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Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan

Sydney Owenson (secretive about her age and given to the dramatic) was born either in Dublin on Christmas Day or at sea, in either 1776 or in 1783, of an English Protestant mother and an Irish Catholic father. Sydney was formally educated in French Huguenot schools in Dublin, and imbibed a sense of the Gaelic from her father, Robert Owenson (Mac Owen). Owenson believed that he had descended from an ancient Gaelic tribe of Galway, and shared oral lore from Ireland’s Gaelic past with Sydney. The songs and dances he imparted would later serve as part of the repertoire that Sydney would use to entertain society in drawing rooms in London and Dublin.

As a young woman Sydney worked as a governess, but soon turned to a professional career in writing, even after her marriage to English physician Dr. Charles Morgan, eventually Sir Morgan. An entry for Lady Morgan in the Feminist Companion to Literature in English points out that she was the first woman to receive a pension from the British Government for ‘services to the world of letters’ in the amount of three hundred pounds per year.

Sydney was prolific and eclectic in her writing. She produced novels, patriotic sketches, a comic opera, poems, biography, historical fiction, translations, travel writings, essays, and a book on the treatment of women through the Middle Ages. She hoped this book would be the first in a series of work on women’s history, but it remained the only volume. Many of her individual works included poignant political and social commentary. Sydney produced about seventy works throughout her life.

Sydney’s sense of patriotism and love for the people and landscape of Ireland is evident in one of her most prominent works, The Wild Irish Girl; a National Tale (1806). The tale is written as a series of letters from a young English gentleman to a male friend in England. Mortimer is somewhat of a prodigal son, whose father, in an attempt to mend his son’s errant ways, has forced him into exile in Ireland. It is through the letters that the reader takes a romantic journey with the young gentleman, a journey in which his eyes and heart are opened to the beauty that is Ireland, and of course, the beautiful heroine of the book, Glorvina, The Wild Irish Girl.

Some critics hailed Sydney as having popularized Irish fiction, indeed Miss Owenson made appearances as “the Wild Irish Girl” and was extremely popular in London as well as Dublin. Others denounced her writing ability. Some of the criticism was not based on literary judgment alone, but stemmed from an opposition to Sydney’s strong political and philosophical beliefs that often shone through her writing. However, one of Sydney’s earlier works, the historical novel, The Novice of Saint Dominick (1805), is said to anticipate the historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott. Italy, a journal of her stay in the country, drew praise from Lord Byron. Byron gave his opinion of the journal in a letter to Thomas Moore, stating that it was “fearless and excellent on the subject of Italy.”

Works cited [PDF]


Updated: February 7, 2006
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