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Catherine Disney : a biographical sketch


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Catherine Disney (1800-1853) was only known for having been the 'lost love' of Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865). In this essay a sketch of her life is given, as far as that was possible from the scarce information about her. After she had fallen in love with Hamilton she was forced to marry someone else, and after many years she tried to commit suicide. Apparently weakened by the attempt she died five years later. Next to giving her sad story, which did end with a thin but golden lining because in two interviews she could explain to Hamilton what had happened, and tell him that she had also loved him, it is argued that she was an important influence on her son James William Barlow (1826-1913) and her granddaughter Jane Barlow (1856-1917), an influence hitherto not acknowledged.
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a biographical sketch
Anne van Weerden
This sketch is dedicated to
Eli Sarkol
The illustration on the front page comes from the web page The Irish Aesthete.
It can be found at
It shows the entrance hall of Summerhill mansion, the house in which Catherine Disney saw
William Hamilton for the very first time.
a biographical sketch
Anne van Weerden
Published by J. Fransje van Weerden
2019, Stedum, The Netherlands
Typeset by L
Printed by BoekenGilde,
Enschede, The Netherlands
ISBN: 978-94-6323-411-5
The aim of this sketch is threefold.
First, it is to tell something about Catherine Disney (1800-1853). She is known as
the ‘lost love’ of the famous Irish mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-
1865), who invented what we now know as Hamiltonian mechanics, and was knighted
for his work in 1835. In 1843 he discovered the quaternions from which vector anal-
ysis emerged, and which are now used for smoothly changing orientations in for
instance robotics, gaming and spacecraft. Because throughout his life Hamilton cor-
responded extensively, and based upon his letters, poems and personal notes two bio-
graphies were written, his life can be read about in almost meticulous detail.
Yet about Catherine’s own life hardly anything is known, and what is known
seems to merely reflect the view men had on ‘good’ women in the protestant ascen-
dancy class of Regency and Victorian Ireland: in the 1880s Hamilton’s biographer
Robert Graves described her as of “singular beauty, amiable, sensitive and pious,”
and according to Hamilton she was ‘graceful,’ and had a “simple loveliness,” a “nat-
ural bloom,” and a “retiring timidness.”
Having fallen in love with Hamilton Catherine was forced by her family to marry
William Barlow, a clergyman who was also her brother-in-law, and as long as she
could she was a good and obedient wife. In 1848 she broke down and tried to commit
suicide, survived, but was weakened by the attempt. As far as is known thereafter she
lived with family members, yet only five years later, shortly before she died, she was
finally able to tell Hamilton that she had also loved him.
Gathering data about Catherine’s life was greatly facilitated by the publicly
available Irish censuses, church records, Griffith’s Valuation, previews of newspaper
articles, and the abundance of books on the Internet Archive containing information
about members of the protestant ascendancy class in Ireland, especially the clergy.
Acquiring insights into Catherine’s personal feelings was much more difficult because
letters written by her do not seem to exist any more. Yet Hamilton wrote many let-
ters about her in the months after her death in 1853, and in the summer of 1855 when
he unburdened his heart to his friend Aubrey de Vere; through these letters it is pos-
sible to at least catch a glimpse of how it must have been for her.
Second, it is to underpin what I showed in my 2015 essay AVictorian marriage :
Sir William Rowan Hamilton, that what happened between Hamilton and Catherine
was much more nuanced than what has been claimed, that his whole life Hamilton
only loved Catherine. Just having turned nineteen he fell in love with her at first
sight, and after some very happy months in which he enjoyed being around her but
did not tell her that he loved her, in February 1825 he heard from her mother, for him
vi Catherine Disney : a biographical sketch
completely unexpectedly, that Catherine was betrothed to William Barlow. It took
him almost seven years to come to terms with his feelings of loss. Thereafter he was
clearly in distress about Catherine three times: in 1830 after having met her, in 1848
after having corresponded with her, and shortly before her death in 1853 after having
spoken with her twice. That seemed to suggest that he had always remained in love
with Catherine, and had consequently unhappily married.
Yet in his letters and poems it can be read that around the time of Catherine’s
marriage he had assumed that she wanted to marry Barlow. Noticing in 1830, and
reading in 1848, how terribly unhappy Catherine was in her marriage was very diffi-
cult for him, yet due to the social strictness in the Victorian era there was nothing he
could do. But when Catherine finally told him, almost on her deathbed, that she also
had loved him, that she had wanted to marry him but had been forced to marry Bar-
low, that was devastating. Being in distress thereafter had nothing to do with his own
marriage; it simply was very hard to hear that from the woman he once deeply loved,
and who had been so unhappy that she now was dying before her time.
