Catherine Disney (1800-1853) is known as the ‘lost love’ of the Irish mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865), but about herself little is known. Based on what Hamilton wrote about her and scraps of information which were found on various places, extended with conclusions which could be drawn from known events, this is a sketch of how she fell in love with Hamilton in 1824, what the motives may have been for her family to force her to marry the reverend William Barlow (1792-1871), what may have triggered her suicide attempt in 1848 after which she did not live with Barlow any more, and how she spoke with Hamilton shortly before she died. In these two interviews she could finally tell Hamilton that she had also loved him.
In the last chapters it is discussed how Catherine’s unhappiness seems to have influenced her eldest son, James Barlow (1826-1913), and through him also her granddaughter Jane Barlow (1856-1917). This sketch is supplementary to the essay A Victorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton. But being self-contained, it can also be read on its own.
Due to the scarcity of information about Catherine Disney, in this sketch I interpreted far more freely than I did in the essay about Hamilton. If there are readers who believe that I have misinterpreted or left out important information, or who have additional information, I would be very happy to hear about it: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The sketch can be downloaded below as a pdf or an epub.
For further publications, see Publications
This book will only be printed in hardback copies, which will cost €27.50 each (not including postal charges). It is freely available online, for instance on Google Books, Catherine Disney, but in case paper books are indeed preferred: they can be ordered by filling in a form at BoekenGilde. Clicking on the box: Beschikbaarheid opvragen = Request availability, shows the form in which Naam = Name, E-mailadres = E-mail address, Gewenst aantal boeken = Desired number of books, Versturen = Send. It will be read both by BoekenGilde and me; if we receive ten requests, the corrected version of the sketch will be printed in an again small edition.
Using the ideas developed in my essay A Victorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton, which can be read in the BookReader link at the top of this page or downloaded here, a summary of our view on how Catherine’s unhappiness influenced Hamilton can be found in the article we wrote about him: A most gossiped about genius : Sir William Rowan Hamilton.
Utrecht, 24 April 2019
The books have arrived, and I was surprised about how thin they are. I did work on Catherine's sketch for about half the time I needed for Hamilton's essay, and I also knew of course that the sketch had much less pages, yet it did not feel so different, also because it was much more difficult to write. The digital world is strange: places on the other side of the earth seem close by, and books do not have comprehensible volumes.
Because my books have been printed in only very small editions, and I wanted to give some of the copies to family and friends, I was worrying about writing in the books; my handwriting is not that good. So Rietje Smeets made two beautiful cards to go with the books, which I can write on and waste until it seems alright.
On the left side of the card for Catherine's sketch a quote from a poem by Hamilton is given, because there is hardly any description of Catherine, and this is one of the few. Beneath it there are three little angels, photographed at the ceiling, or a wall, of Summerhill. I wanted to show it because it was from the house where Catherine and Hamilton saw each other for the first time, but it could also symbolize (not too seriously) Hamilton, Helen Bayly and Catherine Disney, yet without any indication of who is who. The three photos on the right side are all Regency-like scenes. The first is ‘Music lesson’ by Vittorio Reggianini (1858-1938); if Catherine later could play the harp she must have had lessons. The second is a dinner in Regency style, dining together with family and friends or visitors was a very common thing to do, and in Hamilton's biography indeed very many dinners are mentioned. The third scene is also by Reggianini, see ‘The Letter’; Catherine and her sister reading Hamilton's Valentine poem.
On the left side of the card for Hamilton's essay a quote can be seen about which Hamilton wrote, “Be such my epitaph!”. Beneath the quaternion equations are two quaternion fractals, a Mandelbrot and a Julia fractal, see for instance Hypercomplex Fractals. The three photos on the right also have to do with quaternions: they were used in the Space shuttle program, in Tomb Raider making the movements of Lara Croft and her background so smoothly, and for the Hubble telescope. I should perhaps also have chosen something in connection with his mechanics, but that did not give so many nice pictures as quaternions did.
Utrecht, 5 April 2019
On the 31th of March I finally finished the sketch about Catherine. It has been uploaded to our Royal Library and to Google Books, and the files have been sent to the printer. I am now making an epub.
And of course, the printer’s ink not yet dry (actually, not even wet yet) I found a mistake. In the story of the haunted Rectory in Carlingford, I imagined Catherine at the time Barlow fell in love with her as a sixteen year old girl in a red dress, because the apparition wore one.
