A keen, intelligent face, not pretty but with the potential for beauty, heavy eyebrows, a long nose: the portrait of Ellen Palmer at the age of about fourteen in black schoolroom clothes, perhaps by her governess, is probably the most revealing image of her to have survived. The recent discovery of more of Ellen Palmer’s diaries has prompted her great-granddaughter Gillian Wagner to write the story of Ellen’s short life, largely through the version she wrote herself.
In her childhood and adolescence, the dubious events that led to Ellen’s birth were kept from her. It is possible she never knew of them, but they overshadowed her life. The story begins with a meeting in Bruges between her father, Roger Palmer, an epileptic, feeble-minded, debt-ridden son of a baronet, much given to chasing women, and Eleanora Matthews, a spinster in her early thirties, the youngest of four girls from a Welsh gentry family that was not as rich or as aristocratic as the Palmers. This led to a mad dash to Gretna Green in March 1828, for which the likely reason was that Eleanora was pregnant, followed by a proper church marriage in Oswestry a month later. Ellen was born in the spring of 1829.
Or was she? Wagner gives no evidence for Ellen’s date of birth. There was no official registration of births until 1837. If there is a baptism entry in a church register, Wagner does not tell us. There may have been an earlier child, conveniently forgotten, but there is