Sparkling Sydney

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The Wild Irish Girl, by Sydney Owenson, was first published in 1806, since when it has rarely been out of print. I knew nothing of this novel or its author until a few years ago, when I was writing about the Italian poet and philosopher Leopardi and needed to place this tormented genius against a real background. I read diaries and letters by those who took the Grand Tour and more than once came upon the name of one Lady Morgan, an Irish feminist and patriot who, by the age of 25, was supporting herself, her father and her sister on the novels, travel books, articles and pamphlets she wrote under her maiden name, Sydney Owenson.

As soon as I read Sydney on Italy I was hooked; I found her principled, cheerful, energetic, imaginative and decent: excellent company. She was passionate about her writing and regularly stuck at it for eight hours at a sitting. She had unusual confidence in herself and her femininity; she was creative – could make her own clothes and, when let down by her chef just a few hours before giving a dinner party, did the cooking herself. She believed in justice and equality at home and abroad which, like feminism and atheism, were not principles universally espoused by her contemporaries. Unlike many travellers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Sydney did not travel abroad to plunder her hosts of their art and artefacts but to familiarize herself personally with foreign places and peoples. She made an enormous impression wherever she went and was courted and admired ‘as well for her unrivalled talents as her elegant and unaffected manners’. Byron wrote of her Italy (1821): ‘Her work is fearless and excellent . . . I know the country. I wish she had fallen in with me; I could have told her a thing or two that would have confirmed her position.’ But of course she was roundly criticized too, by the usual suspects.

Before setting out, Sydney spent two years boning up on Italian history. She acqu

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About the contributor

Elisabeth Russell Taylor is the author of six novels including the Virago Modern Classics Pillion Riders and Mother Country, and three collections of short stories. She lives in London and is currently writing her seventh novel.

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