Project Canterbury

Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter I. Harriet O'Brien's Early Life

"In soft childhood's heart will Virtue spring
Unheeded, there to drink celestial air,
And all the thoughts to her obedience bring,
Nourished day after day with dews of prayer,
Unseen, unknown."

The Baptistery.

HARRIET O'Brien belonged to one of the oldest families in Ireland. Her father, Sir Edward O'Brien, Bart., of Dromoland, Co. Clare, did not himself inherit the title now borne by his descendants; but eighteen years after his death, his son became Lord Inchiquin, the elder branch failing in the late Marquis of Thomond, on whose death the Marquisate became extinct, and the Barony alone passed to the next heir.

The O'Briens of Dromoland were always attached to the Established Church. They were much engaged in politics, Sir Edward representing his county in Parliament, as one of the family had done continuously for generations. At the general election of 1826 Sir Edward gave up his seat in favour of his son, and retiring from public life, dwelt among his own people, a quiet country gentleman, occupied in the improvement of his large estate. During his later years he was in feeble health.

Sir Edward is described, by those who knew him well, as a man of noble, generous feelings, and of a gentle and kindly nature. Lady O'Brien was a sincerely religious woman, and in principle a very strict disciplinarian; her absorbing thought being to bring up her children according to what she believed to be the best teaching of the Evangelical School. She took great pains with them, and was specially careful in making them study the Bible, learn Hymns, etc. She was very kind to the poor, and practical in her methods of assisting them; among other designs, it was her wont to have the women and children on the estate taught embroidery, with the view of enabling them afterwards to earn their living.

Dromoland is a beautiful country seat, with an extensive park, a lake, and very varied grounds, richly wooded. The situation is retired, but familiarity with the ways of the world, and the intellectual movements of the time, was kept up by the O'Brien family, through the two elder sons who were in Parliament, and the two younger ones who were Cambridge men. There were also several gifted and religiously-minded families in the neighbourhood, among them the Dunravens, the De Veres, and the Monsells, between whom and the Dromoland party a very frequent intercourse was maintained.

Such were the surroundings and the influences acting on Harriet O'Brien, as she grew up. She was born in 1811, the youngest but two of nine children, the third of four daughters. She is described as a most joyous child, full of spring and merriment. "Bright-haired, bright-voiced, bright-hearted," were the epithets applied to her in early days by a friend of the family. Another, a frequent visitor at Dromoland, speaks of the life of the sisters generally, as "a bright, happy, girlish life, Harriet being the sunniest of the four." But Harriet, as a child, gave no signs of any special mental capacity. Indeed she is said to have been a very unpromising pupil in the schoolroom, and some of her governesses spoke of her as a hopeless subject. She made nothing of music, and though in after years, when travelling in Italy, she developed considerable talent in water-colour drawing, and acquired a ready skill which stood her in good stead as a restful recreation in the midst of absorbing labours, as a child she took but little to drawing. The one thing in the way of learning to which she gave her mind, was needlework, and she wrote a good hand. She delighted in outdoor exercises; the freedom and beauty of her country home were to her a ceaseless joy. With her brothers she was a special favourite, taking great pleasure in riding, in which she acquitted herself well, and sympathising in all their manly pursuits. She seldom, if ever, went far from home, but there were abundant means of recreation at hand,--riding, driving, boating, and frequent pic-nics,--the brothers and sisters themselves forming a considerable party, and Dromoland being a centre where a large circle of friends constantly gathered. With all this enjoyment were mixed more serious occupations, and besides intellectual pursuits, the sisters were not lacking in the care of the poor people, and the school children.

Harriet O'Brien in her earliest childhood seems thus to have had but a desultory education, and this apparently from no fault of her parents. Many years afterwards, when, as Superior of her Community, she was giving directions as to teaching the children of an Orphanage under her care, she was heard to say, "that she wished she had had as regular an education in her childhood." But probably she then learnt more than her teachers gave her credit for, or she herself was aware of, as in later years she showed not a little facility in getting at the pith of a book, as well as in what she termed, "picking the brains" of any one who knew a subject in which she was interested.

