After a stay of about six months in France in 1816, Sydney Owenson, aka Lady Morgan (Irish Sea, 1776—London, 1859) had such a complete understanding of the country that she was able to write a long, multi-volume book on the place, published in 1817. And yet, despite the profound insight Lady Morgan’s book contains, the brickbats came thick and fast from political, social and literary critics alike. Even her own publisher felt exasperated enough to place an insert at the start of France to complain about “the illegible state in which the manuscript was transmitted…and which, therefore, required twice the usual time to print, as well as Lady Morgan’s failure to organise a French translation of the book that the publisher needed “to reimburse himself for the very large sum paid for copyright.” The poor publisher was further put out by Morgan’s unwillingness to cut certain political passages from the French translation which “would have caused the confiscation of the work by the French government.”
| Lady Morgan's publisher introduces France
If that is not a ringing endorsement of Lady Morgan, what is?
Spring 2016 was a bad time for a devotee of the liberal ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mme. de Staël to visit Paris, for the Restoration was in full swing under the Bourbon king Louis XVIII (nicknamed 'Louis Les Huîtres' for his gluttony). Yet, while Lady Morgan, famous for her novel The Wild Irish Girl, is presented as a proto-feminist and ‘progressive’ who packed France with bribes against the Restoration and the habits of the French upper classes, the book (almost unreadable) is full of silly generalisations and wooden descriptions of museums and works of art that fully justify all the criticism she received from Tory circles and help explain why Sir Walter Scott named his daughter’s donkey ‘Lady Morgan’.
It need not have been, for during her stay in Paris, Lady Morgan had met many interesting personalities, including Abbé Grégoire, Baron von Humboldt and the Marquis Lafayette, son of the famous General Lafayette. She met too Irish Legion veteran William Lawless.
Lady Morgan also made a point of meeting a number of proto-feminists and radicals like herself. These included the comtesse de Genlis, whose daughter, Pamela, had married Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Lady Morgan met the countess living in penance at the Carmelite convent in rue de Vaugirard. And what penance that must have been, for the comtesse de Genlis had persuaded her lover, Philippe Egalité, to vote in favour of the death penalty for his own cousin, Louis XVI, in January 1793 before he himself was guillotined during the Terror a few months later. Lady Morgan and the Comtesse de Genlis seemed to have hit it off, but afterwards the latter wrote in her memoirs that "it is a pity that for the sake of popularity she (Lady Morgan) should have the mania for meddling in politics" and that Lady Morgan’s “noisy manners and gesticulations are not in good taste".
After a short time at the Hôtel Belgique, Lady Morgan took up residence for the rest of her stay at the Hôtel d’Orléans at 17, rue des Petits-Augustins (present-day Rue Bonaparte, 6th arrondissement), where American president Thomas Jefferson had stayed just over 30 years previously, and where she found her apartment “hanging over the gardens, and commanding the hotel de La Rochefoulcault, where the Enclyclopedists so constantly assembled”. Less than a century later, another Irishwoman, Eileen Grey, was to buy her own home just a few doors up the same street, at number 21. Lady Morgan stayed at the Hôtel d’Orléans with her doctor husband, Thomas Charles, who wrote a few chapters of France himself and in the process gave her a run for her money in the turgidity stakes.
| Site of the Hôtel d'Orléans, present-day rue Bonaparte
Back in Dublin, Lady Morgan bargained hard over publishing contracts for the book she was to write. One ambitious publisher, Henry Colburn, offered her £1000 for the book (a princely sum), but she refused, believing she could strike a better bargain with a rival called Constable. Alas for Lady Morgan, Constable’s partner decided not to go ahead with an improved offer for Lady Morgan’s magnus opus, opining “I shrewdly suspect that Lady Morgan’s subject is far beyond her powers. I will act upon this supposition and say nay”. That was a good call. Lady Morgan was forced to go back to Henry Colburn, who, as the special insert at the start of France testifies, was not entirely satisfied by Lady Morgan’s performance.
France, despite its limitations, sold well, arousing the ire of the Tory press. In the view of Wlliam Playfair, “without the least wish to injure lady Morgan, who obviously spoke from a very slight knowledge of the people, and very partial observation, during a short period, we must treat her book not as the production of a lady, but as a production fraught with mischief.” The book also came to the notice of the French authorities who issued an injunction to prevent Lady Morgan ever coming back to France. However, the election of a less hostile French parliament in 1818 allowed Lady Morgan to return to Paris in August of that year along with her husband. She stayed initially in the Hôtel d’Orléans again, but then took up residence in an apartment in the Faubourg Saint Honoré. She again met the cream of Paris society, had her portrait painted by René Berthon (now hanging in the National Gallery in Dublin) and, appropriately enough, was invited to join the 'Belle et bonne' masonic lodge, so named after the marquise de Villette, Voltaire’s niece and the lodge’s ‘grande maîtresse’. Lady Morgan was inducted at a meeting of the lodge during a high-society soirée held at the marquise de Villette’s residence, also on the rue Faubourg Saint Honoré, in February 1819. Lady Morgan and her husband stayed in Paris until April 1819 when they set out for Italy to write another definitive book on a country they knew little about.
| Soirée at Belle et Bonne masonic lodge, Feb. 1819
Lady Sydney Morgan
Lady Morgan's memoirs: autobiography, diaries and correspondence
Lady Syndey Morgan (1863)
France as it is, not Lady Morgan's France (1819) William Playfair Lady Morgan: The life and times of Sydney Owenson (1988)