'Sorrow passes and we remain'
A beautiful letter from Henry James, read by Stephen Fry
During Lockdown 1.0 we managed to record the Letters of Note audiobook: 126 of history’s most enthralling letters (plus bonus live material!) brought to life by a talented cast of of voices that includes Alan Cumming, Noma Dumezweni, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Juliet Stevenson, Gillian Anderson, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Louise Brealey, Colin Salmon, Stephen Fry, and others. It was quite a task and I’m incredibly proud of it, and I’m pleased to say that a percentage of the profits are going to the National Literacy Trust.
I mention it now because it has just been named “Audiobook of the week” in the Guardian, who also gave it a lovely review, and I couldn’t be happier. These letters deserve to be heard far and wide.
Long story short: you should do as the Guardian recommends and listen to it. It can be found at the usual places, including Audible (UK | US). But to tempt you, I’m sending you one of its many gems, written many years ago by Henry James and kindly read for us by Stephen Fry. It’s up there with the very best.
Sorrow passes and we remain
In July 1883, Henry James, the famed novelist responsible for writing, most notably, The Portrait of a Lady, received a worryingly emotional letter from Grace Norton, a friend of some years and successful essayist who, following a recent death in the family, had seemingly become depressed and was desperate for direction. James, no stranger to depression himself, responded with a stunning letter which, despite beginning, “…I hardly know what to say to you”, contains some of the greatest, most compassionate advice ever put to paper – a feat made all the more impressive on learning that it was written just months after the deaths of his own parents.
My dear Grace,
Before the sufferings of others I am always utterly powerless, and the letter you gave me reveals such depths of suffering that I hardly know what to say to you. This indeed is not my last word—but it must be my first. You are not isolated, verily, in such states of feeling as this—that is, in the sense that you appear to make all the misery of all mankind your own; only I have a terrible sense that you give all and receive nothing—that there is no reciprocity in your sympathy—that you have all the affliction of it and none of the returns. However—I am determined not to speak to you except with the voice of stoicism.
I don't know why we live—the gift of life comes to us from I don't know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that (always of course up to a certain point) life is the most valuable thing we know anything about and it is therefore presumptively a great mistake to surrender it while there is any yet left in the cup. In other words consciousness is an illimitable power, and though at times it may seem to be all consciousness of misery, yet in the way it propagates itself from wave to wave, so that we never cease to feel, though at moments we appear to, try to, pray to, there is something that holds one in one's place, makes it a standpoint in the universe which it is probably good not to forsake. You are right in your consciousness that we are all echoes and reverberations of the same, and you are noble when your interest and pity as to everything that surrounds you, appears to have a sustaining and harmonizing power. Only don't, I beseech you, generalize too much in these sympathies and tendernesses—remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another's, and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own. Don't melt too much into the universe, but be as solid and dense and fixed as you can. We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most. We help each other—even unconsciously, each in our own effort, we lighten the effort of others, we contribute to the sum of success, make it possible for others to live. Sorrow comes in great waves—no one can know that better than you—but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see. My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don't think, don't feel, any more than you can help, don't conclude or decide—don't do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain. You will do all sorts of things yet, and I will help you. The only thing is not to melt in the meanwhile. I insist upon the necessity of a sort of mechanical condensation—so that however fast the horse may run away there will, when he pulls up, be a somewhat agitated but perfectly identical G. N. left in the saddle. Try not to be ill—that is all; for in that there is a future. You are marked out for success, and you must not fail. You have my tenderest affection and all my confidence.
Ever your faithful friend—
Given the letter we’ve just experienced, this could really ruin the mood. But it’s always good to laugh, and this is a real favourite, so I’d like to share a very brief quote about JRR Tolkien, who was born on this day 130 years ago…
Oh fuck, not another elf.
—English professor Hugo Dyson as JRR Tolkien's son, Christopher, read aloud an early draft of Lord of The Rings to his father’s friends.