Visiting with Sydney Morgan in the Archives

Visiting with Sydney Morgan in the Archives


One of our bursary winners, Muireann Crowley (University of Edinburgh) discusses how her BAIS funding helped her take a research trip to Dublin.

In June 2015, I undertook a research trip to Dublin to consult manuscript and printed materials held in the National Library of Ireland (NLI) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD). This trip allowed me to access a range of materials both by and related to Lady Sydney Morgan (née Owenson) whose writings are the focus of my doctoral research project. Morgan was a prolific and popular writer in the early nineteenth century, and although not widely read today she has attracted the attention of scholars in recent years for her contribution to Irish cultural nationalism, her cosmopolitan feminism, and her generic experimentation with the novel form. My research examines the representation of authorship (both Morgan’s self-representations as well as the concept of authorship more broadly) across Morgan’s writings and seeks, through this process, to re-contextualise her work within a wider transnational canon.

In the first instance, my primary aim was to consult Lady Morgan’s diaries and commonplace books at the NLI, which related roughly to the period 1825-1829 (MS 878, MS 879). Although I had hoped to consult the originals, I was encouraged to access the microfilmed version instead. In either format, there is no doubt that Morgan’s scrawling handwriting proves a challenge! Her diaries contain details of her social life, including dinner plans and sample menus, newspaper cuttings of death notices, literary reviews, and social events. The diaries and commonplace books not only reveal the minutiae of her social calendar, but also her interest in Irish politics and industry and the literary reputation of her rivals. The task of deciphering and transcribing her diary is an ongoing process.

The second task, in order of importance, was to consult Trinity College’s copy of the 1803 Dublin edition of St. Clair; or, The Heiress of Desmond. This was Morgan’s first published novel, and it was later re-published in London (1803) and Philadelphia (1807) with a revised ‘third’ edition published in 1812. Morgan significantly expanded the text for the 1812 edition, and I had already completed the work of comparing the 1803 London edition with the London 1812 edition, noting these changes. However, although it was generally assumed that the 1803 London edition was effectively a reprinting of the Dublin edition, I felt that I needed to see the Dublin edition for myself in order to clarify claims I wish to make about Morgan’s construction of authorship across her oeuvre. I found that although the two copy texts are broadly similar, and do not feature the same level of authorial intervention as the 1812 edition, there are sufficient local edits to warrant the edition’s individual consideration. This possibly also explains why the 1812 edition is described as the ‘third’ edition on the title page, as it is counting the 1803 Dublin and London editions as distinct editions. By confirming this distinction, I believe I can make a stronger claim for the edits to the 1803 London edition as being the result of Morgan’s intervention, and thus for drawing conclusions about the trajectory of Morgan’s self-fashioning strategies at the beginning of her career.

The NLI also holds a copy of the first North American edition of St. Clair, which was published in Philadelphia in 1807. Upon perusal, I realised that this edition was evidently based on the 1803 Dublin edition rather than on the London edition. Although the Philadelphia edition contains no significant variants, its basis on the 1803 Dublin edition’s copy text rather than that of the London edition indicates that transatlantic printing relations between Ireland and North America bypassed the metropolitan centre on occasion; this may also point to hitherto unmapped circumatlantic circulations of texts during this period. Morgan’s reputation and reception in the USA is something I hope to investigate in the coming year.

I also consulted a number of items, including a copy of Morgan’s first publication Poems: Dedicated with Permission to the Right Honourable the Countess of Moira Etc.(1801), as well Twelve Original Hibernian Melodies (1807), as well as numerous other Dublin editions of influential eighteenth-century texts referenced by Morgan in her early works. In sum, my research trip to Dublin significantly advanced my doctoral research project, and provided the necessary archival evidence to underwrite conclusions I have drawn about authorship across Morgan’s oeuvre.

This trip was funded by a British Association of Irish Studies (BAIS) Postgraduate Bursary. I would like to thank the BAIS Committee not only for the immense difference their financial support has made to my research project this year, but also for the service they provide the Irish Studies postgraduate community by offering these bursaries. Thanks also to Maggie Scull for inviting this blogpost contribution and to Alison Garden for chumming me to the NLI during my sojourn in Dublin. And many thanks are obviously also due to the staff in the NLI Main Reading Room and Manuscripts Reading Room, particularly to those who patiently answered some of my pernickety and perhaps confused cataloguing questions; and to the similarly lovely staff in Trinity College who made using the archives such a pleasure.

Finally, thanks to the indefatigable pen of my number one lady Sydney Morgan who, coincidentally, resided at 35, Kildare Street for many years with her husband – a hop, skip, and a jump from where her diaries and commonplace books now rest in the National Library.

Image Credit:,_Lady_Morgan#/media/File:LadyMorgan.jpg 

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