("The Wild Irish Girl,")
IF anyone might be considered to belong to Dublin, it is Lady Morgan. She was born in Dublin, her childhood and girlhood were spent there; she went to school at Clontarf; her first novel was published by Mr. Brown, of Grafton Street, and the greater part of her married life was spent at 35 Kildare Street. She is numbered among the notabilities of her native city in Charles Lever's well-known lines—
"Och, Dublin, sure, there is no doubtin',
Bates ivery city on the say;
'Tis there you find O'Connell spoutin',
And Lady Morgan makin' tay! "
She tells us in her Autobiography that she was born on a certain Christmas morning—she absolutely refuses to give the year, adding, "dates, what has a woman to do with dates? I mean to have none of them;" but other biographers have been less merciful, and the year 1783 is generally fixed as that of her birth.
Her father, Robert Owenson, was descended on his mother's side from the family of Sir Malby Crofton, of Longford House, Sligo. Miss Crofton eloped with a stalwart young farmer, and was consequently "cut" by her own relations. Her only son, Robert, inherited from her a very beautiful voice, and a rich Galway Squire, Mr. Blake, took such an interest in him that he brought him to London, and had him taught music under the celebrated composer, Dr. Arne. Owenson, who was a handsome young man with a commanding presence, was bitten by a mania for the stage, but failed to make much impression as an actor, though he sang, and danced an Irish planxty in the character of Teague with great success. He married Miss Jane Hill, of Shrewsbury, who was his exact opposite in every respect, an ardent disciple of Lady Huntingdon^ and with a perfect horror of the stage. Nevertheless, when her husband was offered the deputy managership of the Theatre Royal, Dublin, he eagerly accepted it, and did not tell his wife until after the articles had been signed. Mrs. Owenson found some consolation in her exile by visiting a friend of hers, the wife of a Wesleyan minister, who lived at Portarlington. It was after one of these visits, that she and her two children, Sydney and Olivia, drove up the ascent towards Fishamble street on a dreary winter's evening. Here, Mr. Owenson, who had quarrelled with his patron, Mr. Daly, was reconstructing a theatre. Everything was in confusion; they crossed a long plank that shivered over an open pit, where some remnants of velvet seats were still to be detected, and then, through mounds of chips and sawdust, they reached a large room.
"This will be the green-room," announced Mr. Owenson, "and in this room, my dear Jenny, Handel gave his first concert of the Messiah."
Sydney was all eagerness to ask questions, and among other things she wanted to know if Handel was a carpenter. After passing a terrible place called the Death Chamber, where the floor had given way, they found a large square open space, lit by a real moon, and, here, surrounded by pastoral scenery, they sat down to a supper of beefsteaks and punch.
The rats were only kept away by wild cats, "with stings in their tails," and Molly, the children's maid, was frightened in the night by her fellow servant, "Are ye awake, Mrs. Molly? The rots (rats) are draggin' the bed from under me!"
The two little girls, after their mother's death, were sent to a French school at Clontarf, kept by a Madame Tersen. They were taken into a room with desks and black-boards, and left alone with two other girls, who stared at them stonily. One of them broke silence by asking, "What is your name?" "Sydney Owenson," was the answer. "My name," observed the questioner, "is Mary Anne Grattan, and my papa is the greatest man in Ireland."
Quick-witted Sydney, not to be outdone, promptly responded, "My papa is free of the six and ten per cents!"
After remaining three years at Madame Tersen's, the two Owensons were sent to a finishing school kept by a Mrs. Anderson, who had been governess at the Marquis of Drogheda's. Their kind-hearted father was content to wear a shabby coat as long as his girls were well educated. What Sydney calls "her flimsy, fussy, flirty Celtic temperment" now began to assert itself. She was extremely small in stature, with black curls, cut in a crop, while Olivia was fair, with lovely golden hair, but then Sydney had a jaunty little air of her own, as she remarks with satisfaction, peculiarly Irish. She could sing, dance, speak French, play the Irish harp, and already she had shown signs of literary ability, for her poems^ written between the age of twelve and fourteen, had been printed at her father's expense. One of her ballads is likely to live longer than her novels, the well-known "Kate Kearney." It has all the qualities of a true ballad—simplicity, lightness, and grace. The two first verses are worth quoting here—
Oh, did you not hear of Kate Kearney,
She lives on the banks of Killarney;
From the glance of her eye,
Shun danger and fly,
For fatal's the glance of Kate Kearney!