Having shown in my essay that Hamilton had a good marriage, it appeared to me
that giving the above mentioned facts as arguments why his distress over Catherine
had nothing to do with his own marriage might still not be completely convincing,
and that became a second reason to write this sketch about Catherine’s life. What
I hope to accomplish is that reading about what happened to her will make it more
easy to see that distress about her fate would not only be restricted to Hamilton and
his romantic contemporaries, but probably to most people who learn about it, espe-
cially when imagining that that would happen to someone they love themselves.
Third, it is to show that although in the Victorian era the influence of mothers on
especially their sons was publicly much less visible than that of their husbands, and
generally only the warmth they gave to their sons as babies and small children seems
to have been acknowledged, their influence was of course as strong as that of the fa-
thers. Next to apparently having been a loving mother, as can be read in one of Ham-
ilton’s poems, Catherine’s unhappiness seems to have had a hitherto unnoticed influ-
ence on her eldest son James William Barlow (1826-1913). He was rebuked and for-
bidden to preach because he stated that the doctrine of eternal punishment did not
come from the Bible, and that it drove many people away from the Church; an idea
which can be connected directly to his mother’s suicide attempt and her having lost
her faith in her last years. It has been contemplated how James Barlow came to his
extreme ideas, but no one linked it to his mother’s utter unhappiness, as if that could
not be a motivation for such a learned man to live his life the way he did. To show his
mother’s influence on him, also his life and that of his daughter Jane Barlow (1856-
1917), a once very famous Irish writer, will be briefly discussed.
Of Catherine’s sad and unhappy story anyone can be a judge. Human suffering
is known to everyone, regardless of country, culture, religion or beliefs. That made
it seem justifiable to extrapolate from the scarce known facts about Catherine even
though she may have seen things differently; ascribing feelings to her most people can
relate to was a way to visualize how hard it must have been for her. But also parts of
James Barlow’s motives and thoughts have been filled in although that is not in any
way backed by sources. It was chosen to do so for the sake of the story, and to avoid
many mights and may haves while investigating how his mother’s story may have in-
fluenced his theological ideas.
Preface vii
About Jane Barlow much more is known, and although the story of her life cannot
be told without taking into account the political and social circumstances of Ireland
then, that has, nevertheless, been left out because my goal was not to write a sketch
about her life, but to show that in what has been written about her Catherine’s
influence is missing. Having been completely absent in the descriptions of her son
and granddaughter diminished Catherine to how she is mostly seen: a romantic ideal,
someone’s lost love, a clergyman’s invisible wife.
The use of tragic stories in times of omnipresent death
In the first half of the Victorian era there was a high mortality rate because of a lack
of understanding about hygiene, and antibiotics did not exist yet. Sorrow was such a
frequent occurrence that the people then appear to have almost been used to it. This
seems to be recognizable in a letter written by Hamilton, who then was only seven-
teen and lived in Trim with his aunt Elizabeth and uncle James,1to ‘Cousin Arthur’,
a first cousin once removed who lived in Dublin. The story is given here because
it illustrates how, in those socially very strict times, the fact that women had to
vow obedience to their husbands at the altar, and were not granted a divorce on the
ground of not loving their partners, caused very much misery. In first instance Jenny,
the story’s protagonist, reluctantly agreed to marry her suitor, but when she heard
that she could have married the man she loved her marriage turned into a mental
prison; she had to stay in that unhappy marriage for the rest of her life.
“Trim, November 12, 1822. Past eleven at night.
