Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

MORGAN, SYDNEY, Lady (c. 1783-1859)

MORGAN, SYDNEY, Lady (c. 1783-1859), British authoress, daughter of Robert Owenson, an Irish actor, was born in 1783 in Dublin. She was one of the most vivid and hotly discussed literary figures of her generation. She began her career with a precocious volume of poems. She collected Irish tunes, for which she composed the words, thus setting a fashion adopted with signal success by Tom Moore. Her St Clair (1804), a novel of ill-judged marriage, ill-starred love, and impassioned nature-worship, in which the influence of Goethe and Rousseau was apparent, at once attracted attention. Another novel, The Novice of St Dominick (1806), was also praised for its qualities of imagination and description. But the book which made her reputation and brought her name into warm controversy was The Wild Irish Girl (1806), in which she appeared as the ardent champion of her native country, a politician rather than a novelist, extolling the beauty of Irish scenery, the richness of the natural wealth of Ireland, and the noble traditions of its early history. She was known in Catholic and Liberal circles by the name of her heroine Glorvina. Patriotic Sketches and Metrical Fragments followed in 1807. Miss Owenson entered the household of the marquess of Abercorn, and in 1812, persuaded by Lady Abercorn, she married the surgeon to the household, Thomas Charles Morgan, afterwards knighted; but books still continued to flow from her facile pen. In 1814 she produced her best novel, OʼDonnell. She was at her best in her descriptions of the poorer classes, of whom she had a thorough knowledge. Her elaborate study (1817) of France under the Bourbon restoration was attacked with outrageous fury in the Quarterly, the authoress being accused of Jacobinism, falsehood, licentiousness and impiety. She took her revenge indirectly in the novel of Florence Macarthy (1818), in which a Quarterly reviewer, Con Crawley, is insulted with supreme feminine ingenuity. Italy, a companion work to her France, was published in 1821; Lord Byron bears testimony to the justness of its pictures of life. The results of Italian historical studies were given in her Life and Times of Salvator Rosa (1823). Then she turned again to Irish manners and politics with a matter-of-fact book on Absenteeism (1825), and a romantic novel, The OʼBriens and the OʼFlahertys (1827). From Lord Melbourne Lady Morgan obtained a pension of £300. During the later years of her long life she published The Book of the Boudoir (1829), Dramatic Scenes from Real Life (1833), The Princess (1835), Woman and her Master (1840), The Book without a Name (1841), Passages from my Autobiography (1859). She died on the 14th of April 1859.

Her autobiography and many interesting letters were edited with a memoir by W. Hepworth Dixon in 1862.

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OWENSON, Sydney [later Lady Morgan] (c. 1783-1859) by Miranda Burgess

The short and unsigned entry on Sydney Owenson Morgan in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica begins by effacing the birth name under which she wrote the most innovative half of her literary output; it also gives her an inflated social title. The first of these moves heralds the persistent critical focus on Morgan’s participation in pamphlet wars over nationalism and Jacobinism that so often isolates her works from the experimental poetics of her Romantic contemporaries. The second palliates the force of Owensonʼs politics and the trenchancy of her political arguments, which are latent in yet inextricable from her experiments in genre and form.

Sydney Morgan
Published by Dean & Munday. Sydney Morgan (née Owenson), Lady Morgan. 1816, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Born likely in 1783, though possibly as early as 1776, the poet, novelist, essayist, and political combatant was the daughter of Robert Owenson (né MacEóin)—well known for stage-Irish performances—and his English wife, Jane Hill.

Owenson lost her mother early, in 1789. As a result of this loss and her family’s bohemian context and social ambitions, she had an education both irregular and polished. Tutored by the ill-fated boy poet Thomas Dermody (1775-1802) and playing the harp in Dublin theatres, she eventually attended a Huguenot finishing school, which provided her with fluent French. This education enabled Owenson to earn her own living as a governess in elevated circumstances. From 1798, she worked for an Ascendancy family in Westmeath, and at some point she joined the household of the Marquess of Abercorn. In 1812, Owenson became Lady Morgan (though never Lady Sydney Morgan; that title would be reserved for the daughter of an earl or greater) on her marriage to Sir Thomas Charles Morgan, physician to the Abercorn family. Morgan had been knighted in 1811, allegedly at the urging of Lady Abercorn, who had no further use for a governess (her daughter had married) and wanted to usher Owenson into a world suited to her beauty, social and musical talents, and growing literary fame.

As Sydney Owenson, and while governessing, Owenson published three poetry books, Poems dedicated by permission to the Countess of Moira (1801), Twelve Original Hibernian Melodies (1805), and Lay of an Irish Harp (1807), and a book of Patriotic Sketches of Ireland (1807), as well as five novels: the sentimental St Clair (1802) and Novice of St Dominick (1805), influenced by Goethe and Rousseau; the influential The Wild Irish Girl (1806), which pioneered the genre of the national tale, symbolically, rhetorically, and pedagogically raising the claims of a colonized periphery to metropolitan readers; and Woman; or, Ida of Athens (1809) and The Missionary, an Indian Tale (1811), which adapted national tale tropes in an orientalist frame while adding a more overtly feminist set of claims. The poems followed the example of Charlotte Brooke, whose Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789) had ushered in the songs genre subsequently made famous by Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies (1808-1834): the setting of freely translated or freshly composed words to collected traditional music. While such songs were used in drawing room performance, they also became popular with the republican-democratic United Irishmen of the 1790s-1800s, whose emblem was the harp (It is new-strung and shall be heard).

