Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Morgan, Sydney

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

MORGAN, SYDNEY, Lady Morgan (1783?–1859), novelist, was the eldest child of Robert Owenson [q. v.], by his wife Jane Mill, daughter of a Shrewsbury tradesman, who was once mayor of that town, and was a distant relative of the Mills of Hawkesley, Shropshire. According to her own account but she was constitutionally inexact, avowed a scorn for dates, and sedulously concealed her age—Lady Morgan was born in Dublin one Christmas day, about 1785. The year generally given for her birth is 1783. Croker maliciously alleged that she was born on board the Dublin packet in 1775. Mr. Fitzpatrick adopts Croker's date (W. J. Fitzpatrick, Lady Morgan, 1860, p. 111). To a considerable extent she was brought up in the precincts of theatres and in the company of players; but she was put to various schools near or in Dublin, and very soon proved herself a bright and amusing child. She went with her father into the mixed society which he frequented, at first in Sligo and afterwards in Dublin. His affairs becoming hopelessly involved, and for a time (1798-1800) she was governess in the family of Featherstone of Bracklin Castle, Westmeath, and elsewhere. She is said to have appeared on the stage, though this cannot be verified; but she attracted considerable notice wherever she went by her wit and spirits, and by her dancing, singing, and playing upon the harp. She soon began to write verse of a sentimental character, and published her first volume in March 1801. She also collected a number of Irish tunes, wrote English words to them, and subsequently published them, an example speedily followed by Moore, Stevenson, and others. Excited by the report of Fanny Burney's gains she then took to fiction, and wrote in 1804 'St. Clair, or the Heiress of Desmond,' a trashy imitation of the 'Sorrows of Werther;' it was translated into Dutch. In 1805 appeared her 'Novice of St. Dominick,' in four volumes, a work of slight merit, yet not unsuccessful. It was published in London, and was read several times by Pitt in his last illness. To her is attributed the 'Few Reflections' which was issued in the same year on Croker's anonymous 'Present State of the Irish Stage;' but her next avowed work was the one which made her famous, 'The Wild Irish Girl,' published in 1806. It was very rhapsodical and sentimental, but it contained descriptions of real power, and may almost be called a work of genius, though misguided genius. Philips, her former publisher, refused it on account of its too openly avowed 'national' sentiments; but when Johnson, Miss Edgeworth's publisher, offered her three hundred guineas for it, Philips claimed and secured the right of publishing it. In less than two years it ran through seven editions, and has been reprinted since. The book became the subject of considerable political controversy in Dublin, and the liberal and catholic party championed her, and, after her heroine's name, knew her as 'Glorvina.' She was encouraged, under whig patronage, to bring out an opera, 'The First Attempt,' at the Theatre Royal, Dublin, 4 March 1807, which ran several nights, and brought her 4001., but she wrote no more for the stage. Later in the year she published two volumes of 'Patriotic Sketches.' In 1805 she wrote 'The Lay of an Irish Harp,' metrical fragments collected in, or suggested by, a visit to Connaught, and, in 1809, 'Woman, or Ida of Athens,' a romance in four volumes. Quitting patriotic Irish subjects, she wrote in 1811 a novel called 'The Missionary,' which sold for 400l. This was remodelled in 1859 under her directions, and renamed 'Luxima the Prophetess.'

