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Harriet Monsell: A Memoir

By the Rev. T. T. Carter

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1884.

Chapter II. Harriet O'Brien's Married Life

"O spread Thy pure wing o'er them,
Let no ill power find place,
When onward to Thine Altar
The hallowed path they trace,
To cast their crowns before Thee
In perfect sacrifice, Till to the home, of gladness
With Christ's own Bride they rise."--KEBLE.

HARRIET O'Brien, as already stated, had reached her twenty-sixth year when the Dromoland home was broken up, and the mother and daughters went to live for a short time in Dublin. There is a portrait taken of her at that time which represents her as slim in figure, with curled auburn hair, and a ruddy, radiant countenance. It is a touching representation of her womanhood, with its freshness and brightness as yet untouched by anxiety or sorrow, and before the deeper elements of character had been drawn out and developed.

In the early spring of 1839 she became acquainted with her future husband. They first met at a friend's house in Dublin, and the acquaintance then casually commenced ripened quickly into an ardent mutual attachment. Charles Monsell had come up to Dublin, with his father and mother, for the purpose of obtaining medical advice. When sufficiently recovered, he was recommended to go abroad, and he spent about six weeks of the summer in the north of Italy, afterwards rejoining his family in Dublin, where Lady O'Brien and her daughters were still residing. By the time of his return the attachment had become formally known. Lady O'Brien objected, partly on account of his precarious state of health, partly because of the smallness of means; and there had been an offer made previously when on a visit in England, which she, the mother, had thought to be more advantageous. But her daughter was clear and decided in her own purpose, and said to her mother, "I will never marry against your wishes, but if I don't marry Charles Monsell I won't marry anybody." The mother gave way; there was no sufficient reason to counterbalance what all after experience proved to have been most true and deeply grounded affection on both sides, and with the concurrence of both families, on the aist of September of the same year, the marriage took place.

It is necessary to give a brief account of Charles Monsell and his family, for the influence which he had over his wife was of the most powerful kind; the deepening of her character, and the growth of her spiritual life, becoming markedly manifest from the date of her marriage. He was the third son of Thorqas Bewley Monsell, Archdeacon of Derry, and Rector of Dunboe, in the same county. The late Rector of Egham, the well-known and dearly loved Dr. Monsell, was one of his two elder brothers. Charles was born in 1815, and was of delicate health from his birth. On this account he was brought up at home, and there lived till he entered Trinity College, Dublin. He was possessed of considerable intellectual powers, but there was a mental indolence, the result of weak health, which hindered his making efforts to obtain academical honours. He was originally intended for the bar, but when the time came for the final decision he resolved instead to devote himself to the service of the Church; an intention which was not carried out until after his marriage. Between leaving the University and his marriage he lived at home, giving himself to the study of Theology and English literature. The friend from whom these facts are derived, speaks of him as "a man of singular refinement, of a saintlike character, and of a highly cultivated taste."

It will give a more complete view of the new surroundings which awaited the young bride, to add to this account of her husband some notice of his home; for there she passed the earlier part of her married life, as an adopted member of the family.

The friend above quoted was a frequent visitor at Dunboe Rectory; in fact it was ever open to him as a boy, and the closest ties afterwards bound him to it. He thus describes it; "The parish of Dunboe, on the northern coast of Ireland, is wild and bleak, extending over a large tract of country, bounded on one side by the sea. The parsonage was its one bright spot, nestling in trees which sheltered it in some measure from the fierce winds. It looked on one side towards the sea, across which in clear weather the western islands of Scotland were visible. About the parsonage itself there was a charm, difficult to describe in words. More than any house I know, it was the abode of family love, intellectual cultivation, and innocent mirth, combined with simple piety and real devoutness. It was full of whatever could make a home attractive, so as to cast a spell upon all who were drawn within its circle. It was plainly but comfortably furnished throughout, a very model of unostentatious comfort and order. As to its personnel, the Archdeacon was a churchman of the old school, whose character and opinions had been formed before the Church movement began; a staunch adherent of the Prayer Book and rubrics. When the 'Tracts for the Times' appeared, he thought it his duty to take a strong line against them, while the younger members of the family on the contrary regarded them favourably. He was a most courteous gentleman, of vigorous understanding, and considerable weight among the clergy, not only of his own diocese, but of Ireland generally.