For that eye is so modestly beaming,
You ne'er think of mischief she's dreaming
Yet, oh, I can tell
How fatal' s the spell
That lurks in the eyes of Kate Kearney!
A serious crisis came when Mr. Owenson was compelled to fly from his creditors, and to leave his two little girls in lodgings at St. Andrew Street, under the care of faithful Molly. And now Sydney's independence of character and indomitable energy asserted themselves.
"I am resolved," she wrote to her "dearest sir, and most dear papa," "to relieve you and earn money for you, instead of spending the little you have for sometime to come … I have two novels nearly finished, the first is "St. Clair," I wrote it in imitation of Werther, which I read in school holidays last Christmas. The second is a French novel, suggested by reading Memoirs of the Duke de Sully, and falling very much in love with Henri IV. Now, if I had time and quiet, I am sure I could sell them, and observe, sir, Miss Burney got three thousand pounds for Camilla, but all this will take time."
It is sometimes stated that Sydney Owenson appeared on the stage, but she certainly says nothing of this herself: She mentions that her father often told his girls that he would rather see them picking cockles than be the first prima donnas in Europe. She looked out for a situation as governess or companion to young ladies, and was finally engaged by Mrs. Fetherstonhaugh, of Bracklin Castle. She made her first appearance under very comical circumstances. A little bal d'adieu had been given in her honour by her French dancing master, Monsieur Fontaine. Attired in a white muslin frock, with pink silk shoes and stockings, she was dancing a country dance with a very nice young man to the tune of "Money in both pockets," when the horn of the stage coach was heard in the street. There was no time to change her dress, a warm cloak was thrown over her by Molly, a bonnet was hastily tied under her chin, and she was thrust into a corner of the coach. When she reached her destination, she found that her bundle and portmanteau had gone on in the Kinnegad mail, and she had to make her entrée before her employers in the white muslin frock, and the pink shoes and stockings! Was ever a governess in such a plight? But light-hearted Sydney soon got over it, and ended by dancing a jig next evening in the back hall.
Many were her adventures and many were the odd pranks she played, but they would take too long to relate here. She finished her first novel, however, and when the Fetherstonhaughs went to their town house in Dominick Street, she brought it with her. One fine morning, she borrowed the cook's cloak and bonnet, and set out, with the precious MS. under her arm. She relates how she wandered on and on, until she came to Henry Street. Here she stopped, for she saw the name of "T. Smith, Printer and Bookseller," over the door. After some delay, a good-humoured, middle-aged man, with his face half shaved and a razor in one hand, appeared, and the following conversation, as told by the authoress herself, took place: —
"I want to sell a book, please."
"To sell a book, dear? An ould one, for I sell new books myself. What is it about and what is the name of it?"
I was now occupied in taking off the rose-coloured ribbon with which I had tied my manuscript.
"What, it's a manuscript, is it? " cried Mr. Smith.
"The name, sir," I said, "is 'St. Clair.'"
"Well, now, my dear, I have nothing to do with church books, neither sermons nor tracts, do you see?"
"Sir, it is one of sentiment, after the manner of Werther."
"Well, my dear, I have never heard of Werther, and, you see, I don't publish novels at all."
The little authoress, hot, hungry, tired, and mortified, began to tie up her manuscript again with tears in her eyes. Good-natured Mr. Smith said—
"Don't cry, dear, there's money bid for you yet."