I then erroneously assumed that Catherine’s red dress would be Victorian, but she was of course sixteen in the Regency period, and those dresses were quite different from the Victorian dresses. Searching for Regency dresses I saw that they were indeed much smaller than Victorian dresses, therefore perhaps more like Edwardian ones, which would have fitted the story even better. But then I also saw that the Victorian dinner and day dresses were much smaller than I had imagined, apparently, the enormous skirts I mentioned in the footnote were Victorian ball gowns. There is much to know about fashion.
For comparison: on the left a drawing of a dinner dress, published in Januari 1825, the month in which Hamilton wrote to Uncle James about Catherine, and only a few weeks before he wrote his Valentine poem. Looking at the woman’s hairstyle, that is in complete accord with that of Catherine’s, which could again be a confirmation, next to looking rather young and not unhappy yet, that the drawing of Catherine was made around the time that she fell in love with Hamilton. In the middle an 1840 Victorian day dress, Catherine lived in Carlingford then. On the right a 1904 Edwardian dinner dress.
But during these searches I saw a remarkable painting, The Letter, by Vittorio Reggianini (1858-1938). He was born after the Regency but painted scenes apparently from that period, and looking at this painting it struck me how much the woman with the blonde hair looked like Catherine. Suddenly it was far more easy to see Catherine smile, talk, and play the harp. I then imagined that she showed Hamilton’s Valentine poem to her sister Anne Eliza, and that they reread it together on the couch. There is a fair chance that she really did that, because Anne Eliza befriended Hamilton’s sister Eliza who, perhaps through her, seems to have known what Catherine felt for Hamilton. Tragic, that they could not talk about such things.
Utrecht, 8 March 2019
Today is International Women’s Day, which seems to be a marvellous day to put the last draft of the sketch about Catherine Disney online at ResearchGate. As a celebration that in most parts of the world forcing women into marriage is not possible any more. Catherine’s life would have been very different and very much happier if she had not been coerced into her loveless marriage, and it is hoped and should be worked towards, that soon all over the world such a practice will become unimaginable, and no woman will lose her life any more in the way Catherine lost hers.
Note added: That RG link also contains the final version now.
Utrecht, 3 November 2018
Today 165 years ago Catherine Disney died, five years after she had made an attempt at suicide by taking laudanum. She did not love the man she had been forced to marry, and her unhappiness may have been worsened by the death of two young sons. She survived though, and thereafter lived mainly with family. In her last weeks she was finally able to explain what had happened to her to the love of her life, in two intensely emotional interviews. A golden lining at the end of her very difficult life.
Not much is known about Catherine Disney, and below a summary of the biographical sketch I am writing about her can be found. The view on Hamilton given here and in the sketch is motivated extensively in my essay about him, A Victorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton. The events described in the sketch all come from Hamilton’s letters, except what happened during Catherine’s 1845 visit to the Observatory, what happened in Carlingford around Catherine’s suicide attempt in 1848 and when and how she was brought to her brother in Newtown-Hamilton, and whether or not she attended her eldest son’s wedding in 1853. Because nothing is known about Catherine’s view on her own story, in the sketch that is extrapolated from the scarce information there is about her, yet at the same time firmly based on Hamilton’s observations of how she felt. Even though in some aspects Catherine may have seen things slightly differently, due to Hamilton’s two main biographies there is no doubt about her unhappiness, her love for Hamilton, her love for her children, and her rejection of her husband, and this is the thread which runs through the sketch.
Three of Catherine’s seven sons died young: William Brownlow (1831-1841), Maxwell Close (1837-1838), and John Lambert (1841-1849). Missing here is Catherine’s fifth son Arthur Edward Barlow (1835-1911). Of him no photo was found, but there is an interesting letter from him during his time as Commander on the steamship Nizam. It was written in March 1876, and Arthur Edward describes the saving of a life at sea by a life-buoy, invented by Holmes [All websites accessed 3 November 2018].
For two photos of Brabazon’s wife see Harriette Ellen Guinness.
When Catherine was twenty-four she fell in love with William Hamilton, later a very famous mathematician but then a nineteen year old Trinity College student; a promising student but still needing a few years to finish his studies. Her parents not only seem to have judged him too young, but learning to know him better they will also not at all have been certain that after having finished his studies he would use his enormous intellect to secure a stable future for his family, loving science so much that he was very likely to take financial risks for it.
One of Catherine’s brothers-in-law, the reverend William Barlow, desperately wanted to marry her, and he was lucky. It is not known exactly what happened, but because almost immediately thereafter the family took action, what may have happened is that after Catherine received a Valentine poem from Hamilton she was openly very happy. It will have made her parents realize that she was falling more and more in love with Hamilton, and further hurried their decision to arrange a marriage for her with Barlow. Interpreting Barlow’s feelings based on the comment made by Hamilton that “wealth was not wanting” when he saw Catherine in 1830, Barlow seems to have trusted that it would all be well if he would take good care of her, and that if he would give her a financially stable life she would in time learn to love him. She was a very pious woman, and would doubtlessly be an obedient reverend’s wife.
