Book review: Words in Pain

Words in Pain is a new edition of the collected letters Olga Jacoby wrote towards the end of her life


Words in Pain
By Olga Jacoby
Skyscraper Publications, £15


‘Know that death is not bad…” wrote Olga Jacoby “and it is in our power to look at it calmly and even joyfully.”

The year is 1910 and this young mother faces death from heart disease. Jacoby was born into a Jewish family from Hamburg but settled in West Hampstead with her husband Jack, who was also her first cousin. Words in Pain is a new edition of the collected letters she wrote in the last four years of her life when, despite her “tremendous desire of living”, Olga moved, mostly, beyond fear and bitterness at her fate.

A fervent rationalist who prized science above religion, she corresponded with her husband, doctor, sisters, cousins and friends, pouring out impassioned thoughts on morality and social justice, love, literature and child-rearing.

The book is an epistolary gem — intellectually curious, lucid and literary (allusions to Swinburne, Shelley, Walt Whitman and others pepper her pages) — a window into Edwardian family life shaped by a powerfully progressive mother confined to her bath chair.

It is also a paean to the beauty of nature, of sunny days in Golders Hill Park, summer sojourns in seaside Norfolk and the joy and challenges of her adored, adopted children. She is at odds with her doctor who wouldn’t see her in surgery because she rejected his drugs and won’t have further operations because “four are enough to endure.” And she challenges his Christian faith. At the beach, a strange nursemaid is despatched to rebuke Olga for letting her three-year-old son romp naked on the sand. She gives not a hoot at the prudish charge of being “dirty-minded”.

An intriguing postscript to the letters points out that the Jacobys took on their children long before adoption was regulated, although the matron of Queen Charlotte’s hospital found the couple unsuitable because she did not believe in placing babies above their station. Olga’s social circle also judged her multiple adoptions harshly, some intimating that “bad blood” hovered over any crib containing strange genes. Matters were clearly arranged privately, but quite how the fourth baby came to join the family so near to Olga’s death remains unclear.

She insists that nurses in charge of her brood follow her own enlightened lead: the quartet to be told “don’t” as rarely as possible: “we are bringing up our children with no creed, just teaching them to be kind, unselfish, and willing to sacrifice sometimes a pleasure for the sake of others.” Her dear husband Jack must marry again and give the children a healthy new mother. Olga anticipates a time when his life will bring him “a profound happiness as yet unknown to you”.

Olga Jacoby ended her life with a sleeping-draught overdose. An inquest and press reports of her suicide raised ground-breaking questions on the “right to die” issue still unresolved today. Tragically, her two daughters took their own lives when even younger than she. Olga’s letters, however, lend them, and her, immortality.”


Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer

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