“Do you remember me sending you some crumbs of a bride-cake in a letter, a few
months ago? I think you will be interested in the history of the bride, told partly
from my own recollection, and partly from very good authority: Jenny Walker was a
very pretty girl, our children’s maid some years ago. There never goes from this town
a regiment with as many bachelors as came into it; one of the soldiers courted Jenny,
and it seems she was equally in love with him. But her mother did not choose her to
marry him, because he was a soldier, and because he was poor. She came to Aunt
[Elizabeth] to request her to lock her up, or at least confine her to the house. Aunt
refused to take charge of her, and parted with her. In time the regiment went, and
Jenny heard no more of her lover. Early in this year there came another, and one of
the soldiers, an Englishman, a serjeant, I will not say fell in love with her at first
sight, but declared that moment, she shall be my wife. Accordingly he soon went to
Mrs. Walker, and got her over completely to his interest. She came to Uncle [James]
to request him to add his influence to hers, to get her daughter to marry this English-
man, who (although she did not like his being a soldier) was of very good character,
and had saved a great deal of money. Jenny was at last prevailed on, for she supposed
the Scotchman had forgotten her. Unwillingly she consented. The soldier gave a ball,
at which the officers were present. Huge bride-cakes were made, of which you got a
crumb. A separate room was given them in the barrack, and everything done in the
first style. They were married at eight o’clock by Mr. Butler [Vicar of Trim], and at
ten she received a letter from the man she had really loved, saying that he had (I be-
lieve by legacy) got a good deal of money, left the army and turned farmer, and would
soon come to Trim to marry Jenny.
1[Graves 1882, 122-123]. He lived with them during the largest part of his youth, see p. 25.
viii Catherine Disney : a biographical sketch
“She and her husband went to Dublin with the regiment, and are now there. She
returned last week to see her friends, and paid a visit to Aunt. She told her that her
husband was a dark, distant man.
“Have you ever read Mackenzie’s novel called Julia de Roubign´e ?2The facts that
I have mentioned are very like the fictions of that novel. There is a great deal of
romance in real life. Everyone that saw her last week remarked that, though she was
dressed so well, she was not at all so handsome as she used to be; but this is easily
accounted for, by those that know the history of the letter for it has probably been
preying on her mind.”
In the Introduction to Julia de Roubign´e Mackenzie gives his reason to admire
such tales so much, “One advantage I drew from [writing, or arranging the writings of
others], which the humane may hear with satisfaction; I often wandered from my own
woe in tracing the tale of another’s affliction; and, at this moment, every sentence I
write, I am but escaping a little farther from the pressure of sorrow.” When he was
writing his letter also Hamilton had already experienced many deaths of relatives,3
and he once said that he could not write verses on the deaths of family members,
being hindered by a “crushing sensation of disaster” whenever that happened. Being
used to sorrow clearly did not make it any easier.4
But whether it was due to his youth, or indeed to being used to sorrow, or to
having been used to the fact that women had hardly anything to say about their own
lives, in his comment to Jenny’s story, next to feeling for her, Hamilton also sounds
touched by the romance in it. He does not seem to have fully realized that Jenny’s
life had become a misery, and it can be wondered whether he saw it differently when,
many years later, he heard about Catherine’s forced and very unhappy marriage, and
their own story came to resemble that of Jenny and the man she loved.
Given names and surnames
When writing the essay AVictorian marriage I was in doubt how to call Catherine
Disney and William Hamilton. Calling her by her given name and him by his sur-
name seemed to imply that he was taken more seriously than she was, or seen more
as an independent person. But it appeared unavoidable; based on the custom that
women’s surnames changed when they married, and the uneasy feeling I had when
calling her Barlow, I decided I had to call her Catherine, the name she did have
throughout her life. And as regards his name, using William for him was not an op-
tion because also Barlow’s given name was William. I therefore called him Hamilton,
as he called himself in his letters.
2Mackenzie, H., Julia de Roubign´e. In Mackenzie, H. (1819), The Miscellaneous Works of Henry
Mackenzie, Esq. In Three Volumes, Vol III. Edinburgh: James Robertson and William Blair. archi
3Before writing this letter Hamilton’s parents Archibald Hamilton and Sarah Hutton had died
already. Also three little children had died: his sister Sarah, his brother Archibald, and his cousin
Kate, daughter of uncle James and aunt Elizabeth. And when Hamilton was only nine years old
his aunt Sydney, sister of Hamilton’s father and uncle James, died of cancer. She had also lived in
Trim, had written many proud letters about him to his mother when he was little, and had helped
him learn Latin and Hebrew. She died in Dublin, having been taken care of by Hamilton’s parents.
[Graves 1882, 26-27].