Probably visiting Hamilton in Dublin, where he stayed with a family member when attending Trinity College, or in Trim where he lived with his uncle James and aunt Elizabeth, in February 1825 Mrs Disney told Hamilton that Catherine was going to marry in May. It is clear from what followed that Hamilton had no idea that Catherine also loved him, but he did notice that Mrs Disney felt very sorry for him. It can be imagined that she could not give him an explanation, afraid of what such a romantic youngster would do if he would know that Catherine also was in love with him. Catherine in the meantime pleaded desperately against the marriage, but she was ”led as a victim to the altar.“ Her shaky and apparently tear-stained signature in the marriage record seems to be a heartbreaking token of her life from then on.
Catherine saw Hamilton only a few times in the years thereafter. In 1830 he came to visit her and one of her brothers in Edenderry, Eglish, and she then made a return visit to the Observatory of Armagh where he was staying. From later letters it is clear that she had not told him how unhappy she was, but knowing that friends of Hamilton used to say that his emotions were always very easy to recognize she must have noticed how he had looked at her and that he had been shocked; that he had seen her unhappiness.
That summer Hamilton published two poems about her, as if to comfort her by showing his love for her. Reading the poems in the papers she will have been very happy with his openly stated love, but from the poems it was also clear that he thought it had been her own choice to marry Barlow and that she had been happy with it, which explained his distress when he had noticed her unhappiness. From remarks made by Graves, Hamilton’s first biographer, it can be derived that Catherine felt guilty about what they had done to him, and afraid that he would think that she had deceived him by not telling him about her marriage during all those happy evenings at Summerhill, sitting around the fire with her family, when she had played the harp and had looked at him happily. It can be imagined that she felt a strong urge to explain to him that she had not known about the plans of her family, but the times they lived in did not allow for such openness after marriage. And to make it even worse, when she asked her husband to allow her to contact Hamilton he refused. Having vowed obedience to him at the altar meant that she could not do anything, but in the sketch it is assumed that she then began to lose the last remnants of warm feelings she once had had towards him.
In 1839 she lost her fourteen month old son Maxwell Close, and life will have become even darker than it had already been, then losing a second son in 1841 seems to have been the beginning of the end for her. In 1845 she was in Dublin, probably to see her eldest sons who then were studying at Trinity College, and she decided to visit Hamilton at Dunsink Observatory with one of her brothers but doubtlessly without her husband knowing about it, from later letters it is clear that he still had not allowed her to contact Hamilton. It must have been a welcome visit though; Hamilton had happily married in 1833, and if she also met Lady Hamilton at the Observatory that will have comforted her, knowing that he was in a good marriage may have taken away a part of the guilt she felt towards him. Hamilton did not write much about this visit, he only mentioned it in letters to her brothers after her death, perhaps he guessed that Catherine had visited him without her husband knowing about it.
When in 1848 Catherine heard that Hamilton was tutoring her eldest son James William she finally gave in to her feelings of unhappiness; although her husband had forbidden it she wrote a letter to Hamilton in which she thanked him for taking care of her son. It was the start of an intense correspondence, in which she told Hamilton that she had not been happy in her marriage from the start. Although the correspondence, which lasted for six weeks, was doubtessly heavenly because in later years she seems to have kept his letters in her bed, it was also very distressing. Feeling more and more guilty towards her husband she decided that she had to confess that she had been in contact with Hamilton. Whatever she may have hoped against all knowledge did not come true; her husband just preached, doubtlessly about women and obedience, and she lost the very last sparks of hope. She carefully prepared her suicide and early in October 1848 took an overdose of laudanum.
After her suicide attempt she was brought to the house of her brother in Newtown-Hamilton. But the attempt had ruined her health, and only slowly she regained some strength. She thereafter lived with various family members, and seems to have found some of the quiet she had longed for. But in 1849 disaster struck again when her youngest son died; it must again have been devastating. Slightly comforting during these again very difficult times will have been that she had good contact with her mother, making long visits to her. Having seen how well Hamilton was now doing, in hindsight Mrs Disney may have been very sorry that she had not supported her daugher, that they had not trusted Hamilton; he had after all been a very promising student.
