In her novel The Wild Irish Girl, written in 1806, Sydney Owenson highlights the contract between Britain and Ireland, known as the Act of Union in 1801 (cf. Kirkpatrick vii). Furthermore, the book shows the love story between the two main characters Glorvina, the Irish princess of castle Inismore, and Horatio, the son of an English Earl. All the observations of the following analysis are based on the novel The Wild Irish Girl. A summary of the novel’s plot will be following after a brief introduction to the historical events of Ireland.
by Anthoula Hatziioannou
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Ireland have been affected by several historical events. In the year 1798 the rebels were defeated by the British army and the contract was signed three years later (cf. Dougherty 393). The British King George III broke his promise for Catholic emancipation because he himself was the heir of a Protestant kingship from 1689 (cf. Dougherty 395). Since Ireland was the weaker partner of the contract, renegotiations were put down (cf. Dougherty 393). Thus, Ireland was governed by Britain and put into the position of a British colony (cf. Wright 5). This complicated situation is also illustrated in the book.
The story of Sydney Owenson’s novel The Wild Irish Girl is narrated by the son of the Earl of M –, Horatio. His childish and immature behaviour threatens the reputation of the family and his father has to pay his son’s debts. Horatio has to continue his studies in the estate in Ireland “to prepare himself for a legal career” (Corbett 54). During his long journey, the young Lord decides to travel around the Irish country with his horse and rides first to his father’s lodge. An old man who takes care of the place tells Horatio “how this beautiful farm fell into the hands of Lord M – ” (WIG 37) and that it belonged to the Prince of Inismore: “for of all their fine estates, nothing was left to the Princes of Inismore, but the ruins of their old castle, and the rocks that surround it” (WIG 38). Moreover, the ancestor of the current Prince was killed in the Cromwellian wars by Horatio’s ancestor:
the poor old Prince was put to death in the arms of his fine young son, who tried to save him, and that by one of Cromwell’s English Generals […] as his reward. Now this English General who murdered the Prince, was no other than the ancestor of my Lord (WIG 38).
The current Prince is very poor and lives now with his daughter and servants in the old ruined castle of Inismore. Horatio wants to satisfy his curiosity as if this revelation never happened. When he arrives at the old castle, he is impressed by the colourful, expensive-looking and picturesque place. Moreover, Horatio describes the family members as mystical figures. The Prince of Inismore is “almost gigantic in stature” (WIG 47) and reminds Horatio of the Greek demigod Hercules. He is dressed in the “ancient costume of the Irish nobles”(WIG 47):
A triangular mantle of bright scarlet cloth […] fell from his shoulders to the ground, and was fastened at the breast with a large circular golden broach, of a workmanship most curiously beautiful, round his neck hung a golden collar, which seemed to denote the wearer of some order of knighthood (WIG 47f.).
The Princess Glorvina reflects the image of an oriental woman because of the shining jewels and the long veil she wears:
From the shoulder fell a mantle of scarlet silk, fastened at the neck with a silver bodkin, while the fine turned head was enveloped in a veil of point lace, bound round the brow with a band, or diadem ornamented with the same description of jewels as encircled her arms (WIG 48).
The family and their castle impress Horatio so that he does not want to leave Inismore immediately. The protagonist hears the music and the voice of Glorvina. He is bewitched by the beautiful music and climbs the wall of the castle. After his fall, Horatio wakes up injured in the castle of Inismore. He plans to stay until he is fully recovered to learn more about this mysterious family and gains the trust of the Prince. He introduces himself as an artist named Henry Mortimer to cover his true identity. The protagonist can also stay after his recovery, since he is considered as a friend of the Prince. Furthermore, Horatio becomes Glorvina’s drawing teacher.
