Letters to Beatrice Potter V – ‘In the Hospital + out of the Hospital’

Happy new year from the Harkives!

This month we continue our series of letters sent by Harkness to her cousin Beatrice Potter (later Webb). The cousins knew one another well while Beatrice attended school in Bournemouth in the 1870s, and they kept up a correspondence until the end of the 1880s. The letters give an insight into the development of Harkness’s ideas and her growing political awareness. This month’s letter gives a description of Harkness’s experience of training as a nurse and boarding in Westminster.

Source: British Library of Political and Economic Science, Passfield Papers, PASSFIELD/2/1/2/2, ff. 40. Reproduced with the Library’s kind permission.


8 Broad Sanctuary

February 22nd

Dear Beatrice

Thank you so much for your letter.

I am so sorry you have jaundice, I know how miserable it is. I had it myself some years ago, + I remember how weak + ill I felt.

Thank you for offering to send me some flowers, you could not do me a greater kindness; they will give me such intense pleasure. Also any old book you are not reading, I shall be most grateful to receive, + I will return it as soon as possible.

I can scarcely believe the same mortal is writing to you who talked + walked with you at Bournemouth. How little I thought then how things would turn out! You know I did not intend to begin this sort of life for two or three years, + then I intended to give myself up to it. But my plans have been knocked on the head.

Family affairs made it necessary for me to leave home now; + family affairs will make it necessary for me to return home in two or three years. Perhaps it is all for the best; anyhow I shall be better able to bear the monotony of the country + the little worries of home life, after a few years hard training.

I own I do not think I have any love of nursing in my constitution. I can do it, + can keep the patients in control, but I cannot say I work myself up to a state of excitement over “a good case”.

I feel more interest in watching, the minds + manners of the patients, than their [illegible]. Also I must own to the weakness of hating to be mixed up with men in the concern.

Still as I am to lead a Hospital life, I do wish I could stay at Westminster.

The society in this house if [sic] amusing.

I will first describe the life here, it may amuse you now you are seedy.

At six. I get up + dress, at half past six I have breakfast.

At seven I am at the Hospital.

At one I have dinner.

At four I go to the Hospital, at eight I come back again.

At ten (if possible) I go to bed.

I also attend some lectures + write out cases.

At the present time I have been vaccinated, + rejoice in the pleasures of a “bad arm”.

It was necessary, for there is a case of smallpox in the Hospital.

Miss Merryweather is a large minded woman, + not badly educated. There are two ladies in the house. One a ritualist, the other a quakeress [sic]. The others are uneducated women.

I only see these people at meals, + then their crude ideas amuse me immensely.

Still it is rather too much of a good thing to spend one’s time so much with totally uneducated people. In the Hospital + out of the Hospital the style of life + manners is about the same.

Your sister Kate is so wonderfully good to me, I shall always feel so grateful to her for being so kind.

I am afraid I have no settled ideas on the subject of religion.

I have a strong sense of duty, + I cling to that, indeed I feel if I let that go I should be wrecked altogether. How I came by it I cannot pretend to say, + yet I try to act up to it wherever it leads me + whatever disagreeable things it forces me to do. And yet Beatrice I long for something more, I am not satisfied, I cannot rest like that, at least, not at present.

Perhaps if my life was easier, if I had more excitement + amusement to take my thoughts off I should rest more contented.

I hope I shall be able to stay here, for of all places of this sort, I prefer Westminster. The life is hard + the work heavy, but one has more liberty + freedom here than in other places.

Unfortunately my people object to the mixed society in this house.

You see they are conservatives + live in a small country set, + they think a place where all classes are received + no differences made, unfit for a lady to be in.

The Shaftesburys, for instance, are shocked at my being at a place where one is obliged to take money, or rather live with people who take money. I think it only right to consult my people’s feelings, + if they feel that they do not like saying where I am, I shall leave + go somewhere else.

They would like me to go to Queen’s Square, + I suppose if they set their hearts upon it, I shall go there.

Still I dread the bable [sic] of children, + also I am not qualified to teach the young idea to shoot in the manner required at Queen’s Square. In this Hospital one sees much more of life + character than in a children’s Hospital, + one has a few moments to look at the old Abbey, + rise above the drudgery.


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