Dowden, Edward (1843–1913), literary critic, academic, and unionist, was born 3 May 1843, second son of John Wheeler Dowden and Alicia Dowden (née Bennett); his elder brother was John Dowden (qv). He was educated privately at first, though he attended classes in Latin and Greek at QCC for a year before entering TCD, where he first studied under the tutelage of Dr George Salmon (qv). He won prizes for English verse and prose writing. In 1863 he graduated BA in logics and ethics, placed first in the list. Despite completing his studies at the divinity school, he did not take holy orders; his first ambition was to pursue the life of a poet, but he taught English for a year in Alexandra College, Dublin, 1866–7. Early in 1867 he was appointed to the newly created chair of English literature at TCD (1867–1913). He quickly established a reputation as an internationally respected and authoritative literary critic with the publication of Shakespeare, his mind and art (1875). This was followed by a collection of his own poems (1876), Shakspere (1877), Studies in literature (1878), Transcripts and studies (1888), New studies in literature (1895), and Essays modern and Elizabethan (1910). Such was his reputation that in 1884 the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA, offered to create a chair for him, but he declined this offer, preferring to stay at TCD. He established his name as an international authority on Percy Bysshe Shelley with his Life of Shelley (1886). He also wrote short biographies of Robert Southey (1880), Robert Browning (1904), and Michel de Montaigne (1905), as well as editing and introducing many editions of Shakespeare's plays. His critical approach was psychological and involved the analysing of authors rather than texts. He saw literary criticism in moral terms, and his treatment elevated morality and ethics above aesthetics.
Dowden developed a deep hostility to Irish nationalism, and perhaps as a consequence was unable to view the Irish literary revival as anything other than repugnantly provincial and opposed to the European and English cultural traditions which he had admired all his life. Not surprisingly, despite a long-standing family friendship, he became for the young W. B. Yeats (qv) the apotheosis of the narrow-minded, respectable unionist who chose to be blind to Ireland's Celtic heritage. Dowden lived long enough to see his former protégé attempt in 1909–10 to succeed him in the chair of poetry at TCD, and undoubtedly enjoyed the opportunity to take some sly revenge in an ironical warning, telling his old friend, Yeats's father, that the job with its burden of teaching would indeed crush poetic impulses, and pointing out that the younger man might not have quite the required scholarship.
A founding and leading member of the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union, Dowden was subsequently president and vice-chairman of the Irish Unionist Alliance. Such was his enthusiasm for the unionist cause that he undertook numerous public-speaking engagements and committed himself to membership of a number of unionist committees and groups. He was president of the English Goethe Society (1888–1911), Taylorian lecturer at Oxford, Clark lecturer in English literature (1893–6) at Trinity College, Cambridge, and a visiting lecturer (1896) at Princeton. He was a commissioner of national education, Ireland (1896–1901), and a member of the academic committee of the Royal Society of Literature. He received honorary degrees from Oxford, Edinburgh, and Princeton, and was awarded the Cunningham gold medal by the RIA (1878). He died 4 April 1913 in Dublin, having suffered insomnia and failing health for some years. His estate was valued at £7,591.
He married first (23 October 1866) Mary (d. 1892), daughter of David Clerke of Skibbereen, possibly a relative of Agnes Clerke (qv) and Ellen Clerke (qv). She was seven years Dowden's senior, and the marriage, at first opposed and delayed by Dowden's parents, turned out to be a not particularly happy one; they had one son and two daughters, as well as a son who died young. The family lived at Rockdale, Orwell Road, Rathgar, Dublin. He married secondly (December 1895) Elizabeth Dickinson, daughter of John West, dean of St Patrick's cathedral. Dowden had kept in touch with her throughout his first marriage, ever since she had been one of his students in Alexandra College in 1866, and love letters and poems addressed to her were published posthumously.
One of his daughters, Hester Meredith Dowden (1868–1949), was born 3 May 1868, the same birthday as her father. She detested and resented her stepmother, and in order to escape married (4 February 1896) Richard Travers-Smith (d. 1945), a fashionable Dublin doctor. After he admitted an adulterous affair with a patient in 1915, his wife moved to London and was granted a divorce in November 1922. She reverted to her maiden name by deed poll, and, as Hester Dowden, became one of the most famous spiritualist mediums of the twentieth century. She claimed she had given over 40,000 sittings to clients, including the former Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, and she collaborated with Sir William Fletcher Barrett (qv) and Geraldine Cummins (qv) on psychical research. Hester Dowden published transcriptions of material produced during séances, which she claimed had been dictated by spirit guides. She believed that these guides included an ancient Greek philosopher called Johannes, another Greek called Philip who had known Jesus Christ, St Francis of Assisi, Ellen Terry, and Oscar Wilde (qv). A three-act play, said to be Wilde's posthumous work, was transcribed by Dowden, who quoted the spirit of Wilde as remarking that being dead was as boring as being married or having dinner with a schoolmaster. Hugh Lane (qv) allegedly contacted her just after his death in 1915 to make clear his plans for the controversial Lane bequest of paintings to Dublin; and interestingly, given her father's lifelong interest in Shakespeare, Hester Dowden received spirit communications which purported to settle the question of the authorship of Shakespearean plays and provided hitherto unknown details of Shakespeare's life; she published ‘Shakespearian’ sonnets and parts of plays.
She and Travers-Smith had one son and a daughter, Dorothy (‘Dolly’) Travers-Smith, who painted scenery for productions at the Abbey Theatre, and who married Lennox Robinson (qv). Hester Dowden died after suffering a stroke and falling into an electric fire at her home in London on 16 February 1949. She was cremated and buried at Golders Green.