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News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Report from ‘Romantic Novels 1818’: Owenson’s Florence Maccarthy

Here’s an insightful report by Ruby Tuke for those that missed the most recent Romantic Novels 1818 seminar, held at the University of Greenwich.  This seminar series is sponsored by BARS.

Postgraduate/ECR bursaries are available for future seminar meetings. Details here.

 

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A Discussion of Sydney Owenson’s Florence Macarthy (1818) with Dr Sonja Lawrenson

Romantic Novels 1818 Seminar March 2018

Dr Sonja Lawrenson delivered an illuminating talk on Sydney Owenson’s mighty four-volume novel Florence Macarthy: An Irish Tale (1818), which generated much lively discussion afterwards. Lawrenson argued that Florence Macarthy, less known and less studied than Owenson’s earlier novel The Wild Irish Girl (1806), deserves greater critical attention. Her paper teased out unusual links between the politically ambiguous later novel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein­ (1818). She drew a convincing parallel between Frankenstein’s monster, and the multifarious identities of Florence Macarthy. The rejected monster is first constructed out of various different materials and narratives, and Macarthy is forced to spin yarns literally, as well as figuratively, for money. Thus Lawrenson intriguingly suggested that the challenges of female authorship in 1818 are necessarily woven into the form as well as the content of both novels.

Lawrenson’s paper also considered the role of private theatricals and public performances in Florence Macarthy in relation to the political status of Ireland in 1818. She argued that in this later work Owenson reveals her dismay that private theatricals have replaced the public performative arena of actual political representation. Lawrenson argued that Owenson has replaced the ‘national marriage plot’ of a happy union, which was earlier present in The Wild Irish Girl and is an extension of the supposedly happy union between England and Ireland, with less certain political allegiances. This does not just have implications for an interpretation of the novel, Lawrenson argued, but complicates our understanding of the “national tale”, as well.

Lawrenson’s reading of Florence Macarthy presented the text as an intricate response to ideas surrounding nationalism, nationhood and female authorship, which do not neatly align into a clear vision of the future of Ireland. Lawrenson explained that the author had an increasingly globalised outlook in her later novels, but that understanding the social status of the characters in their domestic settings remains something of a challenge.

Especially interesting to me was Lawrenson’s assertion that Owenson presents a distinctly un-Romantic vision of poverty at the same time as she also supports a version of ‘benevolent paternalism’. Lawrenson noted in the discussion after her talk that this uncertainty raises further questions surrounding the representation of class politics in the novel. She ended the discussion by suggesting that Owenson’s text might even be viewed as part of the same literary genealogy that later promotes the gothicisation of Irish famine victims – an intriguing, if disturbing, line of further inquiry.

– Ruby Tuke