Owenson, Sydney (Lady Morgan) (c.1783–1859), novelist and literary celebrity, was born in Dublin. Her father, the Mayo-born Robert Owenson (qv) (originally Mac Eóin, 1744–1812), was an actor whose native command of Irish ensured his success with ‘stage Irish’ characters; her mother, Jane Hill, was from a Shrewsbury protestant family. Owenson was notoriously coy about her age; her date of birth may have been anywhere between 1778 and 1785. In her youth she imbibed the theatrical flamboyance and the Irish-patriotic politics of her father, who ran a ‘national theatre’ in Fishamble Street, Dublin. Her harp-playing, which became her trademark in later life, was already featured in the Irish-patriotic performances of this theatre.
Owenson's early activities followed the recent Irish rediscovery of the harp as the national instrument. A small volume of verse, published in 1807, was titled The lay of an Irish harp; in 1805 she had published Twelve original Hibernian melodies, which foreshadowed Moore's Irish melodies by three years. The topic of a harp-playing young woman as the spokeswoman of her nation was also central to her first and best-remembered novel, The wild Irish girl (1806). More romantic and romance-like than Maria Edgeworth's (qv) social satire Castle Rackrent (1800), The wild Irish girl became the prototype of a new kind of Ireland-related fiction: the ‘national tale’. This genre, which flourished in the years between the Act of Union and catholic emancipation, and of which, besides Owenson, the main representatives are Charles Maturin (qv) and the brothers John Banim (qv) and Michael Banim (qv), combines stirring incident and local-historical colour with the political agenda of disenchanted Grattanite patriotism, denouncing the exploitation and oppression of Ireland and its native peasantry.
From 1798, when her father's fortunes as a theatre manager declined, Owenson held various positions as governess or lady companion. The last of these was with Marchioness Abercorn, who arranged her marriage to the family physician, Thomas Charles Morgan. A knighthood for Morgan seems to have been part of the deal. Following the wedding (1812), Owenson was known as Lady Morgan, and added to her literary reputation that of a headstrong and eccentric socialite in the style of Mme de Staël.
Throughout her career, Owenson (again, like Mme de Staël) remained true to the whiggish principles of her early life. These were now increasingly unfashionable, and subject to much suspicion, scorn, and ridicule from a conservative press bolstered by anti-Jacobin and anti-Napoleonic sentiments. Owenson's Patriotic sketches of Ireland defiantly maintained a Grattanite agenda even in the post-Union years. Her national tales (O'Donnel, 1814; Florence Macarthy, 1818; The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys, 1826) continued with their melodramatic adventures, drawing not only on Irish local colour but also on Irish divisions and tensions.
But Owenson's non-Irish novels also consistently addressed themes and settings which bespoke a liberal or even radical commitment at odds with the prevailing reactionary climate. Woman, or, Ida of Athens (1809), influenced by Mme de Staël-style sentimental feminism, is also a very early indication of the rising European tide of philhellenism; a more harnessed feminism was evinced by her later Woman and her master (1840). The missionary (1811) addresses religious conflict in the Indian colonies, while The princess (1834) celebrates the liberalism of newly independent Belgium. Her travelogues, too, breathed this liberal spirit. France (1817, sequel in 1830) incurred strenuous Tory criticism; Italy (1821) implicitly endorsed that nation's anti-Metternich resentment. Accordingly, the book was banned, and the author declared non grata in the papal states and the Habsburg empire.
In 1837 the Morgans moved from Dublin to London, where Sir Thomas died in 1843, to be outlived by his widow by sixteen years; Owenson herself (who was the first woman ever to receive a civil-list pension, to the sum of £300 annually) died in London on 13 April 1859.
From 1804 onwards, Owenson had been involved in an ongoing controversy with the conservative press led by John Wilson Croker (qv). Her writings were savagely reviewed and mocked, and she herself generally preferred strenuous rebuttal to dignified silence. Even among those who appreciated her literary gifts or her political stance (Walter Scott, Thomas Moore (qv)), the diminutive, slightly hunch-backed and volubly forthright Owenson became a figure of condescending humour. Scott named his daughter's most stubborn donkey ‘Lady Morgan’, even though he acknowledged the influence of her national tales on his own historical novels. Only Byron's admiration did she seem to have won fully, but he was dead by 1825. Owenson's politics were also increasingly out of touch with political developments. Her Grattanite combination of patriot-style liberalism and anti-papist protestantism meant that she fell foul of all parties: British Tories, Irish Unionists, and O'Connellite repealers.
Among later readers and literary critics, too, Owenson was long considered an oddity. This is in part due to the highly coloured, melodramatic narrative style of her national tales, which indeed tends to throw a bizarre sheen over her very serious intent. In recent decades, however, recognition has been growing for her dauntlessness, for the originality and importance of her work, and for its timeliness in the political climate of the Regency years.
The NLI holds Owenson's diaries and commonplace books, as well as some correspondence; other letters are in the Bodleian Library and the Huntington Library. Manuscripts of her writings are in Yale University's Beinecke Library, and further papers are with the University of Iowa. Portraits are in the collections of the NGI and National Portrait Gallery in London.