Betsy’s Circle: Sydney, Lady Morgan

Lady Morgan

Lady Morgan, line engraving by Robert Cooper, after Samuel Lover, via Wikimedia Commons

Another one of Betsy’s friends was Sydney, Lady Morgan, a prolific novelist and hotly discussed personality. If Betsy’s letters to her friend are to be believed, literary society positively fawned over the woman. (I’m allowing for the fact that there might be a bit of exaggeration in the way that we do with our friends.)

She was the daughter of Robert Owenson, a Irish comedic actor, and Jane Hill, the daughter of an English trader. Sometime in Sydney’s late adolescence (no one knows her exact age because she was too vain ever to reveal how old she was), the family had financial difficulties, and Sydney went to work as a governess. She also began her literary career by publishing a collection of poems. Her pen name was Glorvina.

Sydney Owenson then turned to writing novels: St. Clair (1804) and The Novice of St. Dominick (1806), both of which were highly romantic works. Some of her influences were Goethe and Rousseau. Then came the book that won her fame, The Wild Irish Girl (1806), a novelistic love song to her native land.

In 1812, she married a physician, Sir Thomas Charles Morgan. Two years later, she wrote what is regarded as her best book, O’Donnel, a realistic portrayal of Irish peasant life. It was not long after this that she met Betsy Bonaparte in Paris. They became close friends and conducted a lively correspondence that lasted for years. Many of Betsy’s letters to Lady Morgan have an astonishing candor. I think the two women saw each other as kindred spirits. They shared the qualities of worldliness, vanity, and ambition, as well as a love of culture and travel. Of herself, Lady Morgan wrote, “I am ambitious, far, far beyond the line of laudable emulations, perhaps beyond the power of being happy. Yet the strongest point of my ambition is to be every inch a woman.”

One interesting tidbit about her is that she was less than four feet tall (according to a plaque in the Victoria and Albert Museum). In addition to her novels, Lady Morgan also wrote surveys of France and Italy (which met with mixed reviews), and an autobiography that contains much of her correspondence.

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