The funeral of a great pillar of our church takes place in the morning – here are the words for her. If she is sitting and listening in the heavenly choir stalls, I hope they meet with her approval. I would not like to meet with reproof when I next see her!
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever”. Psalm 23:6
Esme, for me, was the last Victorian.
Esme’s father, the Revd Wingfield Colley was born in 1868. To put that date into context, Wingfield Colley was born in the year that Gladstone was elected as Prime Minister. He was 25 when Gladstone was Prime Minister for the for the last time and 33 when Queen Victoria died. Esme would not be born for another two decades, but she would have grown up in a vicarage where Victorian principles were very firmly established. Esme was the embodiment of the best Victorian values.
There was a very strong sense of the duty towards God and her neighbour that would have been taught in the Prayer Book catechism. Duty towards God and neighbour were fulfilled by Esme in a very quiet and unassuming way. Esme would have grown up with the words of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ warning in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that those who do their good deeds in public already have their reward. Esme’s faith was accordingly a private matter and her care for others was equally a matter between Esme and God, and not something she would ever have wanted made known.
Esme had a strong Victorian sense of responsibility that she must be good steward of all that she had. Saving was a great virtue allowing one to make wise and generous use of money. Frivolous expenditure was to be frowned upon; Esme was extraordinarily generous to various causes while living a strict and frugal lifestyle herself. In accordance with the teaching of the book of Deuteronomy, Esme believed that all good things came from God and were owed back to God.
Esme was deeply imbued with a Victorian sense of integrity; that one’s word was one’s bond and that honesty and transparency should characterise public life. Esme rarely spoke of politics, but on one occasion she expressed a certain satisfaction that a politician with whom she shared a surname had been a consistent opponent of a taoiseach whom she particularly distrusted. Esme’s watchwords would have been reflected Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things”. It is hard to imagine Esme ever strayed far from the guidance Paul gave.
Looking back on the Victorian era, it is easy to regard it as a very traditional time, but it was also a time when radical movements began, including the women’s movement, which became organised with the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. Esme would, I’m sure, have recoiled at the idea of ever being described as ‘radical’, but she was proud that her name appeared in the book A Danger to the Men that marked the centenary of women being admitted to Trinity College, Dublin. Esme was vigorously independent and would have given short-shrift to any suggestion that she was not the equal of anyone.
The Victorian age was characterised by a great flourishing in study and culture and the arts. Esme was possessed of a great love for history, particularly histories of places and people. Place was important for Esme. Growing up in Northamptonshire and then living in Kent, in Cornwall, and in Wimbledon, Esme said that her family nevertheless regarded themselves as firmly Irish. Esme had a passion for family trees, the genealogies that gave her a sense of place and a sense of identity. Esme loved music, her membership of the Royal Choral Society in her younger days and of the Culwick and the Arusha singers in most recent times sprang from a childhood where music and singing had been part of her home life. Esme told me that the clerical stipend was so poor that her father Wingfield was a self taught musician, a fine example of that great Victorian virtue of self-improvement. Literature also figured prominently in Esme’s life and Esme was very proud of her connection with Elizabeth Bowen.
Anyone who looks at Victorian buildings now with their extravagant architecture, (when even the humblest railway station deserved intricate wrought ironwork and great flourishes in brick and stone), gets a sense of the optimism and confidence of the late 19th Century. Esme, of course lived through very different times. The depression years of the 1930s were followed by the horrors of the Second World War. Esme and Betty and their mother must have been part of a small minority moving to Ireland in 1960, when some half a million people had left the country over the previous ten years. Esme was a person of optimism and confidence. Even when advancing years prompted her to think that her house might be too large for her to cope and that the day might come when independence was not possible, Esme never really engaged with the idea of moving. Sheltered accommodation was very fine and the places looked jolly nice, but they were for other people. I think Esme was sustained by the hope expressed by Charles Dickens’ Mr Micawber “something will turn up”. Something turning up meant Christopher and Laetitia and Esme was sincerely grateful for the love they have shown her. The moments when the optimism and the confidence deserted Esme, were the moments when she was most unlike herself.
Through much of Victorian history there is a sense that there is a great mission that must be fulfilled and a providential God who is shaping history. Esme had great trust in God’s providence and a great love for the hymns of her forebear, the Revd Thomas Kelly. At one point in his ministry Kelly was barred from Church of Ireland pulpits and he built Christ Church, Carysfort as a preaching house where he might share with people his strong faith in the power of the Cross. Esme had that strength of faith that carried her through all the griefs and disappointments of this life, a sense of providence leading her home.
Perhaps Esme was the last Victorian, but her final hope was in a God far greater than the greatest Victorian. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever”, says Psalm 23. Esme was followed by goodness and mercy all the day of her life and now we trust that she will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.