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Life and death of Florence Nightingale’s beloved pet

A charmingly illustrated book about Florence Nightingale’s pet owl, written by her sister Parthenope, Lady Verney, is now viewable on the Wren Digital Library.

Athena and her Mistress Florence
Athena and her Mistress Florence

Life and Death of Athena, an Owlet from the Parthenon is one of the rare books in the Crewe Collection, which was recently bequeathed to Trinity College by the late Duchess of Roxburghe. It comes from the collection of Richard Monckton Milnes, who wooed Florence Nightingale for nine years before finally being refused her hand in marriage.

Written in 1855 by Parthenope and sent to cheer up her sister, then seriously ill in the Crimea, the book tells the story of an owl, found and adopted in Athens, who became Florence’s beloved pet. At the time, the founder of modern nursing was travelling in Greece and Egypt.

The book is ‘Dedicated to ∑, the most constant and true friend, the Protector and the most ardent admirer of…. the deceased Athena,’ and begins:

Athena nestles
Athena nestles

‘This 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.’

Soon after Florence adopted Athena, she left Athens, taking her new pet, a cicada called Plato and two tortoises (Mr and Mrs Hill) on her journey to Trieste via Corfu.

After a rocky start to relations on the journey, Florence apparently calmed the irascible and upset owl. ‘She … mesmerised her (after a lesson learnt at Oxford AD ’47 form 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 and took her meals regularly from her Mistress’s hand.’

Athena enjoying the warmth of the fire
Athena enjoying the warmth of the fire

Before leaving for the Crimea, with 38 women volunteer nurses she had trained, friends helped Florence prepare. In the haste and confusion, Athena was ‘put into a room by herself, she had a stout little heart of her own, but the grief, the cold and the isolation were too much for her, she fell down in a fit, there were none at hand to succour her..’

Florence’s trip was delayed by two days when the tragedy was discovered. Athena was sent for embalming and on holding the small creature, Florence said:

Poor little beastie, it was odd how much I loved you.

Athena with the mustard pot that was home to Plato, a cicada also befriended by Florence. Later, Plato died. ‘Athena conveniently ate the Cicala, thereby consolidating two pets in one’, wrote Parthenope.
Athena with the mustard pot that was home to Plato, a cicada also befriended by Florence. Later, Plato died. ‘Athena conveniently ate the Cicala, thereby consolidating two pets in one’, wrote Parthenope.

Parthenope printed only a few copies of her story, reproducing her handwritten text and drawings with a basic lithographic process for distribution to friends and family. Only a very small number of these copies are known today.

Trinity’s Librarian Dr Nicolas Bell said:

“This newly discovered copy of Parthenope Nightingale’s remarkable story is a particularly exciting discovery. It comes from the library of her suitor Richard Monckton Milnes, and has been annotated on several pages by the author herself, at points where the quality of the printing was less good.

The volume also includes a photograph of one of Parthenope’s portraits of her sister, as well as drawings of the Nightingale houses at Embley and Lea Hurst and a photograph of a drawing  of Lord Raglan visiting Florence Nightingale in the Huts at Balaclava. We are delighted to make the complete book available online as part of the Wren Digital Library.”

This book is part of the Crewe Collection and is available to read online.

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