview, 30.12.12)

Popova’s new book Figuring also aims to spark interest in what links a wide variety of ideas and people over a period of four hundred years. She tells the intermingled stories of individuals who refused to conform and passionately defends their choices. It’s a “cosmos of connections” with Popova as the astronaut author-pilot and personal guide. Fasten your seatbelts, readers.

©Ann Kennedy Smith (27 April 2019)

Cosmos of connections