4[Graves 1882, 26], [Graves 1889, 302]
Preface v
I Catherine’s early years 1
1 Introduction 3
1.1 A forced and unhappy marriage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
1.2 Unhappiness and history . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
1.3 Biographies and letters . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
1.4 Birthanddeath ............................. 9
1.5 Descent and addresses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
2 The Disney family 19
2.1 Deaths of two brothers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
2.2 The death of Lambert Disney . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
2.3 Summerhill and absent fathers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
2.4 A very happy but unfortunate meeting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
2.5 Fraternal love for a rare but fading beauty . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28
3 A shattered life 31
3.1 Happy youngsters and parental worries . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31
3.2 An elder suitor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
3.3 AValentinepoem ............................ 35
3.4 A hastened marriage agreement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38
II Catherine’s married life 41
4 A clergyman’s wife 43
4.1 A forced signature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
4.2 A son and a perpetual curacy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46
4.3 Trying to make a life in Edenderry . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
4.4 Upsetting visits . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50
4.5 A crushing refusal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52
5 Children and bereavements 55
5.1 A growing family . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55
5.2 Life in Carlingford . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56
5.3 Deaths of two sons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57
5.4 The comfort of nearby siblings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61
5.5 Anemptyinghouse ........................... 63
6 The end of the marriage 65
6.1 Visiting Dunsink Observatory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65
6.2 A heavenly correspondence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68
6.3 The suicide attempt . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70
6.4 Wakingupagain............................. 73
6.5 Staying with family . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74
7 The last years 77
7.1 Death of a third son . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77
7.2 Exchanging gifts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 79
7.3 Renewed contacts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 80
7.4 Parting interviews and death . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83
7.5 Carlingford’s haunted Rectory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87
III Catherine’s posthumous influence 91
8 James William Barlow 93
8.1 Contact with Hamilton . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93
8.2 Heterodoxy................................ 95
8.3 Thebiography .............................. 98
8.4 Alternative marriages in a doomed society . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100
8.5 Reputations and an original mind . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
8.6 The Society for Psychical Research . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 104
9 Jane Barlow 107
9.1 A very close or inward-turned family . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107
9.2 Delightful gems or exhausted knowledge . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113
9.3 Extremely shy or delicately strong . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115
9.4 Interpretations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119
9.5 The great sleep . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121
Epilogue 127
Appendix 129
Bibliography 133
Part I
Catherine’s early years
Catherine Disney is known as the ‘lost love’ of the famous nineteenth cen-
tury Irish mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton, yet hardly any-
thing is known about herself. Her birth record was not found online but her
marriage record was, as were newspaper articles about the births of most of
her seven sons. Her burial record is also online; she died in Donnybrook in
1853, her age was given as fifty-three. And there appeared to exist a portrait
of her, which is held in the Hamilton collection in Trinity College Library
in Dublin, it is shown here on p. 29 and on the back cover.
In this part Catherine’s life is described, as far as that was possible, from
her birth until her marriage in 1825. Because her father placed many work-
related advertisements in various newspapers it is known where during her
youth his offices were, and although not entirely certain, there are reasons
to assume that whenever possible he held office in the family residence.
From Hamilton’s correspondences it is known that Catherine and Hamilton
met and fell in love with each other in 1824, when he still was a student at
Trinity College Dublin. Catherine’s family does not seem to have trusted
Hamilton’s capabilities to take care of a family, and forced her to marry
the reverend William Barlow. Catherine was never able to reconcile herself
with the marriage, and Hamilton, who did not know about the coercion,
needed almost seven years to cope with having lost her.
A scenario is suggested here for how Catherine’s family may have come to
their decision, and for the sake of visualizing what happened, thoughts and
feelings have been ascribed to Catherine. Neither the scenario nor what she
may have thought or felt is based on direct sources, yet everything imagined
has strictly been kept within the boundaries of what is known about her.
Chapter 1
1.1 A forced and unhappy marriage
It is generally acknowledged that the unhappiness of parents can profoundly influ-
ence the lives of their children. This idea however often seems to have been lacking in
historical descriptions, especially when the unhappiness was hidden, not expressing
itself in openly visible ways such as violence or addiction. Unhappiness of parents
thus influencing the children holds for instance for forced marriages, if partners can-
not find their peace with them yet silently endure. Based on mostly indirect informa-
tion, this sketch is about such a forced and unhappy marriage, in the protestant as-
cendancy class of Regency and early Victorian Ireland.
