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Sydney Morgan

Morgan, Sydney (Lady) née Owenson, c.1776—1859

Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan), baptised Dublin 1783, was probably born around 1776, the daughter of Robert Owenson (1744-1812; ODNB), Irish actor and theatre director, and Jane Owenson, née Hill (d. 1789), an English Protestant from a Shrewsbury merchant’s family. After her mother’s death, her father placed her and her younger sister Olivia for three years in a Huguenot boarding school at Clontarf where table conversation was in French, a lasting influence on Sydney Owenson’s habit of interweaving French phrases and quotations into her writing. Always close to her father and sharing his nationalist ideals, she took it upon herself to supplement his meagre income after the failure of his national theatre project (c. 1798), partly through writing and partly by taking up positions as governess. Her first book, a volume of poems, appeared in 1801, and a novel, St Clair; or, First Love, in 1802. In 1806, the publication of her third novel, The Wild Irish Girl, brought success, celebrity, and a steady income; in its wake she published a non-fictional account of her travels in Ireland, Patriotic Sketches of Ireland, Written in Connaught (1807), composed as a series of reflective sketches in the manner of Rousseau’s Reveries.

In 1808 Sydney Owenson’s sister married Arthur Clarke, a well-to-do Dublin doctor, putting an end to Sydney Owenson’s role as family breadwinner. In 1811, while residing as live-in companion to the Marchioness of Abercorn, Sydney Owenson met her own husband-to-be, the Welsh physician Thomas Charles Morgan (c. 1780-1843). After an extended courtship during which time Charles was granted a knighthood, they were married in January 1812. Now as Lady Morgan, she continued writing, and despite the emotional setback in losing her father later that year, produced her sixth novel, O’Donnel, in 1814 as the Napoleonic wars drew to their close. By then, Lady Morgan’s reputation in France itself had been established and secured through translations of four of her novels between 1811 and 1813 (O’Donnel followed in 1815), so when the Morgans joined the influx of tourists to Paris in the spring of 1816, their enthusiastic reception was ensured. Lady Morgan’s celebrity gained them entrance to households of dignitaries from all political parties and she formed lasting friendships with figures such as Baron Denon, General Lafayette, and Mrs Elizabeth Patterson (former sister-in-law to Napoleon). Returning to Dublin that autumn, Lady Morgan had the makings of her travel book, France (1817), in hand which Henry Colburn contracted and published in London with a simultaneous French translation appearing in Paris, though much diminished by the expurgation of political matter by the translator August-Jean-Baptiste Defauconpret (1767-1843).

Lady Morgan’s unabashed depiction of revolutionary reforms as salutary to French society met fierce opposition in the post-revolutionary climate, both at home from the anti-reformist Quarterly Review and in Paris from restoration royalists, earning her a symbolic order from the French government against her returning to France. Other responses included an attack by her own translator, Defauconpret's Observations sur l’ouvrage intitulé: La France; par Lady Morgan (1817), and a point-by-point refutation in William Playfair’s France As It Is; Not Lady Morgan’s France (1818; Paris 1819). Partly because of this critical storm and largely on its own merits, France proved one of the most popular travel books of the era, with four London editions by 1818, as well as three in Paris and three in the United States.

The travel ban did not prevent the Morgans from passing the autumn and winter of 1818-19 again in Paris on their way to Italy, a destination suggested by Lady Morgan’s publisher, Colburn, who offered lucrative terms for another travel account. Leaving Paris on 4 April 1819, the party travelled to Geneva and crossed into Italy by Mont Cenis. Like France, her new travel book, Italy (1821), contained appendices written by her husband, who shared in her travels. The volumes were almost as successful and notorious as their predecessor, again inciting the Austrian rulers to issue an injunction against the Morgan’s travelling through its territories.

Lady Morgan was drawn once more to France in 1829, this time offering her book to Saunders & Otley, but, partly because of negative publicity generated by Colburn (and resulting in a lawsuit by the Morgans against him), France in 1829-30 (1830) met with less, although not inconsequential success. The Morgans left Paris just before the July Revolution, but Lady Morgan added a postscript to the volumes reflecting on the event. Further travels thereafter in Belgium and the Low Countries might have resulted in one more travel book had not Morgan caught wind of her new competitor, Frances Trollope, at work on Belgium and Western Germany (1834). Instead, Morgan transferred her notes and journals into a travel informed novel, The Princess, or The Beguine (1834).

After Lady Morgan was granted a literary pension of £300 in 1837, she and her husband moved to London; though her husband died in 1843, she never returned to Ireland and her foreign travels, too, were at an end. Lady Morgan died in London in 1859 and is buried in Brompton Cemetery. Her tomb by the sculptor Westmancott is said to have represented the two books that were the pillars of her career: The Wild Irish Girl and her travel book, France.

Sources:

Campbell, Mary. Lady Morgan: The Life and Times of Sydney Owenson. London: Pandora, 1988.

Colbert, Benjamin, ed. Women’s Travel Writing in Post-Napoleonic France. Vols 5-6: Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan, France (1817). London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012.

Dean, Dennis R. ‘Morgan, Sydney, Lady Morgan (bap. 1783, d. 1859)’. ODNB.

Texts

Title Published
Patriotic Sketches of Ireland 1807
France 1817
Italy 1821
France, in 1829-30 1830

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