Rarely well reviewed, the novels were much noticed. Jane Austen commented in an 1809 letter that she did not expect much from Owenson’s Ida of Athens but wished the warmth of Her Language could affect the Body during the January cold. This mix of dismissal and avidity was replicated in much contemporary criticism, where Owenson’s novels especially exercised Tory reviewers such as William Gifford and John Wilson Croker, both affiliated with the Quarterly Review, who declared her language unnecessarily elevated and her syntax overcomplex to the point of senselessness. Indeed, Gifford wondered if her novels had been produced by the shaking of random types out of a box, a speculation prefiguring Walter Scott’s later play, in The Betrothed (1825), with the possibility of writing the Waverley Novels by using an adapted steam-driven lace-knitting machine. A different approach to Owenson’s prose appears in the letters of Percy Shelley, who, in 1811, remarked of Ida of Athens, Since I have read this book I have read no other—but I have thought strangely.

Owenson’s early novels are strange. The writing is flamboyantly descriptive, with chains of adjectives appealing to multiple senses. The syntax is recursive, piling up parallel clauses strung together with semicolons, the nouns and infinitives alone differing from clause to clause; infinitives substitute for verbs—coiled potential for realized action—and no clause has explanatory priority. The style resembles a bizarre fugue in which ornamental flights coexist without priority or resolution. It is rarely clear what the melody, or the precise meaning, is, if indeed Owenson’s sentences can really be said to mean at all. In effect, this writing forces the reader to think strangely.

In a genre built on expectations of steady forward movement mixed with occasional flashbacks and prolepsis, Owenson’s warm prose has not always been welcomed by contemporary or subsequent readers. Early conservative critics seized on her unusual style to dismiss novels whose liberal or radical political claims supposedly threatened to lead readers astray. In painting these works as incompetent versions of popular romance or rushed precursors of the silver fork novel of the 1820s, these critics implicitly made decisions about what counts as politics, and as radical, that persisted well into the twentieth century. This may be the reason why that so much Owenson criticism has called her by her married title, despite the equal written output of Owenson’s single years. To do so elevates the woman and cuts the writer down to size. Moreover, the politics of the novels, which have been much debated in recent scholarship, are still often thought to consist in little more than a demand for Ireland or India, and for women, to be more kindly protected as subordinate partners. Arguably, the true radicalism of these works inheres in their prose, which worries the boundary between language and meaning, sensation, and perception, calling the idea of the self-identical subject, the rational citizen of liberal politics, and the distinctions between colonized and imperial subjects and citizens into question. This strangeness, this resistance to identity, closure, and resolution, undoubtedly appealed to and preoccupied Shelley.

Owenson’s later novels are tidier and more readable, and most scholars have valued them more highly as literature. The first of these is O’Donnel: A National Tale (1814), which unites a comic travel narrative resembling Tobias Smollett’s with Irish aristocratic loss and dispossession—a self-conscious rewriting of the plot of The Wild Irish Girl that places English high society and Irish decay on incommensurable tracks. The remaining novels include Florence Macarthy (1818), which mixes a romance plot of disguised returning heirs with an account of the international democratic revolutions of the 1810s and 1820s, especially in South America; The O’Briens and the O’Flahertys (1827), an early example of the large-scale nineteenth-century social novel, inserting Irish antiquarian claims into a modern cosmopolitan Europe; and The Princess; or, The Beguine (1835), also set in Europe, an instance of minor literature in David Lloyd’s political sense. Owenson, now Morgan, was less critically embattled for these than for her two contemporaneous belletristic meditations on European liberal politics, France (1817) and Italy (1821), the former of which especially engaged her in a flaming paper war about the nature and consequences of revolution in France and democracy more generally.

After that, Owenson Morgan drew in her horns. Her late works about Irish land tenures (Absenteeism, 1825) and the condition of women (Woman and Her Master, 1840) drew relatively minor comment. More striking is her Book of the Boudoir (1829), a collection of essays on manners, metaphysics, and memoir, which help explain the increased quietude of the Lady Morgan persona. Sir Charles, Morgan writes in her ironically-titled The Doctrine of Causation, habitually gave his wife a look when her conversation veered too far from conventionally feminine and decorative topics, causing her to return to pure description from philosophical or political sense. A salonnière to the end, Owenson spent her last years in Ireland, receiving a pension for her services to Irish letters. She died in Dublin in 1859. Until recent years, and remembered mostly for The Wild Irish Girl, her works now receive the sustained and globally-focused attention they deserve.

Further reading: David Lloyd, Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-colonial Moment (1993); Mary Helen Thuente, The Harp Re-Strung: The United Irishmen and the Rise of Irish Literary Nationalism (1994); Terry Eagleton, Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (1995); Seamus Deane, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 (1997); Katie Trumpener, Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire (1997); Ina Ferris, The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland (2002); Julia M. Wright, Ireland, India, and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2007); Claire Connolly, A Cultural History of the Irish Novel, 1790-1829 (2012); Padma Rangarajan, Imperial Babel: Translation, Exoticism, and the Long Nineteenth Century (2014); Anahid Nersessian, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (2015)

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