The Princess of Inismore “is like nothing upon God’s creation but herself”(WIG 41). She is “a saint upon earth, […] curing all the sick” (WIG 41). After Horatio’s fall, Glorvina takes care of him as a “skillful doctress” (WIG 53). The protagonist is mesmerized by her beauty and compares her to “a ministering angel”(WIG 53), “a cherub” (WIG 60). Although he tries to see the Princess as a study object and to prevent his upcoming feelings for her, Horatio cannot deny that “this girl is already spoiled by the species of education she has received” (WIG 65), but also that she has “something beautifully wild about her air and look” (WIG 65). Glorvina “is a creature of such rare endowments, […] her versatile genius is constantly directed” (WIG 77) to “human intellect, or human science” (WIG 77). She has had “occasional visits of a strolling dancing-master, and a few musical lessons received in her early childhood from the family bard” (WIG 77) to develop her “native talents” (WIG 77). The Princess of Inismore is “a rational […] and […] benevolent being” (WIG 79), who has “an informed, intelligent, and enlightened mind” (WIG 79). By observing her, Horatio realizes that Glorvina is on the one hand a mature woman and on the other hand a wild girl:
The more I know of this singular girl, the more the happy discordia concors of her character awakens my curiosity and surprise. I never beheld such an union of intelligence and simplicity, infantine playfulness and profound reflexion, as her character exhibits. Sometimes when I think I am trifling with a child, I find I am conversing with a philosopher (WIG 92).
Her controversial character highlights the fact that Horatio is impressed by her knowledge, even though Glorvina reflects also her wild and childish personality:
[Horatio] is all the time governed by a girl of nineteen, whose soul, notwithstanding the playful softness of her manner, contains a latent ambition, which […] sometimes sparkling in the haughtiness of her eye, seems to say, I was born for empire! (WIG 87).
The protagonist has “a feeling of inferiority in her presence” (WIG 69) because he has to play the role of a “poor, wandering, unconnected being” (WIG 69) who is not equal to a “proud Milesian Princess” (WIG 75). Glorvina “represents an affirmative feminine Irish virtue” (Corbett 69), which “is not stereotypically dependent and unequal” (Corbett 69).
Furthermore, Glorvina wants Horatio to become familiar with her history and culture. Through the Princess, Horatio learns that the Irish harp is far more than an instrument with “supernatural solicitings” (WIG 67). She explains to him that it is the traditional musical instrument of “the first Milesian colony” (WIG 70). The Princess’ harp is a symbol of the politics of the United Irish Men (cf. Connolly lv). It is “a cultural symbol” (Connolly lvi) and an image “of nationalist iconography” (Connolly lvi) that reflects the relationship between Britain and Ireland (cf. Connolly lvi). Since the harp is also a symbol of Irish colonial history, Glorvina plays it melancholically. The “national music” (WIG 73) corresponds to the “national character” (WIG 73) because “it either sinks our [Irish] spirit to despondency, by its heart-breaking pathos, or elevates it to wilderness by its exhilarating animation” (WIG 73).
Horatio gives her lessons in drawing and deepens her knowledge in philosophy, aesthetics and European literature, whereas Glorvina teaches him the language, culture and history of her country (cf. Rennhak 254). The Princess is already acquainted to Western literature by books of “French, English, and Italian poets” (WIG 157). After her encounter with Horatio, she reads “not only some new publications scarce six months old, but two London newspapers of no distant date” (WIG 157). Glorvina’s “superior and original character” (WIG 120) is the reason why Horatio starts to see her equal to him. By drawing a picture of the Princess, his admiration for her becomes apparent:
Conceive for a moment a form full of character, and full of grace, bending over an instrument singularly picturesque – a profusion of auburn hair fastened up to the top of the finest formed head I ever beheld, with a golden bodkin – an armlet of curious workmanship glittering above a finely turned elbow, and the loose sleeves of a flowing robe drawn up unusually high, to prevent this drapery from sweeping the chords of the instrument. The expression of the divinely touching countenance breathed all the fervour of genius under the influence of inspiration, and the contours of the face, from the peculiar uplifted position of the head, were precisely such, as lends to painting the happiest line of feature, and shade of colouring (WIG 97f.).
