Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan: Writer and ‘Fair Hibernian’

The publication of this blog coincides with the anniversary of the death of Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan in April 1859. Born in Dublin, Owenson became a well-known novelist and literary celebrity in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  Writing about Owenson in Some Fair Hibernians (London: Ward & Downey, 1897) Frances A. Gerard noted that the author’s life has been

told many times in endless variety, in large and small volumes, long and short articles’, but that her life was so surrounded by an atmosphere of romance…that like a rich mine it may be dug over and over again without exhausting the supply of rich matter.[1]

Although the exact year of her birth is unknown (Owenson was cautious about revealing it in her lifetime, but it is believed to have been between 1778 and 1785) from a young age she was immersed in Irish theatrical and political circles through her father, Robert Owenson (1744 – 1812), a singer and actor who made his name on the stages of London and Dublin. The family’s financial situation was precarious and after the death of her mother, Owenson took on the role as protector of her younger sister, Olivia (c.1785 – 1845, later Lady Clarke): with the help of family friends, Sydney took on work as a governess but determined to forge a career as a writer, began to publish her work in the opening decade of the nineteenth century. In various editions, Owenson’s fiction, travel, and other writings are well-represented in UCD Special Collections and in the National Folklore Collection, showing the breadth of her oeuvre, as well as the often-viperous contemporary responses to her writings in periodicals and pamphlets.

The wild Irish girl: a national tale, by Miss Owenson, National Folklore Collection, 520.M.80-83

Moving in society circles, Gerard recounts that Thackeray described Owenson as ‘quick, impulsive and not without a streak of genius, desirous of pleasing and being pleased, singing Irish songs, playing the Irish harp, [and] telling droll stories’.[2] Owenson’s interest in the harp and Irish music is reflected two publications: Twelve Original Hibernian Melodies from 1805 and The Lay of an Irish Harp, or Metrical Fragments (1807/8) and an undated engraving – but perhaps dating to around the time of the publication – shows the author playing the instrument. A further image of the author playing the harp was included as a frontispiece of the 1846 edition of perhaps her best-known novel, The Wild Irish Girl, first printed in 1806.[3] This novel, and its harp-playing heroine Glorvina, brought Owenson to public attention – although perhaps not exactly in a way she might have wished.

As Claire Connolly has outlined, the critical reception that followed the publication of this novel was an important moment in the history of Irish literary criticism, with the merits of the novel and its author debated in the pages of the Freeman’s Journal for the best part of a year.[4] Owenson’s harshest and lead critic was John Wilson Croker (1789 – 1957) an Irish politician and author, writing under the pseudonym ‘M.T’, and this was not the first time that the pair had clashed in print. In 1804, Croker had published a series of anonymous criticisms of Dublin theatre in Familiar Epistles to Frederick J—s Esq, implicating many of Robert Owenson’s friends and colleagues, even, rumour had it, leading to the death of a Dublin actor. Robert replied to ‘M.T’ in Theatrical Tears, A Poem Occasioned by Familiar Epistles, later followed by a similarly titled pamphlet by Sydney, A Few Reflections, Occasioned by the Perusal of a Work entitled, ‘Familiar Epistles to Frederick J—s Esq on the Present State of the Irish Stage. These anonymous pamphlets can all be found in UCD Special Collections, along with Croker’s later critical writings for the Quarterly Review, in which Owenson and other women writers often fuelled his ire.

Owenson, however, as Connolly also outlines, was ready to capitalise on the publicity caused by the commentary in the Freeman’s Journal, using it to promote new editions of her previous publications and to stage a comic opera in Dublin, starring her father in a leading role. Allied to this, she also seems to have been aware of the power of the image and self-fashioning: several portraits of the author (in addition to the engravings already mentioned here) are extant, including an oil portrait by the French artist René Théodore Berthon (1776 – 1859) now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland.

René Théodore Berthon, Portrait of Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson) (1776-1859), Writer, c.1818, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Ireland.

Bequeathed by Owenson to the nascent gallery in her will, this portrait presents her as a highly fashionable Regency author, her dress complete with the characteristic décolletage of the period. Owenson’s simple gold edged black cap is complemented by a gold chain belt with two cameo terminals: this, and other details from the Berthon portrait are echoed in a later engraving by Robert Cooper, after a drawing by the Irish portraitist, Samuel Lover (1797 – 1869). In 1824, Owenson’s interest in the fine arts developed into a three-volume biography of the Italian Baroque painter, Salvator Rosa (1615 – 1673) whose colourful life and artistic bravado held great appeal in Romantic circles: as John Sunderland noted, although Owenson’s biography was perhaps factually scant, it showed

the close similarity between the Rosa myth and the romantic idea the artist held in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which accounted for much of the strength of Rosa’s influence; and his influence was as much dependent on his life and personality as on his works.[5]

An engraving by Cooper, after an original self-portrait by Rosa, appears as a frontispiece in the 1824 edition of Owenson’s biography. Seated at a desk, holding a quill, and with a small cap and curls framing his face, there are clear visual connections with Berthon’s portrait of Owenson, further suggesting her admiration of the painter.

The Life and Times of Salvator Rosa, by Lady Morgan, Vol. 1, UCD Special Collections 6.Q.20.

Many of the copies of Owenson’s works in UCD Special Collections are later reprintings (though from within the author’s lifetime), with markings that suggest they were purchased second-hand for the UCD Library through the later part of the twentieth century, perhaps reflecting the types of courses being taught in the university at the time, or the research interests of staff. Among these titles, the fifth edition of Florence Macarthy: A National Tale appears to have a more intriguing provenance. Printed in 1819, it bears the name and bookplate of Hugh M. Barton, with the heraldic device of the Barton family of Grove, Clonelly, The Waterfoot, Straffan House, and Rochestown Castle. This suggests that the book came from the library of Hugh Barton (1766 – 1854) of the well-established wine merchant family with vineyards in Bordeaux. Born in Grove, Co. Tipperary, Hugh later purchased Straffan House, Co. Kildare, now part of the K Club Hotel. The Rosa volumes also contain a clue to their previous home: both are have a blind stamp showing that they came to UCD as part of the Sigerson – Shorter Bequest in 1927, comprising of books from the library of Dora Sigerson and her husband, Clement Shorter King.

Whether housed in Special Collections or the National Folklore Collection, these copies of Owenson’s writings, along with those of her most ardent critics and vocal supporters, offer a rich resource for those studying and researching Irish literature and history in the first half of the nineteenth century.

This post was written by Katy Milligan, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections.

[1] Frances A. Gerard, Some Fair Hibernians (London: Ward & Downey, 1897), 177.

[2] Gerard, Some Fair Hibernians, 182.

[3] For more on this portrait of Owenson, see Colleen Taylor, ‘Reading Post-Union Material Culture: “The Bodkin Is Particularly Deserving Our Notice”, Éire-Ireland, Volume 53, Numbers 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 2018, 36-63.

[4] See Clarie Connolly, ‘”I accuse Miss Owenson”: The Wild Irish Girl as Media Event’, Colby Quarterly, Volume 36, Issue 2, June 2000, 98-115.

[5] John Sunderland, ‘The Legend and Influence of Salvator Rosa in England in the Eighteenth Century’, Burlington Magazine, Vol. 115, No. 849, December 1973, p. 786.

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