This one is for all of you enamored of A. S. Byatt’s Possession and prone to romanticize archival scholarship. I’m with you. The past two weeks I’ve been in Dublin digging through artifacts and portraits and reading the correspondence and commonplace book of Sydney Owenson (or Sydney Morgan, when it’s post-marriage–as if she’s two different people).
Much about politics: letters from individuals seeking her help, clippings from public letters she wrote to newspapers. Delightful remains of the salons she hosted: programs from private theatricals, poems satirizing the critic who lambasted her. And then, one morning, while I was reading through a stack of letters, I noticed that there were many in the same handwriting, and that they were becoming increasingly impassioned, and it dawned on me: I am reading love letters.
This is the moment when the reading room fades away and I’m drawn into a painful stretch between March and November 1808, when one Charles Ormsby, widowed barrister, pleads with Sydney Owenson to respond to his letters and return to Dublin. (She was busy in London, being feted as the wild Irish girl and writing Ida of Athens.) Though friend zoned, Ormsby was fortunately good-natured enough to permit Owenson to range freely in his extensive Oriental library (as it was called) to research her next novel, The Missionary, about India.
She coveted her independence. I understand this.