Lady Morgan and "the babbling page of history": cultural transition as performance in the Irish national tale

Lloyd, N (2020) 'Lady Morgan and "the babbling page of history": cultural transition as performance in the Irish national tale.' In: Connolly, C, ed. Irish literature in transition, 1780-1830. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 206-225. ISBN 9781108492980

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Lady Morgan wrote in her Memoirs (1862) that she had been ‘caricatured to the uttermost - abused, calumniated, misrepresented, flattered, eulogized, persecuted; supported as party dictated or prejudice permitted […]; the poor butt that reviewers, editors and critics have set up’. This acute awareness of her own literary celebrity offers a neat encapsulation of Lady Morgan’s aptitude for self-fashioning. Her careful cultivation of multiple identities was never more complex than in its relationship to nationality: Morgan’s claim that she was born aboard ship while her English mother and Irish father crossed the Irish Sea is a notable instance of her preoccupation with cultural hybridity and transition. Morgan’s alertness to ideas of cultural transmission is evident not only in her commodification of her Irish identity, as she embodied her fictional heroine Glorvina for enraptured English markets. Her national tales themselves provide a self-conscious account of the cultural circulation of Irish identity, foregrounding themes of representation, performance and perception. Morgan’s writing demonstrates a profound awareness of contemporary theories of cultural change, offering a self-reflexive narrative of historical transition in its critique of Enlightenment models of stadial historical progress. In The Wild Irish Girl (1806), O’Donnel (1814), Florence Macarthy (1818) and The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys (1827), Morgan locates Ireland within a global framework of linguistic, political, historical and geographical divisions, considering the various ways that Enlightenment discourses of sensibility, commerce and civility create dialogues between disparate cultures, nations and historical time frames. In doing so, she reimagines a more conventionally ‘Romantic’ formulation of cosmopolitan national identity and historical progress for the future, offering critics new ways of reading the interactions between the cultural movements of Enlightenment and Romanticism. This brand of Romantic cosmopolitanism reflects Morgan’s wider interests, which extend beyond Ireland to consider transnational geographies and histories. Her non-Irish fiction is set against a wide variety of geographical and historical backdrops, including sixteenth-century France in The Novice of Saint Dominick (1805), late eighteenth-century Greece in Woman; or, Ida of Athens (1809), seventeenth-century Portugal and India in The Missionary: An Indian Tale (1811) and newly-independent 1830s Belgium in The Princess; or, The Beguine (1835). Morgan’s non-fiction, in particular her controversial travelogues France (1817) and Italy (1821), demonstrates a keen awareness of Britain’s role within a global nexus of shifting and dynamic cultural forces. Furthermore, Morgan’s pioneering role in establishing the Romantic national tale shows an acute self-consciousness about the novel form and its impact on historical and cultural transition. Her reference in the 1846 preface of The Wild Irish Girl to the novel as ‘a fictitious narrative, founded on national grievances, and borne out by historic fact’ belies the ambivalent status of the Romantic national tale as a dynamic and transitory form that operates in perpetual dialogue with contemporary historiography. Morgan’s frequent references to the rehearsing and staging of national identity in the novels themselves reflect the ambiguities inherent to the national tale as a narrative form founded on the literary performance of nationality. Morgan’s own reflections on her role as literary innovator – as demonstrated in her assertion that The Wild Irish Girl was ‘the first attempt at a genuinely Irish novel’ that might fill the ‘long pause in the national literature of Ireland’ – reveal her own alertness to the emergence of a concept of Irish literature as a recognizable body of work with a distinct relationship to historical chronology. Her writing not only offers a complex and self-conscious reflection on historical change; it provokes and shapes literary transition as an integral component in the Romantic reconfiguration of the novel.

Item Type: Book Chapter or Section
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
Divisions: School of Writing, Publishing and the Humanities
UoA: English Literature & Language
Date Deposited: 06 Mar 2017 15:17
Last Modified: 15 Aug 2021 09:45
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