Florence Nightingale

Parthenope’s Owl Book

A page from the (presumed) original.
All biographies of Florence Nightingale mention her pet owl "Athena." Some of them mention a little book written by her sister Parthenope about the pet owl. But none of them quote from the book nor mention what it looked like or anything about it. After almost forty years of wondering about this little book I finally have seen and read it. I am delighted to announce that I am posting the exact text of that book here on the Florence Nightingale web site. I am fairly sure that this is the first time it has been made available. Just that alone makes it important. The big surprise is that it offers a new insight into the Nightingale home life and the relationship between the two sisters.

It is mentioned in the Edward Cook and Woodham-Smith biographies how Parthenope “threw the bracelets I offered her to wear in my face” the day before Florence went off to study at Kaiserswerth for three months. What has not been known is that Parthenope and Mrs. Nightingale went off to Carlsbad Baths for a three month "cure" taking with them Florence’s Athena. She must have trusted them so to do this with her beloved pet and it gives a new insight into the love/hate relationship of this Victorian family.

In the summer of 2009 I purchased online a copy of Florence Nightingale’s pet owl, ATHENA, A sentimental history by Parthenope, Lady Verney. (Florence’s sister Parthenope married Sir Harry Verney and thus became Lady Verney.) This was the limited edition done by Grabhorn-Hoyem Press at 566 Commercial Street, San Francisco, 1970, Robert Grabhorn & Andrew Hoyem. This is the text from an extremely rare lithographic facsimile from the Brigham Young University Library. The volume reproduced all 22 illustrations. It was 54 pages, 6¾ × 8½ inches, printed damp in black and sepia from handset Elzevir type on British handmade paper. The edition was limited to 300 copies bound in full damask and sold for $30 dollars. I purchased my copy for $75 online.

When Florence Nightingale was in the East during the Crimean War she became ill with "Crimean Fever," and convalesced for several months. It was during this time that Parthenope wrote the little book and we assume did the drawings. She was a good artist and wrote several novels.She sent it to her sister to "cheer her up." We do not know what shape the book was when this happened. But at some point several copies were made in lithograph. One of these copies found its way to Andrew Hoyem as he was asked to make a prospectus for David Magee’s large collection of Victorian books for sale.

Andrew Hoyem was drawn to the little book and as he says "puzzled out" the text and drawings, much to our advantage, to make his 300 copy offering. Brigham Young University Library purchased the collection. The library made electronic scans of the original from their archives and a few examples are reproduced here for you to see.


Country Joe McDonald, Berkeley, July 20, 2009



Life and Death of ATHENA an Owlet from the Parthenon

Dedicated to
the most constant & true friend
the Protector
and the most ardent admirer of the
deceased Athena

TH I S distinguished individual was born (as nearly as can be ascertained) on the fifth of June 1850. Her (future) mistress was returning from a visit to Pittacus, the learned Conservator of the Parthenon, and his wife, the sister of the Maid of Athens, when passing under the walls of the Acropolis she perceived a little ball of fluff tormented by a group of children. Athena had fallen from her nest. She was rescued for the sum of 6 lepta or one farthing. On what slight accidents does fame depend! Athena's brothers & sisters have lived and died unknown! While Athena ... but her biographer must not anticipate.

Her mistress soon after left Athens, and not choosing to cast her pet loose on the stones of a troublesome world embarked her in company -- with a Cicala, "Plato" a slip from a plane tree by the Ilissus (coming home in a mustard pot) and two tortoises, surnamed Mr & Mrs Hill --

And now began poor Athena's griefs once more. Her temper was rather defective and she fought and scratched every thing that came near her. Her mistress was too ill to attend to her, and the Captain and the mate and all the men almost killed her with kindness (as they have treated many another infant) they filled her with every conceivable meat from salt pork to buttered cake and at the end of the voyage Athena was nearly dead, but not a whit subdued.

At Trieste she could not be dug out of her broken cage by fair means or foul, and it was only by pulling it in pieces that she could be got out at all. In her new cage she bit kicked and swore vengeance for two hours, till her Mistress was at her wit's end. At length having tempted her out with a bit of meat, she mesmerised her (after a lesson learnt at Oxford AD '47 from Mr M in the inner court of Christchurch upon a little bear), & Athena's little woolly head went to sleep regularly in her lap. She soon became quite mannerly & took her meals regularly from her Mistress's hand.

And now they proceeded on their journey, 'Plato' was dead and Athena conveniently eat the Cicala, thereby consolidating two pets in one.