"Mrs. Monsell, the mother, was a woman of superior natural ability, with much conversational power, and shone in society, but her husband and her children were the objects of her entire devotion. A very remarkable harmony reigned within the house. The first thought of the parents was for the children, and the first thought of the children was to gratify and spare their parents in every possible way. The servants were considered and treated as members of the family, with which most of them had been long connected." He adds, "All needful discipline was maintained,--I will not say enforced, for law was turned into love."

Dunboe must have seemed plain and homely in comparison with Dromoland, but Harriet Monsell used in after days to say how much she was impressed by the whole aspect and spirit of the place; and she would speak with loving reverence of the Archdeacon and his wife, "sitting in their two arm-chairs, on each side of the fireplace, while every one entering the room who possessed any talent, or character, was drawn out by these quiet old people."

To this home Charles Monsell brought his bride immediately after their marriage, and there they remained as welcome guests till the spring of 1840.

The marriage proved to be a singularly happy one, although from the state of her husband's health clouds of coming sorrow were on the horizon, which some at least of those who prayed heartily for them on the day of their marriage must have anticipated as likely to gather round them after not many years.

In the spring of 1840 they moved to Oxford, Charles Monsell having decided to enter into Holy Orders, and going thither to attend the theological lectures. It was the period when the Oxford movement was in its zenith; when Newman's extraordinary influence was still paramount; and as yet no signs of the coming storm had appeared. They became acquainted with the leaders of the movement, chiefly with Dr. Pusey; and under their teaching Charles Monsell's theological opinions took the definite shape they retained to the end of his life. Dr. Pusey's influence was seen afterwards to have greatly predominated, and a close intercourse between him and them continued after the Oxford visit.

Charles Monsell having been ordained by the Bishop of Deny, was licensed to his father's curacy. For about a year he and his wife thus lived again at the parsonage. They left it to make a home of their own, on his being made Prebendary of Aghadoe, in Limerick Cathedral. From that time Limerick became their head-quarters, and more active work thus opened on Harriet Monsell as well as on her husband.

There is nothing further of interest to record of their married life during this its earlier period, but the following extract from a letter to a dear friend is not without its value, as showing the fitful uncertainty that hung about their future, while yet at the time the spring of hope, of home joys, and of active usefulness, filled their hearts with gladness. The letter is dated from Dromoland, where they were paying a short visit.

"For ourselves, I greatly rejoice in the thoughts of our home, though it will be some time before we go there, for having come to these southern parts, we think it will be better for Charles to wait to go to Fort Royal till towards spring, and we shall remain here till perhaps the end of January. [Fort Royal is a lovely place on the shore of Lough Swilly, where Charles Monsell's maternal uncle then lived. The married couple were due there on a visit.] We have been a merry family party till now, but next week we shall be quieter for a little. Then we must go visiting some friends for a time, and then we shall return here. My own sister--the only one here--rejoices so in getting me, and it is so charming getting with one's own sister--there is nothing in the world like it except one's husband."

There is something sadly ominous in the last sentences of the letter.

"Charles is pretty well. Everybody compliments him on his good looks, but he feels the cold a good deal, and with a large party of gentlemen there is a constant temptation to him to walk and talk too much when out, which tries his chest."

After a brief interval, they settled into their new home, devoting themselves to their work. It was an eventful change, bringing out fresh features of Harriet Monsell's character. Her energy and briskness, and practical ability, had for the first time a free course in the fulfilment of responsible duties, and the care of the household, while possessed of but narrow means. Her affections were drawn out in a way they had never been before, ripening into that overflowing sympathy, which afterwards became so great a power in GOD'S service. There was not infrequent anxiety as to her husband's health, which gave scope to her practical resources, and kept in constant play her watchful self-sacrifice. Her husband's example and lofty tone of piety were continually acting upon her, all the more as they were bound together by the fondest possible love, and on her part the most child-like reverence towards him. There were, too, during that time of their residence in Limerick, deep searchings of heart as to the grounds of faith on which Charles Monsell and his wife were quite agreed, for there was much anxiety as to the stability of some very near and valued friends who afterwards joined the secession, which took place on Newman's submission to Rome. Charles and his wife stood firm through the troubles; keeping the old lines, which they had learned at Oxford, and which formed the real ground of the Oxford movement,--Holy Scripture interpreted by Catholic and Apostolic tradition, as against modern developments. The deep questions stirred during that troubled time, especially when those whom they dearly loved were likely to separate from them on vital points of belief, must have tended to exercise all their powers both of heart and intellect in no ordinary degree.

