The ballad of Kathleen and Stan: A sadly abandoned courtship
My great-aunt’s father strongly disapproved, so Stan left Kathleen a parting gift
The book of Wordsworth poetry Stan gave Kathleen held a secret
Among the many dusty and dog-eared books that clamber across our shelves, there is an especially curious edition of the Poetical Works of William Wordsworth.
The first thing one sees upon opening the book is an inscription, dated October 2nd, 1909, which reads: “To Kathleen from Stan.”
We know that “Kathleen” is our great-aunt Kathleen O’Flaherty, but all we know of Stan comes from a story our granny told us when we were young.
The story goes that Kathleen was being courted by a man named Stan, but her father strongly disapproved of the match and the courtship was abandoned. As a parting gift, Stan left Kathleen a volume of Wordsworth’s poems, which concealed another, more conspicuous token of his love: the heart of the book had been hollowed out to hold a box of jewellery.
In the final pages are the faint, handwritten words: “Till you exchange for Heaven that happy ground.”
The words echo the last line of Wordsworth’s St Catherine of Ledbury, a sonnet that recounts the medieval legend of Lady Catherine Audley. According to the legend, Audley left her home at the behest of a heavenly vision, which decreed that she should wander the land and could only settle where she heard the miraculous sound of church bells ringing by themselves.
Kathleen O’Flaherty also wandered, but her travels brought her in the direction of more discordant sounds.
She joined the nursing corps of the British army and was dispatched to Europe shortly after Christmas in 1914. According to her file, Kathleen took “charge of a group of small wards, where the most acute surgical cares [were] nursed”, and surgeons held “a most high opinion of her worth”.
Upon the conclusion of the war, Kathleen continued to wander, swapping the military medical stations of Europe for the sugar cane plantations of Oahu, Hawaii. There she continued her work as a nurse in a more serene environment, up until the morning of December 7th, 1941, when Pearl Harbour came under attack from the Japanese, and Kathleen’s experience in a war zone was once more called into action.
She was to spend the rest of her days more peacefully in her adopted island home, and is buried in Oahu cemetery in Honolulu.
We don’t know if Kathleen ever met Stan again, but, in Hawaii at least, she seems to have found her happy ground.