- Paradoxes of National Liberation:Lady Morgan, O'Connellism, and the Belgian Revolution
On the same page of Lady Morgan's posthumously published Memoirs, the volumes' editors reprint two apparently unrelated remarks pertaining to the year 1834. One concerns Morgan's decision to "make a Belgian novel of [her] materials, instead of a history; [her] heroine shall be a Béguine"; in another sentence, Morgan is inveighing against "Mr. O'Connell's raving for the repeal."1 On the face of it, the connection between the two remarks appears purely negative, linking Morgan's alienation from Irish politics to her choice of continental material in her novel The Princess, or, the Béguine.2 I propose, however, to read Morgan's last published novel both as an intervention in English debates about European liberalism and as a comment on Irish politics in the 1830s. By raising the possibility that Morgan's hostility to the Liberator's "raving" does not necessarily constitute evidence of her opposition to Repeal, I interrogate key assumptions about the trajectory of her career. My reading of The Princess, moreover, stresses the importance Morgan attached to the creation of a public sphere in Ireland and queries the critical consensus [End Page 104] about the fate of Irish fiction in the crucial decade following Catholic Emancipation.
The generally accepted view describes how Sydney Owenson began her literary career as a pioneer of Irish cultural nationalism and how with the publication of The Wild Irish Girl (1806), she helped initiate the literary genre of the national tale. Subsequently, as Lady Morgan, she became an English woman of letters defending liberal and feminist ideas. The achievement of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 granted one of her major demands on behalf of Ireland; that same year she optimistically declared: "The day is fast approaching when all that is Irish will fall into its natural position.... Among the multitudinous effects of Catholic Emancipation, I do not hesitate to predict a change in the character of Irish authorship."3 The changes that did occur in her country, however, appear to have been less welcome. Morgan's turn away from Irish subject matters in the 1830s coincided with the rise of Daniel O'Connell's agitation for Repeal, a movement that contradicted any assessment that—in the words of Morgan's editors—"Ireland had no serious wrongs to redress."4 The campaign for Repeal threatened the unionism implicit in the conclusion of The Wild Irish Girl. Although critical of the Act of Union, that national tale closes with an allegorical romance plot of reconciliation; a proposed marriage between the English visitor to Ireland and a native Catholic woman signals the possibility of genuine union between two former adversaries. But if support for Catholic Emancipation was compatible with a liberal unionist stance,5 Repeal was another matter. Morgan's involvement in London society life in the 1830s strengthened her English associations, and her final departure from Dublin in 1837 seemed a fitting expression of her disillusionment with Ireland.
Or so the accepted reading of Morgan's career goes. According to Ina Ferris, Morgan "began to pry apart the categories of gender and nation in her later career and to assign them opposing historical trajectories, as the question of women in history came more and more [End Page 105] to compel her attention."6 While presenting the move toward more strictly feminist concerns as a positive choice, Ferris also suggests that Morgan's evolution in the 1830s owed much to her estrangement from Ireland: "Flushed with the success of the emancipation drive in early 1829, she had joked about attending a party of 'the débris of the ascendancy faction.' . . . By 1831, however, she was coming to realize that she may be part of that débris herself."7 David Lloyd sees the novelist's transformation as symptomatic of the fate of Irish fiction itself. He insists on "the remarkable consensus among writers of the 1830s as to the intractable difficulties presented by Irish social realities to novelistic representation"8 and quotes Lady Morgan's preface to Dramatic Scenes from Real Life (1833) as evidence: "Changes moral and political are in progress. The frame of...