When she was thirteen years old, there came a change, the account of which may be given in her own words. "I had been accustomed to hear only, 'Harriet can do nothing,' and one day I heard one of my aunts say, 'If I were Harriet with a head on my shoulders, and a pair of hands, I would not have it said of me, I was so stupid.' This roused me, and from that time I began to think why it was that I could not do as others did."

The working of her mind about that period may further be judged of from what she used to recall among the reminiscences of her girlhood, and which one of the Sisters thus narrates; "The dear Mother told me once that she had always had the wish to do anything she took in hand as well as it could possibly be done, and described how when quite a little girl, she used to draw or copy maps, (I forget which,) for her father, and when she showed them to him and asked, 'Is that right?' he would sometimes say, 'That will do very well.' 'You would have seen me at this go off to a corner alone; I could not rest till I had made it as perfect as I could. It vexed me to have it said, 'it will do,' and roused my determination.' "

The Sister adds; "Once when talking of the great differences of mental activity in various temperaments, she said, 'For myself I have had to discipline and check too much thought, I do not think now so much as I used to do. When quite a little child, I loved sometimes to get away from play, to follow up and work out my thoughts. Sometimes during a long drive when I was generally all life and chatter, I would be quite silent, thinking, and the others would perhaps say, Harriet is in the sulks again.' "

Whatever may have been the neglect of learning and want of industry, through the impulses of a merry joyous nature, there were qualities in her which greatly attracted and attached to her all who came to the house. She became noted both in her family, and among the visitors, for the unselfish and unselfconscious spirit with which she would throw herself into everybody's needs, interests, or amusements. Her ever-ready kindly thoughtfulness for others, rich and poor, young and old, alike, her quick loving sympathy for their joys and sorrows, shed an unfailing brightness all around her. And an unmistakable power moreover showed itself as she grew to maturity, though it might be in mere passing incidents, for she was distinguished among her sisters and their friends for a fertile wit in settling their plans; as well as for her ingenuity in justifying the advice she gave. "Let us get Harriet to decide," was what a frequent companion in the genial amusements of that bright home calls a "standing expression," when doubts arose as to minor questions of daily employment.

As years advanced she showed yet more valuable qualities, and a deeper aspect of her character is spoken of by a visitor at Dromoland already referred to, who describes her as "like a mother to the children of the family, a real sunbeam, the best of nurses, and the most sympathetic of friends in sickness."

Higher thoughts too, there must have been growing beneath the joyous laughter, probably not apparent at the time; for a few days before her death, she remarked casually, that "some of the most fervent Communions she ever made, were in the little church, (and it was anything but an attractive one) to which they went from Dromoland."

All the sisters had a practical turn; they could set their hands to various household tasks, and make themselves very generally useful. Harriet was ever forward in all such schemes, and for general aptitude and quickness was specially distinguished. But to an intimate friend of those days it seemed that "of the four sisters she was the least likely to make a name for herself in her future life."

The bright, happy home which had thus nurtured her, broke up on the death of her father, in 1837. Harriet was then twenty-six years old. After this, the mother and daughters for a while led rather a wandering life. They went first to London, then to a watering-place, afterwards they paid visits in Dublin, and other places in Ireland. It was not long before the sisters became scattered. One married the Rev. the Hon. Charles Amyand Harris, destined after many years to be again very closely associated with her sister Harriet, under changed circumstances at Clewer. A second married the Rev. Arthur Martineau. One remained single. Harriet herself became engaged and was married in the course of the year 1839.

It was a marriage of more than ordinary eventfulness, both in itself and in its consequences, whether we consider the development of her character, or of her powers of usefulness in the service of GOD,--a brief, though critical, period, of a little more than twelve years, during which she tasted the keenest, purest joy, to be followed at its close by the opening of the springs of the profoundest sorrow. But this naturally forms the beginning of a new chapter in her history, and needs to be dealt with separately.

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