This essay examines Sydney Owenson’s strange syntax—at once ornate and truncated, full of floating modifiers and attributions that remain forever unresolved—as a medium for her explorations of sensation and perception. Tracing the form of her novels in conjunction with her meditations on empiricism, it argues that Owenson’s syntax resists the ontic and formalizing claims of a Common Sense philosophy of perception. Instead her early novels enact, syntactically and therefore figurally, a conception of “life” as ceaseless, formless motion and an ethics of interdependency embodied in what Thomas Reid called “mere sensation.”
Sydney Owenson’s Strange Phenomenality
The University of British Columbia
1. To read the novels of Sydney Owenson has always been to be made to think strangely: that is, to encounter, and often to struggle with, anomalies of style, figuration, and form. Percy Shelley’s preoccupation with The Missionary, and his continuing engagement in “Fancy” with what remain, to him, images inaccessible of resolution or realization (or what he calls the capacity to “incorporate”) is at once the best-known and most favorable contemporary response to such an experience of Owenson’s novels (P.B. Shelley 1: 107).  But his coupling of preoccupation with the strangeness of fancy has close parallels in several more public and more fully explicated reading histories, such as William Gifford’s review of Woman: or, Ida of Athens, from 1809. Writing in the first number of the Quarterly Review, Gifford remarks that the effort of reading the novel, “a hundred similar conundrums, in the compass of half as many pages,” has left him “in despair; . . . turning the leaves of the volume backward and forward.” He speculates that the printer must have “fabricated the requisite number of lines, by shaking the types out of the boxes at a venture,” making the novel “a kind of overgrown amphigouri, a heterogeneous combination of events, which, pretending to no meaning, may be innocently permitted to surprise for a moment, and then dropt for ever” (Gifford 50). For John Wilson Croker, who devoted a series of essays in the Dublin Freeman’s Journal to The Wild Irish Girl in 1806–7, reading Owenson is “a task of no small difficulty” that produces a vertigo of “involvement and intricacy,” or focus and scale: “common occurrences are decorated with importance, with mysterious dignity and consequential remark—feebleness mimics strength, and trifles ape grandeur” (3). Geraldine Jewsbury, to whom Owenson was at once a friend and patron, similarly sums up the experience of reading her early works. Before writing the The Missionary: An Indian Tale in 1811, Jewsbury writes, Owenson “read up a great deal for Indian customs, history and antiquities,” but the details of her reading, “manners and customs, races and countries,” become quickly “confounded together in the rose-coloured mist of fine writing and high-flown sentiment. . . . [T]he reader feels disposed to say as Sheridan said, when the servant threw down a china plate with a great crash, without breaking, ‘You rascal! how dare you make all that noise for nothing?’” (Jewsbury 1: 424–25).
2. Noise for nothing; heterogeneous events without meaning: in one sense, in the emphasis on heterogeneity and clanging disunion, this reading persists in more recent commentary. Terry Eagleton emphasizes, for example, the “formally disheveled” quality of Owenson’s narratives. For Eagleton, Owenson’s irresolutions of form are best understood as a failure of closure and, in turn, as a consequence of Irish political history. He argues that her novels embody a frustrated drive to reconcile the competing ideologies of early nineteenth-century Ireland—“romantic” and “realist”; “domestic” and “political”—and in this negative sense capture the historical “truth” of Ireland’s colonized condition (Eagleton 182, 184). David Lloyd offers a similar but widened perspective on this formal heterogeneity, so that Owenson appears as just one among the group of nineteenth-century Irish novelists whose fractious narratives invariably betray the “insufficiency” of novel form to mediate the fragmentation and violence of Irish history (Lloyd 141). Implicit in these more recent readings is an assumption about narrative form that backreads what Lloyd has called the “laws of integration or harmonization” characteristic of the later nineteenth-century realist novel onto Romantic-period works (Lloyd 133). When such a drive toward formal unity is construed, as Fredric Jameson posits about narrative in general, as “an ideological—but formal and immanent—response to a historical dilemma,” then such novels as Owenson’s most often appear as symptoms of a historical conflict that refuses (for Eagleton and Lloyd, in the absence of the structures of a nation-state) to be symbolically resolved (Jameson 139). 
