A Poetic friendship: Jane Wilde & William Rowan Hamilton

William Rowan Hamilton

William Rowan Hamilton

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.

Dunsink Observatory, Dublin

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’.

Jane Wilde

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.

Sources:

Chapter 3 of Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons

PBCover

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),

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A Poetic friendship: Jane Wilde & William Rowan Hamilton

  1. I enjoyed reading your positive description of this friendship. I would like to make a comment about the ‘prize’ remark: Jane Wilde visited Hamilton at the Observatory during an open day for the public, to show them the telescopes for instance, and made her remark as Hamilton “was conducting her upstairs to the Dome.” (Graves, 1889, p. 497, https://archive.org/stream/lifeofsirwilliam03gravuoft#page/496/mode/2up). As I understood this, it was not his wealth she made her remark about, she then probably was wealthier than he was, it was Hamilton’s position as Astronomer Royal which included living in the Observatory, since women, however clever, would never be given such a position in a time in which they were not even allowed to attend university.

    • Eleanor Fitzsimons

      Thanks for your very insightful comment Anne. Yes, I agree that Jane Wilde was envious of the prestige and exalted positions available exclusively to men – she campaigned her whole life for women to be educated and admitted to the professions, a campaign adopted by her son Oscar in the pages of The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited from 1887-9. However, I’m certain that she was also envious of the money and material wealth a man could accumulate in his own right but which was denied to women. Before she married, Jane lived in relative poverty with her mother above a chandler’s shop in Dublin. Her father left them when she was an infant and her mother had no means to earn a living. All the wealth Jane enjoyed, and enjoy it she did, came through her husband’s brilliance. All of it was snatched away when he died. This was the result of his appalling financial management and the various mortgages he took out without her knowledge. She was only able to remain in her home thanks to the kindness of Henry Wilson, her late husband’s son with another woman. She was outraged that women could not accumulate or control wealth and property in their own right and she welcomed the Married Women’s Property Act when it was passed in 1882, 6 years after her husband’s death, since it allowed married women to own and control property as they had not beforehand.

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