Sadlier, Mary Anne (1820–1903), novelist, was born 31 December 1820 in Cootehill, Co. Cavan, daughter of Francis Madden , a successful merchant who educated his daughter at home after the early death of his wife (name unknown). Mary evidenced writing talents at a young age and in 1839 had verse published in an English literary periodical, La Belle Assemblée. Soon after this her father's business suffered financial setbacks, which seem to have contributed to his death in 1844. Later that year Mary emigrated to Montreal, Canada, where she experienced the difficulties of being an impoverished immigrant without family. She had stories published in papers such as the Literary Garland. Recent critics have speculated that she worked briefly as a domestic servant, given her later concern for and identification with this class in her novels; however, she was reticent about her early life and there is no proof of this. In 1845 her first book, Tales of the olden time: a collection of European traditions, appeared in serial form in the True Witness. The following year she married (November 1846) James Sadlier, co-owner with his brother Denis of a leading New York catholic publishing house, D. & J. Sadlier. The couple remained in Montreal for fourteen years and during that time Sadlier had six children, adopted one more, and wrote six novels. New lights; or Life in Galway (1853) was the first fictional description of the famine and describes ‘souperism’ in lurid terms. The Blakes and the Flanagans: a tale illustrative of Irish life in the United States (1855) paints a Manichean world of upstanding catholics against sinful protestants and is censorious about the effects of American public education on immigrants' faith. Her novels drew on the ready-made audience of Irish immigrants and were all bestsellers, contributing greatly to the success of her husband's publishing firm.
In 1860 the Sadliers moved to New York, where they were leading figures in conservative catholic circles, hosting weekly receptions at their house on East Broadway and in their summer home in Rockaway, a popular Irish seaside resort. Friends included Archbishop John Joseph Hughes (qv) of New York and the Irish poet and politician Thomas D'Arcy McGee (qv). Her politics were nationalist and she apparently donated stories to like-minded journals. When McGee moved to Canada in 1867, the Sadlier firm bought his paper, the American Celt, and, changing its name to the Tablet, continued to publish it for many years with Mary Sadlier as editor. She continued to write prolifically, often using themes suggested by her husband. Her most enduring work, because her most characteristic, is Bessy Conway; or the Irish girl in America (1862) which depicts the inhumanly pious heroine withstanding all temptations as a servant in America to return to Ireland to save her family from eviction and marry the landlord's son, who converts to catholicism.
Her husband died in 1869 and Sadlier took over running his share of the business, together with his brother and surviving partner. She wrote fewer novels, concentrating on catholic readers for schoolchildren, on translations of religious works from French, and on short dramas. After McGee's assassination (1869), she edited a volume of his poems, and on the death of her Jesuit son, Francis Xavier, she composed Purgatory: doctrinal, historical and poetical (1886). She spent much of her time in philanthropic works, particularly sponsoring catholic alternatives to protestant welfare institutions, such as a foundling asylum, an old people's home, and a home for friendless catholic girls. The publishing firm started to run into difficulties in the 1880s, due to increased competition and her real-estate speculation; nevertheless, after the death of her brother-in-law (1885), Sadlier continued to run the firm single-handed from Montreal, where she returned that year to be near her children. Her control of the company only ended ten years later when her nephew, William Sadlier, took over only to sell outright to P. J. Kennedy & Sons, who bought up all the copyrights and reprinted Sadlier's novels. A new wave of Irish immigrants had refreshed the demand. Sadlier, however, gained no royalties from these reprints, and the remainder of her life was troubled by financial problems. Friends established a fund in her name and arranged a blessing from Pope Leo XIII. In 1895 she received the Notre Dame University Laetare medal for her services to the catholic faith. She died 5 April 1903 in Montreal, having written around sixty books, and was survived by four of her children, including the novelist Anna Sadlier (1854–1932).
Sadlier's work is of sociological interest as an indicator of the reading material of Irish immigrants, but it has been largely dismissed as sentimental and contrived, marred by two-dimensional characters and excessive didacticism. However, some recent critics have commended her for honestly depicting immigrant problems of poverty and alcoholism, and feminist critics have uncovered a strain of radicalism – though Sadlier always arranges marriages for her heroines, few of the married women are happy; and though she encourages submission, she sets up a conflict of duty between husband and God. Her life contradicted her work, since she preached women's place in the home but was herself a highly resourceful and energetic breadwinner.
There is a Mary Anne Sadlier archive on the University of Virginia website (www.avery.med.virginia.edu), containing a full bibliography of her works and the text of Bessie Conway.