Miss Owenson's popularity in Dublin led to her being invited to become a permanent member of the household of the Marquis of Abercorn. There she greatly extended her acquaintance with fashionable society, and her accomplishments were fully appreciated. Her patron's surgeon, Thomas Charles Morgan [q. v.], devoted himself to her, and, on a hint of hers, as she alleged—more probably at Lady Abercorn's request—the Duke of Richmond knighted him. Subsequently, on 20 Jan. 1812, Sydney Owenson, somewhat reluctantly, became his second wife, under pressure from Lady Abercorn. In 1808 her younger sister, Olivia, had married Sir Arthur Clarke, M.D., who had been knighted for curing the Duke of Richmond of a cutaneous disease. For some time after her marriage Lady Morgan published nothing, but in 1814 appeared 'O'Donnel, a National Tale,' in which she set herself to describe Irish life as she actually saw it, under the colour of Irish history as she heard it from her friends (for Sir W. Scott's favourable criticism of it see Lockhart, Scott, vi. 264). The book was written to furnish her new house in Kildare Street, Dublin. It brought her 550l., and being very popular with the 'patriots' she was fiercely attacked by the 'Quarterly Review.' These attacks were carried on by Gifford and Croker for years with indecent violence and malignity (cf. Blackwood's Magazine, xi. 695). In 1816 she published another Irish novel, 'Florence M'Carthy,' for which she received 1,200l., and caricatured Croker in it as 'Counsellor Con Crowley.' Despite savage reviews, her next work, 'France,' 1817, 4to, a book dealing with travel, politics, and society, as observed by her in France in 1815, became very popular, and reached a fourth edition in 1818. On the strength of its success Colburn offered her 2,000l. for a similar book on Italy, and she left Dublin in August 1818 to travel through that country. She visited London, where she saw much of Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Cork and met with much social success (Moore, Memoirs, iii. 36). At Paris she met Humboldt, Talma, Cuvier, Constant, and others, and she paid Lafayette a visit at La Grange. Eventually she reached Italy, where she spent more than a year and was presented to the pope. Her book, which was published 20 June 1821, induced Byron, who was not prepossessed in her favour, to call it 'fearless and excellent' (Byron to Moore, 24 Aug. 1821); on the other hand it was proscribed by the king of Sardinia, the emperor of Austria, and the pope, and was fiercely assailed by the English ministerial press. The 'Quarterly' said of it: 'Notwithstanding the obstetric skill of Sir Charles Morgan (who we believe is a man-midwife), this book dropt all but stillborn from the press,' but it sold well in England, and editions also appeared in Paris and in Belgium. In October 1821 she retaliated upon the reviewers in 'Colburn's New Monthly Magazine.' In 1823 appeared her 'Life of Salvator Rosa,' republished in 1855, and in 1825 she collected, from 'Colburn's New Monthly,' her papers on 'Absenteeism.' In November 1827 appeared her novel 'The O'Briens and the O'Flaherties,' which expressed vigorous emancipation sentiments. It was a hostile review of this book in the 'Literary Gazette' that induced Henry Colburn [q. v.] to join the 'Athenæum' established by James Silk Buckingham [q. v.] She next issued, in 1829, the 'Book of the Boudoir,' a series of autobiographical sketches. She again visited France in the same year, and in July 1830 produced her second work under that title, most of the permanent value of which was due to her husband's assistance. Its sale to Saunders & Otley for 1,000l. so infuriated Colburn that he advertised that all her previous works had been a loss to him. In 1833 she published 'Dramatic Scenes,' and having visited Belgium in 1835, embodied her observations in a novel called 'The Princess' in that year.

Lord Melbourne, on Lord Morpeth's solicitation, bestowed on her a pension of 300l. a year in 1837, 'in acknowledgment of the services rendered by her to the world of letters.' This was the first pension of the kind given to a woman. Her husband was also appointed a commissioner of Irish fisheries. She wrote occasionally for the 'Athenæum' in 1837 and 1838. In 1839 she removed from Kildare Street, Dublin, to 11 William Street, Albert Gate, London, and making a considerable social figure there ceased to write. 'Woman and her Master,' which is rather poor vapouring, appeared in 1840, but it had been written before she left Ireland. She assisted her husband in 'The Book without a Name' in 1841, but it was only a collection of fugitive magazine pieces. In 1843 he died. Lady Morgan continued to move assiduously in London society. Her early works were republished in popular form in 1846, and she wrote fresh prefaces to several of them. Her sight failed, but in 1851 she engaged in a pamphlet controversy with Cardinal Wiseman about the authenticity of St. Peter's chair. In 1859 her amanuensis, Miss Jewsbury, arranged for publication her 'Diary and Correspondence in France' from August 1818 to May 1819. She died 14 April 1859, and was buried in the old Brompton cemetery; a tomb by Westmacott was placed over her grave. She left between 15,000l. and 16,000l., and bequeathed her papers to W. Hepworth Dixon. She had no children.

There is a bust of her by D'Angers dated 1830, and a portrait by Berthen is in the Irish National Gallery. Her portrait was also painted by Lawrence; three others belong to Sir Charles W. Dilke, bart., including a painting by Sidney Morgan and a plaster model by David. H. F. Chorley's 'Authors of England,' 1838, and 'Fraser's Magazine,' xi. 529, contain engravings of her. In old age she is described as 'a little humpbacked old' woman, absurdly attired, rouged and wigged; vivacious and somewhat silly; vain, gossiping, and ostentatious: larding her talk with scraps of French, often questionable in their idiom, always dreadful in their accent, exhibiting her acquaintance with titled people so prodigally as to raise a smile.' Yet in her younger days she must have been highly attractive, very vivacious and off-handed, yet shrewd and hard at a bargain. Her writing, though slipshod and often inflated, contained much humorous observation, and when describing what she understood, the lower-class Irish, she was as good as Lever or Banin.

[W. J. Fitzpatrick's Lady Morgan, 1860; Memoirs of Lady Morgan by W. Hepworth Dixon, with engraving of her after Lawrence; Cyrus Bedding's Fifty Years' Recollections, iii. 215, and articles in New Monthly Magazine, cxvi. 206, cxxvii. 300; Cornhill Magazine, vii. 132; The Croker Papers, i. 109; Torrens's Memoirs of Lord Melbourne, i. 174; a sketch of her, probably by her husband, in the London and Dublin Mag. 1826.]

J. A. H.