3. That the more hostile among Owenson’s earliest readers locate in the novels a politics that is both consistent and readily identified—a mix of “libertinism,” “disloyalty,” and “atheism” that stands as shorthand for a specifically Irish version of English Jacobin ideology—suggests, however, that the novels’ formal strangeness is something more, or other, than a symptom of ideological ambivalence and historical fracture.  Such a strangeness could not, of course, have been understood, circa 1810, as a failure to conform to realist conventions. But the consistent and specific bewilderment expressed by contemporary readers suggests that something is taking place in Owenson’s works that is distinct not just from Victorian realist novel form but also from what Franco Moretti has called the “intrinsically contradictory” transitional form of the Romantic bildungsroman, with its tensions between “dynamism and limits, restlessness and the ‘sense of an ending,’” or its more specific instantiation in the imperial quest romance described by Sara Suleri (Moretti 6, emphasis in original; Suleri 10–11).  It is not only, and not primarily, formal irresolution that troubles Owenson’s earliest readers. Rather, these readers place a greater emphasis on their surprise and bewilderment at encountering an overwhelming yet at the same time frustratingly insubstantial plenitude: Jewsbury’s noisy mist; Croker’s vertigo of scale; Gifford’s turning of pages, at once compulsive and unrequited.
4. How are we to understand this experience and these motions? This essay will argue that both arise, equally and inseparably, from a gap that opens, for contemporary readers, between Owenson’s descriptions and the readers’ own capacity to conceive of what is described. The irritable reaction of Owenson’s earliest readers to this tension between what Yoon Sun Lee, in her introduction to the present volume, terms “non-spontaneous, purposive expression” and the expectation of “representation” heralds Carl Schmitt’s enraged encounters with what Lee, quoting Jacques Rancière, identifies as the (definitively Romantic) “‘phenomenon of expression as such.’” The gap between description and conception, or expression and representation, is produced by the syntactic form and the lexical range of Owenson’s invocations of sensation and its sources, or, in other words, as I will show, by the play of figuration.
5. In what follows, I will explore the relationship of Owenson’s figural practices to conceptual irresolution, readerly motion, and narrative form in her early novels. Attending most closely to Woman: or, Ida of Athens and The Missionary, and to the philosophical essays Owenson, as Lady Morgan, published alongside autobiographical anecdotes and opinions in The Book of the Boudoir in 1829, I will propose that this quartet of critical concerns—conception, figuration, motility, and fractured form—is the register, for readers, of what I would like to call an ethics of sensation in Owenson’s works. As such, it demands that these works be read in relation not only to the histories of national and narrative form but also to the intersecting histories of empiricist and idealist philosophies of sensation and what recent scholarship has begun to see as the closely related topic of Romantic understandings of the relationship between organic form and the sciences of life.
2. Reading Owenson with common sense: against perception
6. Owenson may seem a surprising candidate for a philosophical reading: her work has not been addressed by any of the major recent scholarship on the history of sensation, and, to the extent that her novels have been considered in conjunction with empiricist thought, the readings have tended to concentrate exclusively on her invocations of political sympathy.  Yet the essays she published in later life speak suggestively—more suggestively than elaborately, but in a context designed retrospectively to inform readings of her novels—about her interest in contemporary philosophy, particularly questions of sensation and of life. By her early teens, she writes, she had been broadly “influenced” by “the value of philosophy and the importance of chemistry”: she took “infinite delight” in Locke’s theories of sensation but found Kantian idealism “vague and unsatisfactory” (though it is not clear that she ever read Kant) (Morgan, “Raconteurs” 1: 32; “Richard Kirwan Esq.” 1: 60). In middle age she enjoyed discussing philosophy with her husband, though on occasion, when she forgot herself, “giving [her]self the air of talking metaphysics . . . and throwing in a word on the Doctrine of Causation” in front of male visitors, “a look” from Sir Thomas Charles Morgan could quickly send her back to conventionally feminine topics such as landscape, with which she “made ‘pure description hold the place of sense’” (Morgan, “Doctrine of Causation” 1: 191–92).
