Some hundred and thirty years ago a clever young Irish comedian was rash enough to fall in love with the daughter of a worthy tradesman of Shrewsbury, who strongly disapproved of the stage, and trouble began.. The young lady had plenty of spirit, however, and the taunts hurled at her "strolling player," as her father quite incorrectly stigmatised young Robert Owenson, only increased her affection for her lover, and in the end the two ran off to Lichfield, where they were wedded before Mr. Hill could appear on the scene to prevent the marriage.
Robert Owenson's career had been by no means an obscure one. Quite early in life he had acquired a taste for theatricals, and he was introduced to Garrick by Goldsmith. He acted a great deal in provincial theatres, and was very successful. After his marriage he appeared on the Dublin stage, where he remained some years, during several of which he was part proprietor of Crow Street Theatre. He was a capable composer, too, and "Rory O'more" is one of the songs attributed to him. But he never achieved any great fame, and his generous and improvident nature never allowed him to become wealthy.
Both wealth and fame, however, fell to the share of Sydney, who used her ready pen with the avowed purpose of voicing Ireland's grievances, and whose books, written as they were at a time when the liveliest interest was felt in England in Irish affairs, attained a widespread popularity immediately.
Sydney Owenson was born, probably, in the year 1775. She herself would place it ten years later at least, but then she was notoriously untruthful about her age. Her childhood was a unique one. When she was not at school she was often to be found in the company of her father and his associates, to all of whom he made a point of introducing his little daughter. Her skill at stage mimicry and characterisation entertained them as much as it pleased her father, who was very proud of Sydney. She often joined in private theatricals, and very likely she took some part in the performances given by Mr. Owenson during his tours through Western Ireland. She was a mere child at this time, and ought, perhaps, to have been at school, but Robert Owenson was so fond of his little girls that he would never leave them behind in Dublin. Mrs. Owenson died when her children were still very young, and the widower lavished all the love his warm Irish heart was capable of on Sydney and Olivia.
And so we find Sydney writing to him from school these pretty lines: "I shall never be happy until I see you comfortably seated by the fireside in our little parlour, and myself still more comfortably seated on your knee (provided the burden be not too heavy), listening attentively while you the tale unfold."
When she was fourteen her father's affairs became so seriously involved that she was obliged to earn her living. For two years she was engaged in governess work, but she soon found a more congenial occupation. She had early shown an amazing gift for literary work, and even began writing verses before she left the nursery. To the Countess of Moira she owed the success of her first volume of verse. She submitted it to the countess, with the request that she would inscribe it, and this lady's interest and influence were the means of bringing it before an admiring public.
From this time onward Sydney was in the centre of the most brilliant society in Dublin, for she soon attracted notice by her wit and her spirits and her natural charm. Although she was not possessed of beautiful and regular features, her face was made very lovely by her wonderful eyes. They were remarkably large, very blue and lustrous, deep and electrical. She was hardly more than four feet high, but she was graceful, and her dancing always excited great admiration. Her songs, her harp-playing, were always in request, and as a raconteuse she had no equal. No wonder her society was so eagerly sought.
It was Fanny Burney's success in England that incited her to attempt fiction, and after a while "The Wild Irish Girl" - one of her four great novels dealing with Irish subjects-scored a great success, in spite of its overwrought style. The beauty of her native country, the gaiety of its sons, and, in particular, the unhappiness brought upon them by unjust laws, are emphasised in all these books, and, as the champion of Irish liberties, she got into dire trouble with the Tory party.
A Happy Marriage
As a result of her popularity in Dublin, she became a permanent member of; the household of the Marquis of Abercorn, and it was at his house that she met Charles Morgan, a brilliant surgeon who had attended the marquis to Ireland as his physician, and whom she afterwards married. Similarity of tastes drew the two together, although the balance of devotion was certainly on Charles's side. Sydney was bantered on one occasion by the Duke of Richmond on the rumour that she and Surgeon Morgan were likely to marry. The little lady replied, with some asperity: " The rumour respecting Mr. Morgan's devouement may or may not be true, but this I can, at least, with all candour and sincerity assure your Grace, that I shall remain to the last day of my life in single blessedness, unless some more tempting inducement than the mere change from Miss Owenson to Mistress Morgan be offered me." The duke responded by making Mr. Morgan a knight.
