On the 8th January 1891, the Butler household was in a very sombre mood. In one room the paterfamilias, Thomas Butler (son of the younger Weeden), lay gravely ill. He was 81, and had enjoyed a long and full career at the British Museum, which amounted to a lot more than simply annoying Alfred Russel Wallace; but his life seemed to be drawing to its close. In another room his wife Jane was also dying. Her death, I can say quite punctiliously, took place at 7.50pm that evening, as noted by my great-grandfather Thomas, her son. Three days later, he compiled an account of her final hours.
...Several hours later, her son George said: “Dear Mother, we have been praying that you might sleep; perhaps God will answer our prayer in giving you sweet rest in Heaven.” She said: “George, God does not always answer our prayers just when we ask him, but sometimes he lets us wait a little while, that he may teach us—” Here she hesitated, as though waiting for the right word. “Submission,” suggested George. “Yes, submission,” she said, but from this point her utterances were confused. She was, however, constantly saying: “Jesus, my Saviour.” She rambled a good deal, and became weaker. About two hours before her death I said to her: “Shut your eyes, dear Mamma, and rest your head.” She immediately obeyed, for, though 75, she was in her spirit now like a dear little girl. She opened her eyes almost directly and continued to talk. I said: “Mamma, dear, I have had your book, ‘Job and Psalms,’ neatly bound.” She said: “Oh! you have had my book bound!” She expressed herself pleased, but I cannot recollect the words. I then left the room. A short time elapsed, and the family were assembled to see her die. After some little time had passed, during which her three clerical sons, George, Thomas and Montagu, offered short prayers and repeated texts, she changed her tone and manner. She became perfectly free from her wandering. The childlike manner left her. She had a profoundly majestic appearance. Her voice was sublimely earnest, but continuous, as if she was inspired, as no doubt she was in measure, by the Holy Spirit. Her eyes appeared to look beyond things temporal, and the tone of her voice suggested to me the mental, but inexpressible tone of the seventeenth chapter of St. John. We saw she was in rapt communion with God, and we strove to catch what we could of her fervent and beautiful utterances. It must be observed that our mother had, in her previous days, never been in the habit of praying aloud. I never remember hearing her offering up a prayer. She now made two long prayers; one prayer for the church of God, and for herself as an individual member of it, and another for her family...
Shortly after this she peacefully and without struggle breathed her last. Brother Frank (Dr Francis Henry Butler) had his hand on her pulse while she was drawing to her end; keeping his eyes a good deal on his watch in order to judge of the pulsation. He gently moistened her lips with liquid in a little paintbrush while she was dying. There was then a slight consultation as to the advisability of telling or withholding the news from dear Papa. ..
Jane had been certain that her own death would be followed swiftly by her husband’s. The day before she died, she had said: “Well, it is not easy to reconcile oneself all at once to the idea of Mother dying in one week, Father soon after, both being swept off, and the children left alone; but the LORD sitteth above the water floods.” And: “Tom will lie, like a tired child, for three weeks, and then he will come to me.”
Tom was to live for another seventeen years, dying one year short of his centenary. A few weeks after Jane’s death he wrote to my great-grandmother, Maria, giving an account of his convalescence. Even after a brush with the Reaper and in the midst of grief, the Victorians knew how to put away their food. Just look at what he gets through in a 24-hour period!
I am really quite well in general health though still very weak. I get up in the morning by half past ten or eleven, and then the texts for the day or a chapter having been already gone through by dear Mary or the nurse, Susie, I go down stairs and read the newspaper, or any letter Annie may have to interest me; then lunch comes in soon after one and after that I am ordered off to bed and sleep until nearly 4 o’clock; then dress and come into the drawing room again, and have some good strong nourishing soup, and read some book until about 6 or 7, and then I have generally sole, whiting, smelt, or a piece of chicken, pheasant, partridge, ptarmigan or tender mutton chop – and light pudding and a dessert spoonful of whisky and water: this serves me until about 8 or 8.30 and then I am ordered off to bed. In the meantime Mamma’s Commentary of St. Matthew has been read to me, or some interesting papers. I lie down in bed quietly resting until about 9 or 9.30 and then some light food, such as arrowroot, or sago, or bread and milk is brought, after which dear Mary comes and prays with and for me, as she does in the morning – and then I go to sleep, waking two or three times, when Lucy, Mary, or the nurse Susie, gives me some milk or jelly or baked apple. Do you not agree with me that I am most completely spoiled? (23rd Feb 1891)
I think I do agree. Finally, for reasons of sentimentality, here is the reaction to Jane’s death of my own grandfather, a few weeks short of his seventh birthday (spelling mistakes lovingly preserved by Thomas):
MY DEAR PAPA,
I THINK IT IS VERY NICE TO KNOW THAT GRAND MAMMA HAS GONE TO HEVEN TO SING WITH THE ANGLES, BUT IT IS SAD TO THINK THAT SHE IS DEAD. AND I CAN NOT SEE HER ON EARTH ANY MORE. I LIKED YOUR LETTER VERY MUCHINNDEED, AND I WAS DELIGHTED AT HAVING A LETTER FOR MY OWN. WHEN I HAD IT AT FIRST, I THOUGHT AT FIRST IT WAS FROM AUNTIE NANNIE, BUT WHEN I OPENED IT I SAW THAT IT WAS FROM YOU. I WILL TRY TO BE AS KIND AS I CAN TO DEAR MAMMA. AND BE A GOOD BOY.
FROM YOUR LOVING SON,
MONTAGU CHRISTIE BUTLER
Now I want to know what ptarmigan tastes like.