Many marriages were arranged then; there were no health insurances or pensions,
and therefore parents tried to marry their children into families with good reputa-
tions, with enough money to acquire a good education for the children, and to secure
a well-provided for old age. But while in case of arranged marriages both partners
had a choice and agreed with the marriage, and many such marriages worked out
well, forced marriages were of a very different order. Most often marriages seem to
have been forced in cases of pregnancies out of wedlock, or when a family in financial
trouble could be saved by such a marriage. But it also happened when a family felt
that its honour was at stake, for instance when, after the families had come to an
agreement, one of the partners had a change of heart and wanted to break off the en-
In case of silent sufferings, of the forced partner but perhaps in the long run also
of the unloved one, these forced marriages often did not recognizably influence the
lives of Victorian men. But for women they could have devastating consequences;
at their weddings they had to vow obedience to their husbands while a divorce was
hardly ever granted, and forced marriages could therefore turn into lifelong mental
prisons. In 1825 Catherine Disney (1800-1853) was forced by her family to marry the
reverend William Barlow (1792-1871) although she had fallen in love with the then
Trinity College Dublin student and later famous mathematician Sir William Rowan
Hamilton (1805-1865), a love which was mutual. She never found her peace with the
marriage, and after having tried to commit suicide in 1848, weakened by the attempt
4 Catherine Disney : a biographical sketch
she died five years later. Catherine Disney’s role in Hamilton’s life has been discussed
extensively, but her own life does not seem to have been described. This sketch is an
attempt to do so, mainly based on the information given in Hamilton’s biographies,
supplemented by newspaper articles and various scraps of information.
Hamilton’s first biographer Robert Perceval Graves published his biography,
which consists of three volumes, in the 1880s, deep in the Victorian era, and conse-
quently wrote about Catherine Disney in a very concealed way. In the descriptions
of the years after Hamilton’s marriage Graves acknowledged, albeit very cautiously,
Hamilton’s periodic distress about her, but at the same time gave much emphasis to
the fact that his work was hardly influenced by it. Reading original letters and per-
sonal notes written by Hamilton and kept in Trinity College Library, Thomas Leroy
Hankins published a second biography in 1980. He had discovered that Catherine’s
influence on Hamilton’s life had been much larger than Graves had indicated, and
argued that his whole life Hamilton had only been in love with Catherine. This idea
was challenged in 2015; in AVictorian Marriage : Sir William Rowan Hamilton, an
essay based upon these two biographies, it was shown that the truth rather lies some-
where between these two extremes.1
Using the ideas put forward in that essay, in this biographical sketch it will be
tried to look at what happened from Catherine Disney’s point of view. Thereafter it
will be briefly discussed what influence Catherine’s unhappiness apparently had on
her eldest son James William Barlow and her eldest granddaughter Jane Barlow, two
in their times well-known Irish writers. James Barlow was Erasmus Smith’s Professor
of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin from 1860 until 1893, and Vice Provost
from 1899 until 1908; Jane Barlow was a poet and novelist, writing mainly about
peasant life in Ireland.2Because many members of Catherine’s large family play a
role in this biographical sketch, and quite a few of them share the same names, an
overview of the families involved is given in the Appendix.3
Motivation for interpreting Catherine Most parts of this sketch are factual;
all mentioned events did happen, and almost all indications of Hamilton’s thoughts
and feelings come directly from his letters,4interpreted as discussed in the essay A
Victorian Marriage. Yet about Catherine so little is known that to be able to paint
a vivid picture of what happened to her scenarios have been added; one describing
a screening of Hamilton’s family by the Disneys, and others for what may have hap-
pened during Catherine’s 1845 visit to the observatory, in Carlingford around her
suicide attempt in 1848, and at her son’s wedding in 1853. Yet they were extrapolated
from Hamilton’s observations, and have strictly been kept within the boundaries of
what has been written about Catherine.
For the sake of visualizing what happened to her also feelings and thoughts have
been ascribed to Catherine, again within the boundaries of what is known. It will
mostly but not always be indicated when that is done without proof that that really
was her opinion; that holds especially for the chapters 4 to 7, and it will again be
stressed at the beginning of Part II.
1[Graves 1885, 692], [Hankins 1980, 358], [Van Weerden 2017]
2For James and Jane Barlow’s work see footnote 17 on p. 97, and footnote 18 on p. 113.
3The Appendix can be found on p. 129.
4What is added are feelings of betrayal, see p. 84. It seems obvious that Hamilton will have had
such feelings, but they have not been mentioned in the biographies.