When he heard that her name was Owenson, it turned out that her father was one of his greatest friends.
"Will I recommend you to a publisher?"
"Oh, sir, if you would be so good!"
"To be sure I will."
A letter to Mr. Brown, of Grafton Street was written, and with this Sydney again set forth. She found Mr. Brown at breakfast, but he consented that his reader should look at the novel. She left no address, and during her next visit to Dublin, when she happened to take up a book that was lying on a window seat, she found that it was her own "St. Clair!" Four copies were presented to her. The book was afterwards rewritten and published in England, and had the honour of being translated into German.
Her second situation was in the North of Ireland, in the family of Mr. Crawford, of Fortwilliam. Here she had plenty of singing, dancing, and amusement. Yet, all the same, she found time to write another novel—"The Novice of St. Dominic," in six volumes. This she took to London herself, and contrived to throw such a glamour over the publisher. Sir R. Phillips, of Paternoster row, that he agreed to publish it, though he insisted that it should be reduced from six volumes to four.She was paid for it, too, and with part of the profits she bought an Irish harp, and a black mode cloak. Her next novel "The Wild Irish Girl," was her first real success. In it she did not try to imitate Goethe, or anyone else, she found her own voice, and the wild Irish Girl, though she is called Glorvina, Princess of Innismore, is no other than the volatile Sydney herself. She became known among her friends as "Glo," or Glorvina. The plot of the novel was taken from an incident in her own career. The hero, a penniless young man, is persuaded by his father to give up Glorvina, and the father,who goes to see the dangerous young lady, falls into her snares himself. After some bargaining Phillips paid £300 for "The Wild Irish Girl," and during a visit to London, the little authoress was fêted and flattered to her heart's content. At Lady Cook's reception, Sydney allows that she was so overcome with nervousness as to be hardly able to ascend the marble staircase, with its gilt balustrades. She was now taken up by the Marchioness of Abercorn, who insisted on her staying with her as an amusing companion. Meanwhile, pretty Olivia Owenson had married Dr. Clarke, afterwards knighted by the Lord Lieutenant. As her father lived with the Clarkes, Sydney had no home ties. Lady Abercorn had a clever house physician, Dr. Morgan, who was soon head over ears in love with the Wild Irish Girl. She liked flirting with him, but she did not want to settle down, she wanted to shake her black curls, to sing, flirt and dance. But destiny was too strong, Lady Abercorn insisted that she must come upstairs, and be married by the chaplain. This was done, and never did a marriage turn out more happily. Sir Charles (for Dr. Morgan had been knighted shortly before) was unceasing in his love and admiration for "the dear, bewitching, deludering siren"; he had patience with her oddities, and she had great respect and affection for him. They spent the first year of their married life at Baronscourt, and then migrated to a house of their own at Kildare Street. Here Lady Morgan wrote her best-known novels—"O'Donnel" and "Florence MacCarthy"—both stories of Irish life. Her Irish servants are always good, and her fine ladies of fashion—taken from her aristocratic friends and patronesses—are most amusing. Her "snug little nut-shell" of a house was the rallying place for all that was best and brightest in Dublin Society. Moore records in his diary that he dined there. He says (April 21, 1823)—"Dined at Lady Morgan's. Company, Lords Cloncurry and Dunsany, old Hamilton Rowan, and Burne, the barrister. The style of the dinner quite comme il faut. In the evening, a most crowded soiree—Ladies Cloncurry, Cecilia La Louche, Catalani came late." Another time he relates that he dined with the Morgans, no one but themselves at dinner, and a large party in the evening, the party a very pretty one, a great many beauties, and some of Rossini's things sung very well by the Clarkes (Lady Morgan's "harmonious nieces"). I sang also, and with no ordinary success."
Lady Morgan prided herself on her cooking. She says, "I dressed half the dinner myself, which everybody allowed was excellent. It matters little how great dinners should be dressed, but small ones should be exquisite."