She was married to Sir Charles in January, 1812, somewhat reluctantly, Lady Abercorn having been largely responsible for bringing about the match. The marriage proved an ideally happy one, however. Husband and wife were in every way the complement the one of the other. Sydney was very fond of society; she loved distractions and incessant change of scene. Sir Charles had much of the recluse in his composition, and but for his wife would probably have led a secluded, reposeful, and perhaps indolent life. But his devotion to her would not brook their separation more than was absolutely unavoidable, and he shared her pleasures as well as her work-for he soon gave up his medical practice for literary work. His steady and reserved character acted as a check on his wife's high spirits and restlessness, just as his sound judgment restrained the over-exuberance of her imagination in her writings, for practically all Lady Morgan wrote after her marriage owes much to her husband's help and counsel.
Indeed, she would never have succeeded as she did without him. She herself refers to her married life as " a long and ennobling companionship with the great and cultivated intellect of one who taught and prized truth above all human good, and proclaimed it at the expense of all worldly interests."
Her acquaintance with Sir Charles was not the first attachment of a romantic nature that she had formed. When quite a girl she received an offer of marriage from a youth whose utterly impecunious condition made it impossible for her to consent. They agreed upon a prospective engagement, however, and at Sydney's advice he applied for a cadetship in the Indian Army. For some time the two corresponded regularly, and then his letters ceased suddenly. Sydney heard no more from him until the very day on which she was married to Sir Charles Morgan. This letter explained the cause of his long silence; it told her that he had attained promotion and independence, and begged for an immediate union. It was, of course, too late, and, fortunately, Sydney never seems to have regretted her marriage with Sir Charles, who, to the end of his life, was the most enthusiastic admirer of her abilities, and was always passionately devoted to her. In a letter written soon after her marriage, she writes: "I am as happy as being 'loved up to my bent' (aye, and almost beyond it) can make me"; and, again: "I intend to write a book to explode the vulgar idea of matrimony being the tomb of love. Matrimony is the real thing, and all before but 'leather and prunella.'"
Lady Morgan's two greatest books, "France" and "Italy," were written after her marriage, and owed a great deal to her husband. They both had an enormous sale, though they were both the object of severe censure from her old enemies the Tory reviewers, and "Italy" was proscribed by the Pope, the Emperor of Austria, and the King of Sardinia. She was called an atheist, a latitudinarian in morals, and a few quite irrelevant and unflattering allusions were thrown in about her age. It was well known that this was a weak point of Lady Morgan's. "Italy" was pronounced by Byron, who had hitherto been contemptuous of her work, as "fearless and excellent."
Lady Morgan's life was a long one, and was, moreover, brilliant to its close. Her spirits never flagged, her memory never faltered. The temperate way in which she both worked and took her amusements was largely the reason of this. Two hours for relaxation followed every hour of work, and though she threw herself with wholehearted enthusiasm into every bit of fun that came in her way, she never in the least overexerted herself. Every day she went for a two-hour walk around Leinster Lawn, no matter what the weather was like. One terribly cold day she found two lovely children, of gentle birth, knee-deep in the snow, and quite unable to move. Their noses were blue, their lips swollen, and their tears were frozen on their cheeks. Lady Morgan set to work to rub their numbed limbs,wipe their cheeks, and release them from their uncomfortable position. She had no children herself.
In 1840 her sight failed, and she was prevented from finishing the work on "Woman and Her Master," on which she was then engaged-a book which shows that in the present day she would have been an enthusiastic supporter of the Woman Movement. She had most enlightened ideas, for that time, on the subject of woman's work. She once remarked, in the course of conversadtion: "I desire to give every girl, no matter her rank, a trade-a profession, if the word pleases you better-cultivate all things in moderation, but one thing to perfection, no matter what it is. Give her a staff to lay hold of; let her feel, 'this will carry me through life without dependence.' "
Lady Morgan, one of the most brilliant and fascinating personages of the early nineteenth century. Her writings, wit and beauty equally entitle her to fame From an original drawing by S. Lever violent attack of bronchitis in 1858 finally broke up her health. She died in the following year. She disliked the idea of dying very much, for, old as she was, she still took keen interest in all that went on around her. "I shall be sorry," she said, "to leave all the friends who have been so kind to me. The world has been a good world to me."
And her friends, too, grieved sincerely when this gay, charming, affectionate, and sympathetic little woman departed from their midst.