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Owenson, Sydney J.

    Full Name: Owenson, Sydney J.

    Other Names:

    • Lady Morgan

    Gender: female

    Date Born: c. 1776

    Date Died: 1859

    Place Born: Dublin, Ireland

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: Ireland

    Subject Area(s): biography (general genre)

    Career(s): art historians, authors, biographers, and novelists


    Novelist and author of a biography of Salvator Rosa. Owenson was named for her paternal grandmother, Sydney Crofton Bell, disowned by her family after eloping with a farmer. Owenson’s father, Robert MacOwen (1744 – 1812), an actor, Anglicized his name to Owenson and married Jane Hill (d.1789). Their daughter, Sydney Owenson, learned narrative, language, folklore, and music from her actor father. After her mother died in 1789, she and her younger sister were sent to Madame Terson’s boarding school in Dublin, a Huguenot (Protestant) academy, and Mrs. Anderson’s finishing school. Owenson found a job as a governess and began write poetry and tales for pleasure. In 1801 her Poems were published followed by her first novel in1802/1803. Thus began a career of gothic-romance novels based on national pride and titillating (for the time) detail. In 1801 the British Parliament had passed the Act of Union making Ireland a province of the United Kingdom. Owenson’s novels built upon an Irish sense of nation, not through logic, but by weaving a romantic vision of an indigenous people. Owenson gave up governnessing, returned to Dublin and became a fashionable literary society person. She negotiated the sale of her manuscript in England, unusual for a woman, eventually published by Richard Phillips, the publisher of Thomas Paine’s 1791 Rights of Man. Her novel The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale, perhaps her most famous novel, appeared in 1806. She also published versions of old Irish songs and a collection of folk music, Twelve Original Hibernian Melodies, with English Words, Imitated and Translated, from the Works of the Ancient Irish Bards in 1805. Owenson wrote the libretto for a popular musical comedy in 1807. In 1809, her fourth novel, Woman; or Ida of Athens, appeared. That year, too, she joined the household of the marquis of Abercorn, which allowed her contact with the rich and famous. The Missionary-An Indian Tale (1811) was one of the first novels to employ Orientalism as a theme. Owenson married Abercrom’s physician, the recently knighted Thomas Charles Morgan (1783-1843) in 1812, and became “Lady Morgan.” Morgan himself was forced to retire from practice after an 1818 book, Sketches of the Philosophy of Life, adumbrated Darwinian evolution. Owenson’s publisher, Henry Colburn (d. 1855), sent the couple to France following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 for travel and research on a book to encourage British tourists back to that country. She published a two-volume travelogue on France in 1817. Colburn commissioned a similar volume on Italy, which appeared in 1821. Owenson used the Italian travel opportunity to research and publish a work of art history, a biography of the baroque painter Salvator Rosa. This appeared in 1824, but the book was poorly received. A German translation appeared the same year. Another “nationalistic tale,” The O’Briens and the O’Flahertys (1827) and The Book of the Boudoir (1829), a collection of essays followed. She was awarded a literary pension of three hundred pounds per year beginning in 1837 from British government and the couple returned to London. In her later years her eyesight failed. Woman and Her Master of 1840 was the first in what she hoped would be a series on women’s contributions to history. Her husband died in 1843. Owenson revised her Rosa book, issuing a second edition in 1855. Her autobiography Passages from My Autobiography was completed in 1859 shortly before her death. Owenson’s novels incorporate the travelogue, history, ethnology, and literature in the vein of Sir Walter Scott. She was one of the most successful female authors of the nineteenth century and the first English author to write a book on Rosa. Her treatment of Rosa is a novel written along factual lines, with an emphasis on unsubstantiated anecdotes, overly expanded, and according to her own admission, a scant knowledge of the actual paintings. However, as a work of romantic art history, her biography “rises above historical inaccuracies” (Sutherland).

    Selected Bibliography

    [omitting works of fiction] Twelve Original Hibernian Melodies, with English Words, Imitated and Translated, from the Works of the Ancient Irish Bards. London: Preston, 1805; The Life and Times of Salvator Rosa. 2 vols. London: H. Colburn, 1824, and Morgan, T. Charles. France. London: H. Colburn, 1817; and Morgan, T. Charles. Italy. London: H. Colburn, 1824.


    Fitzpatrick, William J. Lady Morgan: Her Career, Literary and Personal [sic] with a Glimpse of her Friends, and a Word to her Calumniators. London: C. J. Skeet, 1860; Stevenson, Lionel. The Wild Irish Girl: the Life of Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan (1776-1859). London: Chapman & Hall, 1936; Dixon, W. H., ed. Lady Morgan’s Memoirs: Autobiography, Diaries and Correspondence. 2 vols. London, 1862; [Review of The Life and Times of Salvator Rosa]. [Hazlitt, William.] Edinburgh Review 40 (1824): 316-49; Sutherland, John. “The Legend and Influence of Salvator Rosa in England in the Eighteenth Century.” Burlington Magazine 115 no. 849 (December 1973): 785-789.


    "Owenson, Sydney J.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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