Roundell Palmer's Memorials

Memorials. Part I. Family and Personal. 1766-1865. Roundell Palmer, Earl of Selborne. Volume 1. London, Macmillan & Co. Ltd. 1896. Index



It was during the two latter years of my undergraduate time that I began to have something like a just sense of the serious side of life. Nothing, except my brother Tom’s death, had until then occurred in our immediate circle to dispel the enchantments of youthful enjoyment and hope, and bring the lower under subjection to the higher nature. But in 1832 my Mother’s health began to fail; and her illness continued for years.

It began with a loss of power in one foot, the foot gradually turning round. For six months she was under Sir Benjamin (then Mr.) Brodie[i] for surgical treatment. It failed, and he held out no hope of improvement. The loss of power continued to increase until all her faculties of motion, and also of speech, hearing, and sight, were affected, and at times she could not take nourishment without assistance.

Dr. Latham, the physician first consulted (an old friend of my Father, who knew my Mother’s constitution), was baffled, and despaired of her recovery. But when, in November 1833, Mr. Tuckwell, an eminent Oxford surgeon, was called in, he formed a more favourable opinion of the probable issue of the case; and regarding the nervous system as the seat of the disorder, thought that, although acute and unusually complicated, it would wear itself out in the course of time, even if the time were long, and the distress great. The event was in accordance with his judgment. In the following year, 1834, she made some advance, and had for one or more short intervals some power of sight and hearing, and, for a time still shorter, of speech; after which all seemed to be again gone. For two years more she continued, with some alternations of improvement and depression, in that state. It was not till 1836 that she was decidedly better; nor till 1839 that she recovered the use of her voice sufficiently for conversation, and began again to enter into society and to resume her former occupations.

This state of my Mother’s health threw a cloud over all but my earliest University successes, and saddened our home. The trial, aggravated as it was by other events, brought into a stronger and more touching light than ever my Father’s characteristic virtues. The tenderness, patience, and wisdom with which he watched over and ministered to my Mother during her whole illness cannot be described, and can hardly be imagined. Besides his pastoral and other duties, of which none were neglected, the whole management of the house and the care of my sisters and younger brothers fell upon him; and he was equal to all. He taught my brothers, and prepared them for school, as he had taught and prepared William and myself; if there was a difference, it was only that the strictness of the original method may have been somewhat softened. Yet with all this he was still everything to my Mother. He understood, as nobody else did, what she wanted, and what treatment would suit her best; his voice and hand, to which she was accustomed, were always ready to soothe, strengthen, and comfort her. He did and bore all quietly, systematically, assiduously, with unfailing faith and love, and with a skill which the best of physicians could not have excelled-all without a murmur or a fretful word. An example to us always and in everything, we never until then fully realised his fortitude and power of self-sacrifice.

In July 1832 he wrote to Sir Ralph Palmer:—

All this time we have had the great consolation of witnessing the sweetness and patience of Dorothea, neither do her own sufferings prevent her from taking a lively interest in the welfare of others, or from showing a grateful sense of the kindness and attention shown her; and under all circumstances her understanding has been unimpaired. The spinal cord is affected, and she has been for months without speech, and partially without sight and hearing, and wholly unable to move; ever since I returned with her from London. Mr. Brodie holds out but little hope, but Mr. Tuckwell of Oxford takes a less discouraging view of the case.

Meantime our sister Mary in helping us by day and by night herself, as also with her house and her establishment (she receives the girls and their governess at Finmere), vows she is only labouring in her vocation. Her neighbourhood, which is always a satisfaction, is now the greatest comfort and use to us all.

Shortly after, he writes to his daughter Mary (then a girl of fifteen):—

Your dear Mama has had a return of the power of sight and hearing for eight hours this afternoon, and even of speech too for a moment. But all seems to be again gone. Mr. Tuckwell, however, informed me that such might be the case, and that I must not be disheartened by it. I hope and pray it may please God to restore her to us all, and I am sure you and your sisters add your prayers to mine. We also beg those of Miss Wall. God knows what is best for your dear Mama and for us all, and His will, therefore, be ours. But above all, you will all, I trust, be worthy of His blessing by being dutiful and respectful to your elders and instructors, by being diligent, and especially by loving one another.—Your ever most affectionate,


Mixbury 11 o’clock at night, Tuesday.

The thought and love he bestowed on the education of his children declares itself in the following letter to Sir Ralph Palmer, dated from Mixbury, 11th February 1833:—

God has given us children; it is our part to render Him His own, for they are still more truly His and we are only the instruments of His will. The secret of education is here; to do in this also His will not ours, to put one’s own shoulder to the wheel, to sow and have patience, and to pray for the blessing which God will not withhold. Only I pray that my own unworthiness may not deprive me of the good that is in store, but that He will still go on making the crooked in me straight and the rough places plain, that I may see all things in their true light, and set my heart and mind in this also on His will which only will satisfy. For God has given us children to keep and cultivate for Him, the most precious of all the talents He can bestow, being His own children—ours only in an inferior sense and for a time—and when the time comes hereafter the very first and most important item of account. And if we, by His grace, shall stand acquitted, we shall unquestionably have served both God and man in our generation.

I date from my Mother’s illness the awakening within me of higher and more lasting spiritual aspirations than I had known before. And from 1834, the last year of my undergraduate course, I trace the beginning of a real interest in public affairs.

[Character of Oxford University, election of Duke of Wellington as Chancellor, social, politics…]

[i] Sir Benjamin Collins Brodie, English surgeon, born June 8, 1783; died October 21, 1862. Brodie was a physician, philosopher, writer, and statesman, and among the outstanding surgeons of nineteenth-century London. One of his major contributions to surgery was to oppose the prevailing practice of indiscriminate amputation, always trying to save the limb instead.

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