On this day (13 April) in 1855, Jane Wilde met physicist, astronomer and mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton at a dinner party hosted by Colonel Thomas Larcom, Under Secretary for Ireland, and his wife Georgina. As both Hamilton and William Wilde were members of the Royal Irish Academy, the former was asked to hand Jane in to dinner. To his astonishment, after practically no introduction at all, this, ‘very odd and original lady’ asked if he would be godfather to her ‘young pagan’. He was further taken aback to learn that this child was to be given:
‘a long baptismal name, or string of names, the two first of which are Oscar and Fingal!’
Although he declined, Jane bore no grudge, and endeared herself by expressing admiration for poetry composed by his late sister Eliza. The next time they met, Hamilton presented Jane with an inscribed copy of Eliza Hamilton’s Poems.
Over lunch at Dunsink Observatory, Hamilton’s home, Jane informed her host that baby Oscar had been baptised the previous day and they drank a toast to his health. Afterwards, he gave her a tour of his atmospheric house, which Eliza had believed to be haunted. Jane expressed a hope that this was true. Yet, although she liked and admired Hamilton, she was unable to hide her resentment at the wealth his eminence had secured and declared:
‘Let a woman be as clever as she may, there is no prize like this for her!’
Hamilton’s correspondence with Jane demonstrate a great regard for her intellect. He felt free to discuss any topic with her and included quotations in Latin and Greek, which he acknowledged need not be translated. He admired her noble nature and regarded her as an ‘entirely truthful person’. His long, rambling letters could be quite flirtatious. In one, he described her as:
‘a very remarkable, a very interesting, and (if I could be forgiven for adding it) a very lovable person.’
Yet, he kept his distance and congratulated her on ‘being so happily married’.
The characteristics William Rowan Hamilton admired in Jane Wilde were not generally prized in Victorian women. Describing her as ‘almost amusingly fearless and original and averse’, he admired her determination to ‘make a sensation’. Although their politics were at variance, this formed no barrier to their friendship. While his heart ‘throbbed with sympathy, for the great British Empire’, he argued that this had the advantage of allowing him to understand Jane better, since they shared the experience of sympathising with a whole nation.
Hamilton was an accomplished poet who had, in his youth, been mentored by William Wordsworth. When Jane sent him her sixteen-stanza Shadows from Life, he praised it as ‘wonderfully beautiful’ but suggested several changes, which she made. He also shared it with poet Aubrey de Vere, who declared:
‘She certainly must be a woman of real poetic genius to have written anything so beautiful and also so full of power and grace as the poem you showed me’.
De Vere went on to urge:
‘for the sake both of poetry and Old Ireland you must do all you can to make her go on writing, and publish a volume soon.’
When Hamilton invited both to a ‘Feast of Poets’, he warned Jane not to allow De Vere to convert her to Catholicism, which she found fascinating.
Chapter 3 of Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons
Robert Graves. Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, knt., LL. D., D.C.L., M.R.I.A., Andrews professor of astronomy in the University of Dublin, and royal astronomer of Ireland, etc. etc.: including selections from his poems, correspondence, and miscellaneous writings. Volume III, (Dublin, Hodges, Figgis, & Co., 1882-89)
Terence de Vere White. The Parents of Oscar Wilde (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1967),