Arthur Sidgwick to Catharine Symonds, 15 July 1893 (almost 120 years ago!):
My dear Catharine,
I have just emerged—not yet fully emerged,—from the hardest and fullest and most unbroken years’ work I have ever had. All through last term I have been waiting & hoping for a quiet time to write to you—and in vain. I must seize the first moment of leisure, lest it pass and leave me again in bonds.
I saw Mrs Green on that day in April when she had just got the telegram, and was about to start for Italy. The exact place remains in my mind where I heard that I was never to hear or see again the voice or face of that friend who stands apart from others in my memory and in that of all of us who knew him. Mrs Green was very quiet, and all she said was that it had always been his wish when death came that it should not come as slow decay painful to all: and that she was glad it had been for his sake. That is so: but it does not make it less bitter that it shd come when he was away from home and from all but one of you. And though the strangers were no doubt very good, still they could do little, and they were strangers. And it is no use dwelling on what the sudden news was to us, to think we should see him no more nor hear again his wonderful talk, in which when he was at his worst physically there was more than in any other man’s whom I have ever known. For myself I have always regretted the sadly broken intercourse I have had with him of late years, since increasing business & manifold difficulties intervened, and never more painfully than now when all chance of better using opportunities, and struggling more successfully against circumstance, is over for me in this world as far as he is concerned. We can’t do this, and we can’t do the other: but it remains true that if we were better and stronger, and tried more, we could: and these things come painfully home when the chapter is closed. But on his side there was never a one of my friends who was always more absolutely the same in spite of absence & distance & silence: none with whom one began so easily & certainly & richly where one had left off. And in my heart, as in that of all his many friends—alike those who kept up intercourse and those (of whom I was one as I sadly realise) who fell very short of what they wished & ought to have done—in all of our hearts alike he had a place that was his own, which now is empty and will remain so, except for manifold memories.
The weeks go on, but I find no difference as to the strangeness and the sadness of the news on that April day that he was dead. I have been thinking often in the last two months of the earlier days of our acquaintance beginning in that hot summer in the pension at Dresden: it is hard to believe it is 29 years ago. I remember still some of the afternoon walks & talks—with a sort of shame and gratitude mixed. He was younger, and yet so much older & wiser in everything that mattered: and I had never seen anybody so able to deal effectually with the peculiar sort of confident ignorance which must have been my principal characteristic in those days. He was so easy to talk to: so naturally adapting himself to all moods and frames of mind: so full and bountiful of thought & talk: so gentle & wise & yet so instructive without ever dogmatising or setting himself to instruct. And in my two visits to Davos, and in the few times I have seen him in England, it has been just the same. Old intercourse & affection taken up just as before, with the edges fresh: even the changes in each of us making no difference except a new interest.
All this was only one side of him, & there were many others, of which, most notably, the long and heroic struggle to do his work & deliver what he had to say, in spite of weakness and absence & all obstacles. This is what all the world has felt, and it has been good for all of us to see it. But for myself the most potent thing was the influence he had on me in early days, and the long affection it led to, tho’ interrupted as I have said.
I don’t want you to answer this at all. I shall hear of your plans and welfare from Mrs Green. I hope we may meet before long. This is only written as a sign that my many weeks’ silence—though there is much on my side for years’ past that needs forgiveness—does not mean that I have forgotten or am unthankful for the past,—and for the kindness & affection and many other good things I have received from him.
Yrs ever most truly
For the benefit of those just tuning in, my current research subject has written this lovely letter to the widow of my former research subject. And once you have burrowed so deeply inside a long-dead person’s head—read all his extant correspondence, his poetry hidden from all but his closest friends, learned to recognize his handwriting instantly and spent many, many hours sitting in the rooms he sat in and walking the paths he walked, trying to guess at how he might have thought through a given subject—you can’t help a warm rush of recognition when you unexpectedly find a document in which someone else says that dead person meant a lot to him, too.