At Vienna her fluff was gradually subsiding into feathers, but she had no notion of taking care of her own toilette (having been so early severed from her Mother's care). Her Mistress one day undertook to perform it, & washed her from head to foot, the weather was cold & Athena nearly died of the discipline and could only be kept alive over the stoves. At Prague an enlightened waiter was heard holding forth to a chambermaid of his friends "Look that is the bird that all English ladies carry about with them, because it tells them when they are going to die!"

At Berlin Athena was treated with marked consideration, and received a select society of learned men at tea, anxious to test her likeness to the bird of the drachmas, and to verify that she was chosen by Minerva because she could see both by night & by day. One quiet autumn evening, after an absence of ten months, her mistress mounted on foot the steep hill which led to her mountain home, came up through the garden, softly, softly, and in at the steps of the Drawing room window.

After sitting half an hour on the sofa between her Mother and sister, she put her hand into her pocket and pulled out a little owlet in a bag! Athena's head alone stuck out, the bag being tied about her neck, she seemed however very happy and very warm. When set at liberty she began while sitting on the table, to curtsey and bow with the greatest urbanity.

And now Athena became the quiet inmate of a quiet English home -- she began by making acquaintance with every cranny & corner of every room, thrust herself into every impossible place, and took the greatest delight in being hunted for. She occasionally paid visits among the cottages in her Mistress's locket, to assist her by all the means in her power, tho' not in general much addicted to "doing good" (her life being one of luxurious tho' intellectual ease). On one occasion however she assisted greatly in the cure of a little burnt child, who suffered dreadfully when her wounds were dressed, but in the contemplation of Athena's bows and curtsies opposite her bed (brought for that especial purpose) forgot her woes, and lay quite still while she was doctored daily -- the charm continuing undiminished till the cure was complete.

She was of much interest also to an old Great Aunt,who with all the pent-up energies, the strong unregulated feelings, the large uncultivated powers of the brave days of old, when woman's work was so often to sit and wait, had worn out her life under the fearful discipline of repression, and who now in her 80th year blindly and patiently sat on her terrace seat in the sunshine, where she knew the roses grew which she could no more see, and talked of the sound of the river which she could no more hear. "See where the moon is shining so beautifully on the water" she would say as her warm imagination served her instead of eyes. She looked upon Athena as a great great niece, and enquired after her visitor's comforts with the same dignified and hospitable care that she shewed for her Mistress. And Athena returned the interest by hopping on her knee or her shoulder as she sat by the fire & settling herself comfortably there for a snooze, while the blind old lady never shewed the smallest fear or surprise at this strange & unaccustomed invasion of the quiet routine of her life. Athena was decidedly of an aristocratic disposition, & used to fly down on the heads & pursue the heels of those whom she considered beneath her, & never made friends with any of them, tho' they fed her regularly.

Her affections were rather exclusive, but how much the more did those admitted to her friendship, (among whom the biographer has a melancholy pleasure in ranking herself) appreciate their privilege. She would suffer her friends to stroke her quite flat, hold her by the head, pull her by the tail, blow at her, poke her, and only return for a little more play -- the only thing she resented was neglect. It must however be confessed that she would bite and scratch strangers with or without the smallest provocation.

It was very pretty to see her sitting on her Mistress's finger to receive her one daily meal, opening her wings wide as she swallowed each piece of meat at her hands.

The following year she took a second journey, into Germany, the waters of Karlsbad having been thought good for her health. She seemed to enjoy her travels & the respect that was paid to her exceedingly, tho' objecting to the universal 'kalbfleish' as much as other bipeds & not consoled by the assurances of the 'keller' when told that she wanted beef "Why this is young beef!"

Her ideas of propriety were exceedingly strict, & one day at Bamberg, she nearly barked herself into a fit at the sight of some storks sitting on a chimney top. Her companions were long in finding out the cause of her excessive indignation till they caught a side view of the obnoxious beings in the rainy distance. A bird, in Athena's eyes, ought to be a comfortable little round thing, with short legs, and no neck at all to speak of & here were creatures infringing on every principle that should constitute a well regulated bird! long, awkward, stiff, bill, legs, neck, everything, was wrong, & she told them so for nearly an hour at the top of her voice, for, as she justly observed, Beauty is what I am, the right is what I think!

At Carlsbad she made good use of her time, & sat daily on the sill of the open window, contemplating existence -- very ugly existence it is which an Austrian watering place pours along its boulevards, she thought, & observed upon somewhat superciliously for the benefit of her friends within.