This period of most true united happiness did not last long. Six years of their married life had scarcely passed when Charles Monsell was seized with a serious illness, and at a time when his wife happened to be absent. She was summoned home: it was a long and anxious journey, and she was almost wild with suspense till she reached it. When she arrived the worst was over, her husband was beginning to recover. But in speaking of this crisis she once said, "Ever afterwards I associated that day with the Psalm, 'When I was in trouble, I called upon the LORD.' The years that followed, although never free from anxiety and a continual dread, so far prepared me that when the final blow came it fell more gently."

Evident signs of the probable approaching bereavement were not far off. Before long an attack of inflammation of the lungs entirely incapacitated her husband from active work, and he was obliged to resign his charge. Their winters were then spent in Italy. But as he grew worse arid worse, he was forced to remain there through the summer also, thus at last leaving Ireland, to return no more.

The following letter of Harriet Monsell's was written at the time when the long threatened sorrow was hastening to its end. It was addressed to a dear friend, who with her husband was at this time in constant intercourse with the Monsells.

"MY DEAR FRIENDS,--I know you are both very softhearted where we are concerned, and I know no couple who are better able to enter into our trial than you are, for you well know what it is to be all in all to each other. My poor Charlie is gaining strength, but very slowly. He has been sitting up in the arm-chair for the last three days, but he does not yet attempt to walk the least bit. It is a great trial to see him so weak, and to know what days and months of delicacy there are before him, which I had thought he had at length passed through, and that health and strength were come again. Now the hill seems all to be begun again. But I feel if I suffer so much in seeing him, what must it be to him to bear these days of pain and languor, and absence of employment, and yet he never utters a word as if he would wish it otherwise or even felt it a burden. If GOD sends him the trial He most surely sends him the blessing of patience, and never has He sent us any sorrow that has not come overflowing with mercy and love.....You know the cheerfulness of his nature, and one of my greatest blessings is a very hopeful disposition. Now I trust, from what the doctor says, climate may again restore him, but it must be persevered in for long, and we must go abroad for the summer as well as the winter, that he may gain strength in the fine weather. This thought is a sad trial to his mother, and has been hard for me to break to her, for she thought she was sure of him all the summer through ....

"Ever yours most affectionately,


The few lines in which her husband himself speaks of the prospects of this their last journey abroad may here be added. She could have borrowed hope only from her own sanguine nature, so little there could have been to encourage it in her husband's exhausted state.

The letter was addressed to the same friend.

"How sad I feel when I think that a few days more will separate us by thousands of miles. I am setting out on the journey without heart or hope. It is all uphill work, with no blue distance to spur one on. Strange how circumstances alter the character of a thing so pleasant in itself as foreign travel. But I suppose it is all right, it is best that so it should be in this case. If it were too pleasant, or very pleasant, the spirit might lose more than the body gained. But it is natural enough that one should be almost bowed down in sadness, when, sick in body and oppressed in mind, one is forced to go far away from many much loved friends, and from the sepulchres of one's fathers. Unless it were GOD'S will, I should not wish to lay my bones in a strange land. Whatever there may be of reality in the feeling, it is soothing to look forward to being near those one loves in the morning of the resurrection. But we know too little in these matters to do more than feel, and feelings must be controlled.

"Ever, dearest friend, with many prayers for every blessing on you and yours, your most affectionate friend,

"C. H. M."

In the following chapter some details will be given of what followed after a short interval, and of the closing scene--a period which, though short, was eventful beyond measure to the subject of this memoir, being the end of one full measure of rich abounding life, and the preparation for another still more full of life of a higher order, which has told in its results far and wide as a power for good throughout the Church of England.

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