- Reading Post-Union Material Culture:"The Bodkin Is Particularly Deserving Our Notice"
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Henry Colburn's 1846 reissue of Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl (1806) featured a portrait of the author by Samuel Freeman (figure 1).1 Owenson appears as the eponymous "wild Irish girl" Glorvina, with trademark harp and mantle—the look that made her famous forty years earlier when the novel first appeared. Although the author's winsomely upturned eyes mark the center point of this later portrait, the viewer's gaze is drawn upward toward a small, pointed hairpiece protruding from the subject's dark curls. This ornament known as a bodkin—its sharp lines contrasting with the rounded softness of Owenson's hair, clothing, skin, and harp—had served as a small dagger in sixteenth-century Britain and Ireland. Over two hundred years later at the turn of the nineteenth century, Owenson and her contemporaries refashioned the bodkin's history for their own political ends.
In the prefatory address to Colburn's 1846 reissue of her novel, the author recalls the controversy that led to her early celebrity: "The Wild Irish Girl was buoyed up into notice by the very means taken to sink it" (xxviii). Between 1806 and 1807, in a series of letters to the editor in Dublin's Freeman's Journal, Irish Ascendancy politician John Wilson Croker published scathing critiques of the novel and its author. His unforgiving denunciations catalyzed what Claire Connolly terms a "Wild Irish Girl media event," in which Owenson's supporters came to her defense through public sponsorship of her literary career ("I Accuse" 99). The Duchess of Bedford, wife of the lord lieutenant, became a patron of manufactured "wild Irish girl" [End Page 37] attire, including Glorvina bodkins like the one pictured in Freeman's portrait. In March 1807 the duchess and other ladies in the Viceregal court famously adorned themselves with such ornaments at Dublin's Theatre Royal, a demonstration that Owenson later characterized as "a singular and brilliant spectacle" (Wild Irish Girl xxxv).
Today these nineteenth-century bodkins have become nearly un-traceable ephemera—preserved neither by museums nor in estate collections.2 Although the ornament's physical transience and its existence on the edges of cultural history undoubtedly complicates this essay's exploration of a material object as social text, its early nineteenth-century revival signifies far more than public fascination with a young Irish author. The cultural implications of Owenson's bodkin include its historical use as a weapon, its appropriation as nationalist symbol, and its gendering as a feminine fashion.3 This essay tracks how the object's quasi-mythic history captured eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland's national imagination—and how various figures, from antiquarian Joseph Cooper Walker to Owenson and even the Vicereine herself, made use of the newly revived bodkin for divergent political projects.4 The nineteenth-century feminization of the bodkin serves as a microcosm of Anglo-Irish cultural relations—and of ongoing debates about Irish national identity. Recognized primarily as a female ornament in the post-Union period, the fashionable object could appear nonthreatening to British supremacy. Yet the [End Page 38] bodkin's material history and agency subverts Ireland's ostensibly subordinate gendering in post-Union culture, offering a feminist reading of Owenson's Irish look.
What Is a Bodkin?
Owenson's hair ornament in Freeman's 1846 portrait resembles an item auctioned by M. Ford Creech Antiques and Fine Arts in 2013 (figure 2). Specializing in eighteenth-century British accessories, this American company dates its bodkin to seventeenth-century England (although its ancestry is potentially Irish as well). Using Nerylla Taunton as its source (15, 99), Creech's listing describes the item's various uses: as a multifunctional tool for pinning cloaks at the nape of the neck, as a decorative hairpin, or as a sewing instrument.5 Significantly, although unmentioned in Creech's...