She returned to England to meet her Mistress coming from a three months' study of Kaiserwerth. From this time, Athena's journeys were only to London where she spent the season, and to Lea Hurst where she spent the summer.

On the occasion of her birthday, one Whitsuntide of the Rhododendrons, a number of agreeable & 'ingenious' persons were assembled, & epigrams in her honor were discovered in her cage, which are here introduced, to shew the feeling with which she was regarded by a numerous body of friends --

Είς Γλαυκα

γλαủξ, ἐπἐἱ καλἡν λιποủσα τἤν Αθηναἱων πολιν
τηνδε γἡν τηλοὐρον ἡκοις οὐ φίλιος ἔρημος εἶ
χαἰρ ὁθοὐνεκ ἀζιἀς γε τηοδε δουλειας κυρεἰς
ἣ Ἡεἀς ἀγαλμ᾽ Άθηνας ουσα της σοϕωτατης,
κἀνθἀθ᾽ ἠλθις εἰς χερας καλας τε καἰ σοϕἀς ἅμα.

Athena's tastes were extremely literary, she read Grote with the greatest interest, sitting on LSM's knee and growing very excited over the death of Sokrates (with a K).

The strangers in whom she most delighted were Mr L & Mr Bracebridge both well acquainted with her birthplace and who always addressed her in Greek & she spent a great part of every day investigating the shelves in the library; hours indeed she used to remain at the back of the largest quartos. Her toilette (as is supposed to be the case sometimes with literary ladies) suffered much from these excursions and by the end of the winter she generally had not a feather left in her tail. Her French attendant used to be exceedingly unhappy on such occasions, & remark that company was coming & that "Monsieur Quis" (as Athena was occasionally called) was tout rond et pas beau du tout, & what a pity it was, & could nothing be done? Athena had a very proper sense of her own importance -- indeed, a just respect for oneself is always remarked as one of the concomitant ingredients of greatness & a perfectly necessary one of success. She objected extremely to being laughed at, & resented impertinence.

If an armchair was drawn up by the fire, she always considered that it was done for her especial use & placing herself exactly in the middle she would comfortably shut one eye draw up one leg & wink luxuriously and magnificently at the fire for an hour at a time. She had an inclination to thieving & hiding her gains which was occasionally inconvenient, fur cuffs have been discovered in her literary lairs months after they were missed, & she bore off a chatelaine many times ten times her own weight. She would pounce on a piece of bread or a grape on its way to an expectant mouth but it was from love of the chase not the filthy lucre gain, for she never eat her spoils.

Her favorite pastime was to fly at a nosegay, capture a dahlia, & retire to sit upon it & pick it in pieces. Her conscience tho' was a very lively one & she rarely did crime without barking vigorously to inform the company. To have knocked down a jar of roses and carried off the finest to the top of the room was a feat which greatly delighted her. Her love of high places was indeed notable. She would occasionally mount to the top of her Mistress's head & crow loud & triumphantly as being the most noble and conspicuous position which she could find.

Her conversation indeed was most varied & interesting. She had five distinct -- notes may we be permitted to call them? (tho' obliged to respond in the negative to the question of the enquiring youth of Germany "singt er?") A bark when she was naughty, a crow when she was proud, a little purr (a sort of twee twee) when she was pleased, a grumble when she was cross & a hoot when she was melancholy. She would go on talking sometimes the whole morning, always putting in an observation when a pause in the reading, or an enquiring tone seemed to require it.

The quickness of her eye was wonderful she would see a fly from the farthest extremity of a large room, & descend upon it with the greatest accuracy, tho' near at hand her large nose rather interfered with her vision.

One summer she had been sitting much at the open window (she never went out for a walk above twice in her life) the little birds outside always scolded her there violently, she never took the slightest notice of this, she was not popular among them and seemed rather to enjoy the distinction. A nest of thrushes had been built against the house and every morning the old birds attacked her with their tongues. It was represented to them many times that there was no danger, but they persisted in their alarm. They knew best -- after the nestlings were fledged, one morning, an incautious little one walked in at the garden door, there was a rush to turn it out, but Athena was too quick for this, fell down on it before any one could come near, and had slain it instantly. Another day a mouse ventured out into the Library, and in the same way she pounced from her serene standpoint, her high post between Theseus & the Mercury on the top of the bookcase and swallowed the intruder whole! the tail hanging out of her mouth for some time after. Indeed the facility of storage in that little body was very remarkable, she would in her one meal eat a thing skin and all a third of her own size.