The “feminine beauty and national potential” (Connolly xxxvi) of Glorvina is underlined by the “combination of traits as a single portrait” (WIG 101). She embodies her gender and her country (cf. Connolly xxxvii). Moreover, their love becomes apparent in the performance of a traditional sacrifice ritual on the first of May (cf. WIG 140ff.). The ritual resembles a wedding ceremony because they “drank from the same cup” (WIG 141) and “were crowned with flowers” (WIG 143). Both exchange flowers, as if they were their wedding vows: Glorvina gives Horatio “a wild rose” (WIG 140) and Horatio returns her present with “a small branch of […] myrtle” (WIG 141). He feels a deep connection to Glorvina since the ritual: “I know not how it is, but since the morning of the first of May, I feel as though my soul had entered into a sacred covenant with hers – as though our very beings were indissolubly interwoven with each other” (WIG 154). The romance plot is “an allegory of colonial relations” (Connolly xxv).
Although Horatio becomes a close friend and like a son for the Prince of Insimore, he has to leave the castle because Glorvina cannot become his wife since she has to marry another man. Horatio leaves the castle, but rides immediately back to Inismore after he finds out that the Prince of Inismore is in prison because of money issues. Glorvina’s admirer pays her father’s debts and she “makes no objection to the marriage, despite her love for Horatio” (Corbett 67):
[S]he is sacrificing herself for her father, and he will not live to enjoy the benefit of it. The gentleman is indeed good and comely to look at; and his being old enough to be her father matters nothing; but then love is not to be commanded though duty may (WIG 237).
The wedding ceremony is interrupted by Horatio and the identity of the mysterious man is revealed, who is no other than his father, the Earl. His marriage to Glorvina has been supposed to be “a legal contract, and one he makes not with Glorvina but with her father” (Dougherty 399). By marrying Glorvina, the Earl also gains control over the property of his future wife, the Princess of Inismore (cf. Rennhak 248). Moreover, Glorvina “will lose her name and voluntarily give up her religion” (Dougherty 396). Thus, she is used as an object, who is part of the Earl’s plan (cf. Rennhak 248). A “national marriage” (Dougherty 396) between the Earl and Glorvina means the “silencing of Irish national identity” (Dougherty 396) and reflects an unequal relationship. Since she is no use for the Earl after the Prince’s death (cf. Rennhak 250), he gives his blessing to his son to marry Glorvina: “Take then to thy bosom her whom heaven seems to have chosen as the intimate associate of thy soul, […] let the names of Inismore and M – be inseparably blended” (WIG 250).
Thus, Glorvina “will fulfill her sociopolitical function – as a good daughter, a constant wife, and attentive and affectionate mother” (Corbett 69), but in a marriage of love. Therefore, “the novel suggests an alternative Union” (Connolly xlvi) from the Act of Union in 1801 (cf. Doughterty 391). The marriage between Glorvina and Horatio as well as the “idealised relationship between Britain and Ireland” (Dougherty 392) are both allegories like the Act of Union (cf. Dougherty 392). Moreover, Glorvina can become “from the last of the Milesians to the first wife of Britain” (Dougherty 400).
Horatio’s love and respect for his future wife and her country emphasize that he does not feel superior, but equal to her. Their marriage symbolizes “a reconciliation” (Kirkpatrick xvi) between Britain and Ireland, which is free from prejudices and the past and aims for a better future.
This text is a short summary of a longer term paper on the same subject. For any additional information, please contact the author.
Owenson, Sydney (Lady Morgan). The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale. Ed. Kathryn Kirkpatrick. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
Connolly, Claire. “Introduction: The Politics of Love in The Wild Irish Girl.” The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale. By Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan. Ed. Claire Connolly and Stephen Copley. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000. xxv-lvi.
Corbett, Mary Jean. Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing 1790-1870: Politics. History, and the Family from Edgeworth to Arnold. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Dougherty, Jane E. “The Last of the Milesians: The 1801 Anglo-Irish Marriage Contract and The Wild Irish Girl.” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 35 (2012): 391-405.
Kirkpatrick, Kathryn. Introduction. The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale. By Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. vii-xviii.
Rennhak, Katharina. Narratives Cross-Gendering und die Konstruktion männlicher Identitäten in Romanen von Frauen um 1800. Ed. Christoph Bode, Frank Erik Pointer and Christoph Reinfandt. Trier: WVT, 2013.
Wright, Julia M. Ireland, India, and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Ed. Gillian Beer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.