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A Victorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton in pdf and epub version, background information, and further publications

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Photos of people in Hamilton’s biography


Catherine Disney

Catherine Disney
Catherine Disney (1800-1853)
This is a photopgraph of either a miniature which
Hamilton had borrowed in 1854 from Catherine’s brother
Thomas to have it copied, or a much better portrait he
received from her sister Louisa in 1861. Catherine
looks very young; the drawing will therefore have been
made before her unhappy marriage in 1825.
Courtesy of Trinity College Dublin Library.

Three of Catherine’s seven sons

James William Barlow
James William Barlow

Courtesy of Trinity College
Dublin Library.
Thomas Disney Barlow
Thomas Disney Barlow

Reproduced from the website
Brabazon John Barlow
Brabazon John Barlow

Reproduced from the website

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). From 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 Harriet see Harriet Ellen Guinness.

Catherine’s famous granddaughter

Jane Barlow
Jane Barlow (1856-1917)
Reproduced from The Bookman :
A Literary Journal
, II (4):
260-261, 1895.

A draft of a sketch about Catherine Disney, which I am still working on, can be read here:
Catherine Disney : a biographical sketch.

If there are readers who believe that I have misinterpreted or left out important information, or who have additional information, I would be happy to hear about it:

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.

For some information about me see:  ORCID iD icon

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 what follows is a summary of the biographical sketch I am writing about her. 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.

Summary of Catherine Disney : a biographical sketch

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 smeared out signature in the marriage record, which can be seen below, 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. It will have contributed again to her own 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, 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; what a town for her to wake up in! But the attempt had ruined her health, and only slowly she regained some strength. She thereafter lived with various family members, and finally 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 was in 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 more; 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. 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. 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. He apparently did not blame his father; it can be seen in the baptism record of his eldest son William Ruxton that Barlow baptised and registered the baby, but James William did start to contemplate about the doctrine of hell. He found and 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. Having been in holy orders he was rebuked, and forbidden to hold sermons anymore he became professor of History, which he seems to have done very well.

James Barlow remained to be a loyal member of the Church, but his ‘ecclesiastical ban’ had an enormous influence on his family, which was most 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 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 as that of Hamilton because 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 to come. 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.

Carlingford’s haunted Rectory

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. It had been conjectured that it had been about a romantic tragedy in the mid nineteenth century, involving a girl 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.

In the 1960s an investigator made a difference between spirits and ghosts, using the word spirits for entities one can have contact with, and the word ghost as unhappy events and feelings having left imprints in the house. Thinking about associations in terms of the meaning of ghosts as imprints the story about the haunted Rectory started to seem to me to visualize the story of Barlow himself; after all, for his times not having made an extreme decision when marrying Catherine, in some way he was a victim too. 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. The ghost story then is the visualization of Barlow who in his mind stayed in Carlingford until the end of his life, chasing the beautiful young girl she once had been, always hoping that she would finally also love him.

Perhaps such imprints do exist, and realizing that Catherine made her suicide attempt in 1848 the conclusion about the time of the tragedy is certainly remarkable. But imprints 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.

Church records

Catherine Disney marriage record

Catherine’s marriage record. Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.

Baptism record of James William Barlow

James William Barlow’s baptism record. Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.

Burial record of Maxwell Close Barlow

Burial record of Maxwell Close (1837-1838). Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.

Burial record of William Brownlow Barlow

Burial record of William Brownlow (1831-1841). Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.

Burial record of John Lambert Barlow

Burial record of John Lambert (1841-1849). Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.

James William Barlow 1853 marriage record

James William Barlow’s 1853 marriage record. Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.

Catherine Disney burial record

Catherine’s burial record. Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.

Baptism record of William Ruxton Barlow

Baptism record of William Ruxton (1855-1922). Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.

Baptism record of Jane Barlow

Jane Barlow’s baptism record. Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.

Burial record of William Barlow

Burial record of William Barlow (1792-1871). Reproduced from Irish : Church Records.