Monday, October 10, 2005

A Convent Tragedy

Extract from a Letter from Mr, Southey to Charles W. Wynn, dated January 8, 1805*

Jane Power was placed in the Irish Nunnery at Belem, near Lisbon, when but a child; she grew up there and took the vows. Shortly after, there came over a young Irish woman (Louisa Bourke, by name), who went through the year of her probation resolutely, and took the veil. She had left her own country, and then abandoned the world, in a fit of jealousy: her lover at length traced her, followed her, and spoke with her at the grate. A reconciliation ensued: they corresponded and resolved to try to get her out by means of a dispensation.

The scheme was discovered; its success would have been a great misfortune to the convent, as the large fortune which Louisa had brought must in that case have been refunded. It was said that she had died very soon after. At this time, Jane Power was ill; after her recovery, being in a remote part of the convent which was not in use, she heard Louisa's voice, which seemed to proceed from within the wall; she thought it was her spirit, and much alarmed, asked if she should order any services for her soul.

Louisa replied she was still alive, and requested her friend to come to her, giving her at the same time directions to find an entrance to her place of confinement. It was a small cell on a higher story, matted round, and so entirely remote from all the inhabited part of the convent and from every ear, that she was even allowed a musical instrument there. She had that day got down by finding some means of slipping back a bolt or lock, and by the same means Jane was enabled to visit her, which she did regularly every night for some months.

Once she stayed later than usual, because her friend appeared more depressed than she had ever seen her. In consequence of this delay, her lamp was exhausted and went out in the cloisters. She was afraid that in the dark she might mistake her cell and thus be discovered; she therefore sat herself down to wait for daybreak. When the dawn came, she thought she would go back to tell Louisa how she had passed the night; she knocked and received no answer; after some time she pushed the door, found something against it. Having at last succeeded in opening the door, she saw her wretched friend lying on the floor with her throat cut from ear to ear.

Jane Power fainted, and in this state was found lying on the bleeding body of the unfortunate Louisa by the nun who brought food to the prisoner. She was carried before the abbess, who made her take the most solemn vow never to reveal what she had seen.

She continued several years longer in the nunnery; the horror which the scene she had witnessed had left"upon her mind made her situation dreadful. Her prospect brightened a little upon the arrival of our troops. Her sister's husband, whose name is either Heatley or Headley, had a civil appointment in our army there.
During his stay, the frequent visits of her sister and of her English friends, made her life more cheerful than that of a nun usually is. When the troops were moving, she complained bitterly to her sister, and Headley determined to carry her off; he conveyed boy's clothes to her, and gave her his watch that she might know the hour at which to make her escape. In order to secure her from interruption from any of the male servants of the convent, he made them all drunk.

When Jane, in her disguise, came to the door, the key creaked in the lock. She had resolution enough to return to the dormitory and dip it in a lamp. Still she was before the hour appointed; for never having had a watch, she had not wound it up; and when at last the time came, she flung the watch over the wall instead of a stone. However, she effected her escape.

Still there remained a difficulty; the captain of the packet, after having promised to take her, repented and refused after she was out of the convent. She was got on board by the management of Col. Trent's wife, who went in the same packet; and the captain of a frigate, who was acquainted with her story, convoyed the vessel out, declaring at the same time that if Todd (the master of the packet) would not take her, he would run all risks and carry her to England himself, rather than that she should be forced to return to the convent.

There came on rough weather, and poor Jane whispered that perhaps it was sent because of her. However, she reached Falmouth in safety, and the last I heard of her was that her friends were endeavouring to procure from the Pope a dispensation of her vows.

I give you this story as Mrs. Trent gave it me. Mrs. Trent is a very extraordinary woman. Her husband was among the persons stopped in France ; she went over, obtained his liberty, and smuggled home the son of Hoppner the painter.

When Jane Power saw the mail coach, she said the King was coming; and the first thing she asked for, when she was safely housed, was a looking-glass; for, since she was five years old, she had never seen her own face.

* A great many letters to Mr. Charles Wynn from Southey have been printed by his son and his son-in-law, but this particular letter is not amongst them.


Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

This strikes me as a piece of anti-Catholic propaganda probably fairly typical of its time, but the looking-glass line has echoes of Monica Baldwin's "I Leap Over the Wall", on which I've posted previously.

6:39 PM  

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