Her health was remarkably good, but two or three times in her life she had what her maid called "des crises," a sort of little fit from an over indulgence in cold water, when she fell down on her side, shut her eyes, and remained insensible for an hour or more. On these occasions her friends used to wrap her in flannel by the fire, or put her in their bosoms, and after lying, apparently dead for a long time, a doleful & pathetic little "twee twee" would be heard and she would proceed to give a long and detailed account of her woes, then bursting her wraps she would hop out & about, as if nothing had been the matter. "Monsieur Quis fait le moil pour qu'on le plaigne."

She had a warm attachment for old things & old usages, & as beforesaid a great objection to anything which she thought incorrect. One morning the biographer after a long illness came down in a cap, this Athena objected to extremely, as unbecoming (in which she was quite right) & altogether not to be endured -- she came & sat at the back of the chair & remonstrated warmly, & when no notice was taken of her observations, she jumped upon the obnoxious cap, dragged it off the head & began to tear it. (NB the cap was not put on again). She had an occasional air of the prince déguisé in a fairy tale which reminded one forcibly of the amiable & renowned Prince Sincer whose description is thus given. "Sa tete etait plate et fort large. Son nez long et pointu, ses joues pendaient sur sa poitrine, et sa bouche etait garnie d’une barbe longue et touffue, son corps etait soutenu stir une jam be sur laquelle il etait si bien en equilibre, que le moindre vent le faisait tourner sans discontinuer."

Her courage was perfectly undaunted, she would stand at the open window on tiptoe barking at a dog or cat 50 times her own size. The only time she was ever known to have been frightened, was once when a particular friend, the daughter of the Middle Ages, brought her a porcelain owl with great eyes, through which shone the light of a candle. This lurid and supernatural presentment of her own similitude was more than even Athena could bear, & she always ran and hid herself, as you would, my reader, if you met yourself seven feet high, with fiery eyes and a demoniac glare.

Her dislike to dogs & children was probably connected with early reminiscences of the woes with which she was threatened by Themistocles Calliope and Aspasia under the walls of the Parthenon (not on their way to the school of Mrs Ηιλλ as on the door) but it became an irrational antipathy, instead of the well weighed judgement to be expected from the bird of Minerva.

She did not ever attend to the predilections of her Mistress and was proof against the blandishments of little Mary H, who sitting before her tenderly chanted "a ool, a ool" in the most musical of voices all the time her Mother was paying her sick friend a visit in the next room.

The biographer cannot recall without tears her little run across the room, like the step of a partridge, her elegant manners, coming down stairs sitting on a finger quite free, but without any inclination to fly away, her talents and virtues. lndeed "il ne lui manquait que la parole."

It will thus be seen that with the exception of a slight tendency to theft murder illtemper and conceit, this remarkable person may justly lay claim to be called, as the Italians have it, "una persona compita." Her qualities of soul heart and intellect, were indeed first rate, and if she has not left many remains in a literary point of view, no one could look at her expressive countenance and not feel that she

Could if she Would.

We now come to the last and tragical chapter in the life of one whose fame the world will not willingly let die!

Her Mistress had been home after an exceedingly hard summer's work in London with the Cholera added to her usual labours. She had been exceedingly unwell during that too short visit, and had been confined to her bed and her room, for the chief part of it. Athena was her constant companion, when she could bear no one else of larger size, Athena was welcome; she sat on the bed and talked to her, she ran races all round the room after imaginary mice. Every meal she considered to have been brought for her especial use, and she accordingly appropriated the bread and butter, or pounced upon the chicken, "Mademoiselle la gate" was the warning voice, but her Mistress let it be.

At length after a little fortnight her Mistress returned to town; & the day after she arrived began to consider the possibility of her great expedition. As soon as her friends heard of the plan, they hurried up to London to give what assistance they could. The house after their departure was packed, and every thing was in haste & confusion. Athena was put into a room by herself, she had a stout little heart of her own, but the grief, the cold & the isolation were too much for her, she fell down in a fit, there were none at hand to succour her, & when found she was lying dead on her little side, on the very day that her Mistress was to have left England. The departure was delayed for two days, till the expedition could be got together, Athena's body was sent up to be embalmed. Her Mistress asked to see her again, & the only tear she shed through that tremendous week was when ... put the little bodie into her hands. "Poor little beastie, it was odd how much I loved you."

so let her lie

so wept ...