About the Feature image: Engraving of Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan, 1846, by Samuel Freeman, after John Comerford. Image courtesy The National Photographic Archive, National Library of Ireland
If there is any comparison to be made between Sydney Owenson and other creative people, past or present, it’s not to her better-known contemporaries like Maria Edgeworth or, heaven forbid, Jane Austen. Those immensely talented writers would have hated to be lumped in with the canny, bold Irish novelist, who wrote nationalistic tales dripping with romance. Instead Owenson might better be likened to Madonna, a pop star who, by most critical accounts, took an average talent and rode it into the stratosphere.
So famous in her day that she even influenced fashion, Owenson was a fervent feminist, both in her work and the life she led. It was a dauntless choice in a time—her first book, St. Clair, was published in 1804—that was not especially kind to fiercely independent women. “She’s such a fascinating character both in terms of her work and who she was in society,” says Colleen Taylor, who holds a Ph.D. in 18th century Irish and British literature and is a postdoctoral researcher at University College Cork in Ireland. “I have her in two categories: the writer Sydney Owenson, and the public persona that was Sydney Owenson. She was always kind of performing herself out in society and parties, but her popularity really stems from The Wild Irish Girl.”
Published in 1806, that novel concerns the blossoming love between Horatio, an Englishman banished to his father’s estate on the Emerald Isle, and the titular character, Glorvina. The princess of a lost Irish tribe, she is charming, flirtatious, beautiful, and, perhaps above all, wild. And yet, as Taylor adds, “She’s also educated. She reads London newspapers, she’s articulate, she plays harp. So she was this intensely romantic bun. It didn’t take long before both became wildly in vogue, de rigueur for those able to afford them.
“She made the early-modern Irish dress feminine chic,” Taylor says. “If you go back to the 15th and 16th centuries, you’ll see people like King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I making Irish dress illegal. The chieftains wore mantles, and they were considered quite dangerous because they were used as a sort of battle armor. So the mantle was outlawed, and that’s one element Owenson brings back. In The Wild Irish Girl, Glorvina’s mantle is really sensualized, and she also wears a veil, so there’s this fusion of Catholic and Gaelic-Irish sartorial imagery that she represents.”
Bodkins—said in old Irish tracts to have been used as stabbing weapons—received the same treatment in The Wild Irish Girl as Glorvina’s mantles. But it was not until the year after the publication of the novel, at an event at Dublin’s National Theatre, that Owenson was able to prevail upon some of her well-heeled friends to begin wearing the pin. Mass-produced as the Glorvina ornament, the bodkin, like the mantle, became a hit with Irish women.
If Owenson might be accused of having outsize dramatic flair, it seems certain to stem, at least in part, from her childhood. The daughter of actor Robert Owenson, she would have spent time backstage during his Dublin performances, according to Taylor. It must have been a nontraditional childhood, one filled with great creative energy. Owenson’s younger sister, Olivia, also grew into a writer, penning poems and plays.
Owenson continued writing novels for decades after The Wild Irish Girl, though none achieved the same level of popularity. She died at age eighty-two or thereabouts. (Owenson fibbed about her age with great gusto, also occasionally telling people she was born on a mail boat during a crossing of the Irish Sea, rather than providing her more pedestrian birthplace of Dublin.) Though she married a surgeon, Sir Thomas Charles Morgan, in 1812, she remained a feminist to her last breath, in life as well as in print, arguing capably with her publishers for more pay and fighting her many misogynistic critics.
“It wasn’t that other writers couldn’t do what she did,” Taylor says. “It was that they didn’t want to sacrifice a sense of decorum, perhaps. Some of her characters, especially in her later novels, were very openly feminist. She wrote a novel, Florence Macarthy—it came out in 1818. In it her heroine says something like, I’m going to write my own story, I’m going to be the spinner of my own story. She just had this feminist ethos … people like Austen and Edgeworth were much more conservative. Owenson was really radical, especially in her later novels, in the way that she was expressing a feminist voice.”
Less a writer than a force of nature, Owenson was driven to express herself from what Taylor calls a deeply political standpoint. She was one of the first novelists to adapt a postcolonial voice in English, taking up the cause for Indian independence in 1811’s The Missionary, and exploring Ireland’s involvement in the wars for independence in South America in later works like Florence Macarthy and The O’Briens and the O’Flahertys (1827). Like her heroines, who become ever more cosmopolitan, ever more global, so did Owenson herself. An inveterate adventurer, she wrote travel literature as well as novels.
Owenson might have been a fascinating personality, but by today’s critical standards, she doesn’t stack up against her contemporaries. Of course, that never really was the point of Owenson’s work.
“She was ahead of her time, and I think that’s why she received such backlash,” Taylor says. “People read her novels now and they are hard to get through sometimes because they aren’t exactly the great literature that we’re used to. But it almost doesn’t matter, because her messages and the person that she was and the ideas that she created that endure are so resonant now. It’s like, Who cares about the aesthetic execution of them, you know?”