Introduction 5
1.2 Unhappiness and history
As regards the influence Catherine’s unhappiness had on her son and granddaughter,
and through them on history, it can be contemplated how things could have been
if she had not been forced into a marriage which made her so terribly unhappy. Of
course, what would have happened if she had been allowed to marry Hamilton is too
complex to fantasize about because it would include for instance different children,
making this family story non-existent. But it can be imagined that if she had never
met Hamilton she would have married Barlow willingly. If it then also is imagined
that they would have had the same children and grandchildren, not only Catherine’s
life, but also their lives would most likely have been very different.
Catherine’s eldest son James Barlow was seen as having had an “interesting and
original mind”5and perhaps, if he had not been so preoccupied with “the nature
of life after death and the possibility of evaluating human happiness and misery,”
which with hardly any doubt had to do with his mother’s terrible fate, he would not
have been rebuked for heterodoxy6and might have become Provost instead of Vice
Provost. He then probably would have used his originality to steer Trinity College in
a different way, for better or worse, than it went now.
In her Obituary in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research it was
written about Jane Barlow, “In the recent death of Miss Jane Barlow the Society has
lost an early, a very gifted and valued member. [ . . . ] Slight in appearance with large
and deep-set eyes she looked as if the flame of genius and thought had almost burnt
out her physical frame, so frail was she.” If her father would have been a valued
clergyman and perhaps Provost, she might have defended herself much more than
she did and mingle much more in the literary circles, and she perhaps would have
been able to put her mark on Irish literature so firmly that no one would even have
thought about excluding her from anthologies of Irish literature.7
But the story of this family line ends with her; as far as is known James and Mary
Barlow did not have grandchildren, and there thus are no direct descendants. And
therefore no one to remember and to judge the specific suppositions made in this
sketch about Catherine’s long lasting influence on her son and granddaughter. Still,
Catherine had other children, and descendants who have not been discussed here;
perhaps they do have memories or family stories. And she of course profoundly influ-
enced Hamilton, who through his fame in turn influenced very many people; Cather-
ine’s forced marriage thus was in any case not an isolated personal problem, as many
people writing about Hamilton seem to have regarded it.
This story is therefore also a plea. In many places in the world the difference in
roles between men and women, or perhaps rather in esteem, is slowly disappearing,
but unfortunately earlier conceptions are still recognizable. Although much research
is now done on women who would have been famous had they lived now, what still
seems to be necessary is to scrutinize the stories of earlier times and see whether or
not the roles played by less conspicuous women were described truthfully, or given
the importance they should have had. No one enters this world as an adult, everyone
5See p. 103.
6See p. 97, p. 96.
7See p. 115. Jane Barlow’s obituary can be found on pp. 49-51 of the Journal of the Society
for Psychical Research.
6 Catherine Disney : a biographical sketch
has some family history, good or bad, but including both men and women. These
family histories always have an influence, and especially when it concerns people in
power or people who did remarkable things in any place at any time, these influences
extend to the history of humankind in general.
1.3 Biographies and letters
Hamilton’s biographies In both Graves’ and Hankins’ biographies it has been
described how in August 1824 Hamilton, just having turned nineteen, fell head over
heels in love with Catherine Disney. Hamilton did not know that, at some unknown
time, she was betrothed,8until in February 1825 Catherine’s mother told him, for
him completely unexpectedly, that Catherine was going to marry in May.9He found
that very difficult and it took him almost seven years to come to terms with his loss.
The deviation in A Victorian Marriage from the biography by Hankins, who had
concluded that Hamilton had always and only loved Catherine, starts with taking
Hamilton literally when he compared falling in love and being rejected by Ellen de
Vere in December 1831 with falling in love and losing Catherine. Having visited
Catherine in 1830 and having seen, for the first time, her unhappiness, he had be-
come very distressed, and Lady Campbell had comforted him. After Ellen de Vere’s
rejection having had some very difficult months, in August 1832 he wrote to Lady
Campbell, “Since that time when your affectionate sympathy first manifested itself
towards me, I have had another affliction of the same kind and indeed of the same
degree, except that my mind had been a little better disciplined to receive it.”10
This letter was written shortly after Hamilton had realized that he had lived a
“passion-wasted” life, which led to an important psychological discovery. 11 Acknowl-
edging his subsequent psychological change led to the most important deviation in
AVictorian Marriage from the biography by Graves who wrote that, having been re-
jected by Ellen de Vere, Hamilton started to have “tenderer and warmer feelings” for
Helen Bayly after he “had felt obliged to suppress his former passion,”12 therewith
vaguely suggesting that Helen Bayly was not a first choice. Yet Hamilton did not
suppress his feelings; after the difficult months in the spring of 1832, in the following
summer he started to understand why he could be so lastingly unhappy, and then
discovered how to handle himself. He remained to use this discovery through the
years,13 and although he could be very distressed and unhappy when someone close
to him was unwell, he was never again so melancholic for such long periods of time.