In 1853 Catherine’s eldest son James William married, and she will have been very happy for him. But soon thereafter she felt that she was dying. She sent Hamilton a message; she still wanted desperately to explain to him what had happened, and she will have considered that so shortly before her death hardly anyone could have objections. Hamilton immediately came, and they spoke with each other twice. Talking to him made her very very happy because she finally could tell him what due to those socially very strict times she had never been able to tell him; that she had loved him too, that she had wanted to marry him but that her family had forced her to marry Barlow. He reacted extremely shocked but also lovingly, and when she died some weeks later it will have been in her long sought for quiet peace because she knew that he now knew that she had not deceived him, that she had loved him as he had loved her.
In her last years Catherine had slowly lost her faith, and that had an enormous impact on her eldest son, James William Barlow, who was in holy orders. From his writings it can be inferred that he could not believe that she would go to hell, that after the life she had lived she would deserve an eternal punishment. Around the time of her death in 1853 James William must have started contemplating the doctrine of hell because he was rebuked and forbidden to preach in 1859. He nevertheless published an essay in 1865 in which he gave arguments that the concept of hell had not been in the Bible at all, and he proved mathematically that hell and a righteous God could not go together. In 1860 he became Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin, which he seems to have taken up more actively than his predecessors.
At first James William apparently did not blame his father as regards his mother’s suicide attempt; it can be seen in the 1855 baptism record of his eldest son William Ruxton that Barlow baptised and registered the baby, yet it is very well possible that at that time James William still knew nothing about the coercion. It is remarkable that Barlow’s 1879 burial ceremony was performed by Edward Whately, the son of Richard Whately, who rebuked James William. It might signify that Barlow did not agree with his son, and if James Barlow thereafter found out about the coercion, that may have done their relationship not much good.
James Barlow remained to be a loyal member of the Church, but his ‘ecclesiastical ban’ had an enormous influence on his family, which was visible in the life and work of his eldest daughter Jane Barlow. She was an in her time famous writer, and went much farther than her father, in her later years even rejecting organized religion. But the family was very inward turned, and Jane Barlow does not seem to have defended her place among the writers of her time rigorously. As a protestant writer about Irish catholic peasantry, after the end of the ascendancy she was soon forgotten.
Forced marriages have mostly been treated as a personal problem of the woman, and sometimes of the man, without realizing what it could mean for the lives of their children. And in Catherine’s case her unhappiness has not even been treated as her problem but only as that of Hamilton; she just was his ‘lost love’, a romantic ideal. Yet from the stories of the lives of Catherine’s eldest son and granddaughter it must be concluded that she even was a very important influence, for many years after her death. The motivation to write the biographical sketch about her was to show this influence, and to give a vivid description of Catherine as a woman in her own right.
While searching for information about Carlingford, where Catherine lived when she made her attempt at suicide, I came across a most remarkable story which concerned ghost stories about a haunted Rectory in Carlingford. In the 1960s a ghost hunter had conjectured that it had been about a romantic tragedy in the mid nineteenth century, involving a girl with golden hair in a red dress and a clergyman. Then it indeed turned out the be the house where the Barlows had lived, in their time called the Glebe House and later the Rectory.
Thinking about Barlow’s side of their story it seemed to me that that was visualized by the haunted Rectory. For his times not having made an extreme decision when insisting on marrying Catherine, in some way he also was a victim of their times. He certainly will have hoped for many years that his marriage would work out after all, and that the beautiful and radiant girl with the golden locks he had fallen in love with so many years ago would return in her if he would be a very good husband. But having lost two of their sons in Carlingford he will have lost all hope that his wife would ever become her happy self again, and for him that town with all its ruins may have become the embodiment of the ruins of his life. I did not imagine Catherine to be doomed to stay in Carlingford as a ghost, but that the clergyman in the story thus visualizes Barlow who in his mind stays in Carlingford forever, chasing the beautiful young girl she once had been, always hoping against all knowledge that in the end she will learn to love him as she should. Not being able to accept that he lost her finally and completely, never to get her back.
Realizing that Catherine made her suicide attempt in 1848 the conclusion about the time of the tragedy, the mid nineteenth century, is certainly remarkable. But ghosts do not seem necessary at all in searching for explanations where the ghost stories came from. Many people must have known about Catherine’s unhappiness and her attempt. People talked with her, she was after all the reverend’s wife, and they will have noticed long before her attempt that something was wrong. The Barlows had staff and nursemaids who must have known, Catherine had to buy the laudanum somewhere, and after her attempt she had to be taken care of. She then left Carlingford, never to return anymore, but for some time Barlow and perhaps the children still lived there, and suicide was not openly talked about then. Therefore, over the generations people may have slowly started to forget about whom the tragic stories had been told. But that it had happened in the Rectory, that part was well remembered, explaining the legend about the haunted Rectory.