Lady Morgan, as a woman of society, is described by Dr. Maginn in the following lines—
And dear Lady Morgan, see, see, how she comes.
With her pulses all beating for freedom like drums.
So Irish, so modest, so mixtish, so wild,
So committing herself, when she talks like a child;
So trim, yet so easy, petite yet big-hearted,
That truth and she, try all she can, won't be parted!
When Lady Morgan wished to give an impromptu evening party, she used to throw up the windows of the drawingroom, and invite her friends, as they passed, to come in and join the revel.
Vain and volatile as she was, society was a necessity to her. She lived on praise.
Besides her novels, she wrote a Life of Salvator Rosa, two huge volumes on France and two on Italy. Her work on France came out just after the battle of Waterloo, and created a great sensation, though it was called by Croker in the Quarterly Review "an impudent lie!" It sold so well that Colburn offered her £2,000 for a book of the same kind on Italy. She spent many months both in France and Italy collecting materials. As usual, she took about with her a little case containing her Irish harp. A French lady, who came to see her, fixed her eyes on it and said—"It is a little dead child, is it not?" Lady Morgan lifted up her hands in horror at the idea, and the French lady remarked—"Ah, madame, you English are so odd!" She was fully convinced that Lady Morgan was bringing her dead child to bury it at Pere La Chaise.
The lucky authoress bought a charming straw hat in Paris, with poppies in it, and, with her French grey cashmere and her coquetry, which she says, "will go with me to my grave," she thought herself irresistible. Great, then, was her dismay to find that a most grotesque figure of a lady, any age after seventy, was posing at the window in rouged cheeks, powdered hair, and a dress of damask silk with scarlet flowers, as Lady Morgan, "who had written so well about French Industries." This was too much, and elicited the exclamation—"I am the real Lady Morgan!"
Publishers were invariably liberal to the "Wild Irish Girl." Colburn was so delighted at reading the proofs of "Florence MacCarthy," that he sent her a beautiful parure of amethysts—necklace, cross, and brooch. She was as nimble with her hands as she was with her brains. She writes to her sister, Lady Clarke, from London—" I have made myself a very pretty dress with my own two hands—white satin; with a deep lace flounce. With the skirt I got on beautifully, but as to the corsage, fortunately there is hardly any, what there is, being covered with frills, falls, and lace, so it does not signify how the body is made. Over the flounce is a rouleau of satin, which you make with a quarter of a pound of lamb's wool."
In 1837 she was granted a Government pension of £300 a year, and soon afterwards she persuaded Sir Charles to leave Dublin, and to take a house in London. One who saw her in her prime thus describes her appearance at a Dublin Drawingroom:—"Hardly more than four feet high, with a slightly curved spine, uneven shoulders and eyes, Lady Morgan glided about in a close cropped wig, bound by a fillet of gold, her face all animated, and with a witty word for everyone. I afterwards saw her at the dress circle of the theatre. She was cheered enthusiastically. A red Celtic cloak, fastened by a rich gold fibula or Irish Tara brooch, imparted to her little ladyship a gorgeous and withal a picturesque appearance."
Sir Charles Morgan died in 1843, and she never quite got over her loss. They had their little tiffs, for whenever they went to a party she always wanted to stop longer, and he wanted to come home sooner, but she settled the matter by singing songs in the carriage, and nothing really marred the harmony between them.
At a musical party on St. Patrick's Day, 1859, Lady Morgan waved her green fan for the last time. She caught cold and died on the 16th April in the same year. She is buried in Brompton Cemetery.
Lady Morgan was Irish of the Irish. She never wrote so well as she did about her own people. Her fun was infectious; she thoroughly enjoyed her own jokes. When she was writing "Florence MacCarthy" she laughed so heartily over it, that her husband started up, exclaiming—
"Good heavens, Sydney, what is the matter?"
"Well," she replied, "Old Crawley is so amusing. I can't help laughing."
This, perhaps, accounts for its success. What touches the author, generally touches the public also.