8Graves nor Hankins mentions when the family betrothed Catherine to Barlow, therefore in this
biographical sketch the scenario is adopted which seems to be the best fit to the known details.
9See p. 39.
10 See p. 51, [Van Weerden 2017, 117]
11 This remarkable discovery, where it came from and what its long lasting positive consequences
were, has been described in [Van Weerden 2017]. Ellen de Vere’s brother Aubrey, who had become
Hamilton’s friend, does not seem to have recognized the importance of this discovery; the poetic
bachelor he was he very much appreciated their reminiscences about “beautiful Visions” of the
past, as Hamilton had called seeing Catherine for the first time [Van Weerden 2017, 313]. Also
Graves did not recognize the importance of the discovery; he saw Hamilton as a “simple, zealous,
great man” [Graves 1885, 286], [Van Weerden 2017, 498-499], somehow not crediting him with deep
feelings or useful contemplations about his own emotions. [Van Weerden 2017, 192-194, 200-202].
12 [Graves 1885, 2]
13 [Van Weerden 2017, 272]
Introduction 7
After this psychological change having felt as if his “health of mind and even of
body were greatly improved,” as he wrote to his friend Aubrey de Vere, in October
1832 Hamilton discovered conical refraction for which he would be knighted, and fell
in love with Helen Bayly. In November he asked her to marry him. They married in
April 1833, and according to Hankins Hamilton never regretted having married her,
while according to Graves Hamilton “remained to the end of his life an attached
husband.”14 In 1879 De Vere wrote to Graves, who then was preparing the bio-
graphy, “[In 1837] Hamilton’s affection for his wife had not waned. Indeed I do not
know that it ever did.” This letter having been written after Hamilton’s death, it sub-
stantiates the conclusion that the Hamilton marriage was a good one.15
Meeting Catherine and writing letters In A Victorian Marriage it was also
argued that Hamilton did not know that Catherine was forced to marry Barlow,16
and that only slowly, by bits and pieces over the course of many years, he learned
what exactly had happened with Catherine. After Hamilton had heard about her
engagement he had not seen her any more; they only saw each other during two visits
in 1830 and one in 1845, they corresponded during six weeks in the summer of 1848,
and shortly before Catherine’s death in November 1853 they had two ‘parting inter-
views’ as Graves called them.17
As can be read in a poem Hamilton wrote after he visited Catherine in 1830, that
was indeed the first time he noticed that something was wrong with her.18 About
the 1845 visit nothing further is known; Hamilton only mentioned this visit in letters
to brothers of Catherine. During the 1848 correspondence Catherine apparently told
him that her marriage had been unhappy from the start, but only during the parting
interviews shortly before her death in November 1853 she could finally tell him that
she had also loved him and had wanted to marry him, but that she had been forced by
her family to marry Barlow.19 Both in 1830 and 1848 having learned about Cather-
ine’s unhappiness Hamilton became very distressed, and it must have been difficult
for him that there was nothing he could do for her; as a deeply religious man he had
a reverence for marriage, both for hers and for his own. But in the parting interviews
hearing that her marriage had been forced upon her was devastating, as it would be
for most people who lost a first love without having known why.
In those times it was utterly forbidden for a married man to talk about such feel-
ings, but after Catherine’s death in 1853 Hamilton was able to relieve his stress by
14 [Hankins 1980, 126], [Graves 1885, 335]
15 For how and why over the years subsequent writers concluded from Graves’ biography, or
from each other, that Hamilton had a bad marriage, that it had been fated from the start or even
fell apart, see [Van Weerden and Wepster 2018]. De Vere’s letter is part of a collection of letters
written by him to Graves, mainly regarding Hamilton, which is held by the Department of Special
Collections of the Hesburgh Libraries of the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. See
Irish Studies Resources for Graduate Research, Aubrey de Vere Letters to Robert Perceval Graves,
Collection No. MSE/IR 1040.</