The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

IX. Anglo-Irish Literature

§ 23. Women writers

Marguerite Power, countess of Blessington, after an unhappy first union, married the earl of Blessington and lived with him on the continent. Her two volumes The Idler in Italy and The Idler in France show the fruit of her foreign experiences. She lost her husband in 1829, and, subsequently, settled at Gore house, which, for fourteen years, was the resort of many famous men and women of letters of the day, and, in 1832, her Journal of Conversations with Lord Byron was produced and became at once popular. As a novelist and anecdotist, she favourably impressed one side of the critical world of her day.

Sydney Owenson began life as a governess, and, at the age of twenty-one, published a novel St. Clair or the Heiress of Desmond, which proved successful enough to enable her to devote herself to literature. She married Sir Thomas Charles Morgan, after the publication of The Wild Irish Girl, and, with him, travelled abroad. Like Lady Blessington, she wrote her experiences of life in France and Italy. In the French volume, she had her husband’s assistance, as, also, in her Book without a Name. Her two volumes of continental experiences, France and Italy, were bitterly attacked by Croker in The Quarterly; but she had as her champions Byron, who, in a letter to Moore, speaks of her Italy as “fearless and excellent on the subject of Italy,” and her friend sergeant Talfourd, who assisted her to reply to Croker with wit and good temper. Undoubtedly, she often wrote carelessly, often gushed in the manner of her time and betrayed conceit in her writings, but, of her bright ability as a novelist and storyteller, there can be no doubt, and she has left one vivid Irish lyric behind her, Kate Kearney, which is still frequently sung to the air to which she wrote it.

Mary Shackleton, afterwards Mrs. Leadbeater, whose quaker father Richard Shackleton was Burke’s schoolmaster, published, in 1794, her first work, Extracts and Original Anecdotes for the Improvement of Youth, intended to brighten the literature to which her young friends were then restricted. She followed this with a book of poems of quiet charm, and Cottage Dialogues of the Irish Peasantry, intended as an appeal on behalf of that suffering class, and concluded her productivity with The Annals of Ballitore from 1768–1824, a life-like record of the doings and sayings, droll and pathetic, of the folk of a quaker village during periods of peace and amid the scenes of the rebellion of 1798, which she had herself witnessed. This work, with a memoir of the authoress by her niece, Elizabeth Shackleton, appeared in 1862 under the title The Leadbeater Papers.

An Irish woman writer of exceptional gifts was Anna Murphy, the daughter of D. Brownell Murphy, an eminent Dublin miniature painter, whose high intelligence had a marked influence upon her subsequent career. She acted as governess in the family of the marquis of Winchester, and, subsequently, in that of lord Hatherton, with whom she travelled in Italy. It was during this period that The Diary of an Ennuyée was written; but it was not published till after her marriage with Robert Jameson, a barrister who became successively a puisne judge in the West Indies and in Canada. This charming book became deservedly popular, as did her fresh and fanciful Winter Stories and Summer Rambles in Canada, into which country she had passed with her husband. She also wrote many other works of different kinds, those on art exhibiting much antiquarian knowledge and delicate taste.

Somewhat wanting in constructive skill, but with a gift of good-humoured cynicism, Marmion W. Savage belongs to the novelists of the school of Charles Kingsley. Passing from an official position in Dublin to journalistic duties in London, and becoming editor of The Examiner, he found leisure to write a series of novels, two of which, The Bachelor of The Albany and Reuben Medlicott, became popular in this country and in the United States, where they were reprinted. But his Falcon Family, a satire on the leaders of the Young Ireland party, is the best known and ablest of his stories, and if, as now conceded, some of his sarcastic sketches of these men were overdrawn, they are, at any rate, extremely amusing.

Julia Kavanagh was the daughter of Morgan Kavanagh, author of writings on the source and science of language. Long residence in France during girlhood enabled her to describe French life and character with a fine faithfulness which have secured her tales and novels much acceptance. Later, she visited Italy, the result being A Summer and Winter in the Two Sicilies. Then followed her successful French Women of Letters. Of her French tales, it has been well said that they are exquisitely true to life, delicate in colour, simple and refined in style and pure in tone, and, among them, Natalie may well be said to be one of the best French stories written by a British hand.

Annie Keary, daughter of an Irish clergyman holding a living in Bath, where she was born, wrote a series of stories and novels of which her Castle Daly, published in Macmillan’s Magazine, and A Doubting Heart, which did not appear till after her death, are the most remarkable. But she was also authoress of A York and Lancaster Rose, and, in collaboration with her sister, of a Scandinavian story, The Heroes of Asgard. She was a singularly unaffected writer, who knew her Irish atmosphere well, and who, therefore, could give full effect to its sudden changes from brightness to gloom, from storm to calm.

Emily Lawless, daughter of lord Cloncurry, was attracted into the open-air life of Ireland by her taste for natural history and, later, she was drawn by her sympathy with the country folk of the west to study Irish history in its relation to them, with a result shown most profoundly in her poems and works of prose fiction. Ireland had been graven on her very soul. For, though there is plenty of alternating Irish shower and sunshine in Hurrish and Grania, and notes of exultation occasionally leap forth from her With the Wild Geese, yet, no one can read through her first two novels or, indeed, many pages of With Essex in Ireland, without that painful perplexity which must haunt all who attempt candidly to face the eternal riddle presented by that distressful country to all students of its history.

Finally, of recent women novelists, mention must be made of Charlotte O’Conor Eccles, for her Rejuvenation of Miss Semaphore and A Matrimonial Lottery, which achieved popularity by their droll situations and exuberant fun; but her Aliens of the West contained work of much finer quality. She takes us behind the shutters of Irish country shop life in a most convincing manner, and the characters drawn from her Toomevara are true to type. The disillusionment of Molly Devine, “The Voteen,” with her commonplace, not to say vulgar, home surroundings, on her return from the convent school, with its superior refinements; her refusal to marry so-called eligible, but, to her, repulsive, suitors, encouraged by her mother and stepfather, and her final resolve to become a nun, in order to escape farther persecution of the kind, is told with convincing poignancy, while a variant of this theme is treated with even more power and pathos in Tom Connolly’s Daughter.