7. Even when most absorbed in metaphysical discussion, however, Morgan remained less interested in “sense” than in sensation. She is canonically Lockean on the derivation from sensation of what she calls “natural causes,” but what Locke identified as the relation between a “Cause” and what is “produced by” it she redefines correlationally, as the observed “concurrence of certain antecedents with certain consequences” (Locke 324, 2: 26 §1; Morgan, “Doctrine of Causation” 1: 193). Elsewhere she seems to differ more explicitly from Locke on the relationship of sensation to the metaphysics of causality. What is for Locke evidence of “the Qualities, that are really in things themselves” is for Morgan a thing in itself: she dispenses with Locke’s view of “simple Ideas” as “the Marks, whereby we are to know, and distinguish Things” and “complex Ideas of Substances” as “Representations of Substances, as they really are,” and with his distinction between “real” and “fantastical” ideas, or those “with a Foundation in Nature” and those without (Locke, Essay 372–74, 2: 30 §1–2, 5). For Morgan, in contrast, “to prove a proposition means, to render it evident to the senses—nothing more” (Morgan, “External Existence” 1: 158). This emphasis on sensation allows her to remain agnostic on such questions as the nature and qualities of the “external world” even as she distances herself from “the idealist” who “has no ground for believing any other existence than his own mind” (Morgan, “External Existence” 1: 158).
8. With such a statement, Morgan firmly separates her epistemological musings not only from Locke’s representational and referential conception of sensation but also from the major metaphysical schools of her own time: Kantian idealism, with its positing of an extrasensory noumenal realm that grounds all knowledge even while it remains inaccessible save to the intuitions of reason, and Thomas Reid’s common sense philosophy, with its establishment of a given though incompletely perceptible world as an arrest to the skeptical implications of empiricism.  Unlike the phenomenophiles discussed by Rei Terada, who retreat to “mere phenomenality” in retreat from or revolt against the normative pressures of the given, Morgan seems, in her essays, to bracket the very idea of givens (Terada 32).  Gifford complained that Owenson was an enemy of, or perhaps merely allergic to, “revelation” (52). He may have been more accurate when he wrote, with Gifford, of Owenson’s “inveterate obliquity” of “mind, which prevents her from perceiving, or stating a fact as it really exists”; certainly there is more evidence in her writings for such a claim (Croker and Gifford 261). In The Missionary, Owenson comments that the “waking dream”-like experience that suffuses the eponymous protagonist Hilarion on his arrival in “Cashmire” is “sensation” that has “survived all power of perception” (Owenson, The Missionary 105). And, as we will see, Owenson does turn away—not glancingly, but persistently—from what Reid called “perception,” or the cognitive assemblage of sensations into approximations (imperfect figurings) of the things of the given world, the secular counterpart of “revelation,” or at least of metaphysical doctrine (Reid 290).
9. Truncated as they are, Morgan’s philosophical comments in her essays can serve as little more than hints. In her early novels, however, to which the essays are a supplement, Owenson dwells constantly in sensation. Here, for example, is a passage from the extended (eight-page) scene that introduces Ida Rosemeli, the heroine of Woman, a passage characteristic enough to make one of Gifford’s three epigraphic examples of “a hundred similar conundrums in half as many pages” (Gifford 50). In the scene Ida is asleep and seen for the first time from a distance by an “English traveller”:
Changing her attitude from grace to grace, as indulgence dictated, or ease impelled, the variety of her gentle motions might have presented to the statuary the most beautiful, the most difficult models for imitation; while the delicious indolence of doubtful sleep seemed still to struggle with the renovating energy of awaked intelligence. Happy state of indefinite existence! how perpetual the formless but delicious visions which live and die with you! . . .
At that moment a door . . . slowly opened, and an elderly female . . . cautiously entered the room . . . ; then drew a drapery across the lattice work to exclude the sun: the drapery excluded, also, the dazzled gaze of the English traveller.—The beautiful vision vanished! After the scene, the forms, he had previously witnessed, could it be more than a dream! (Owenson, Woman 1: 22–23, 26, 27–28) 
10. It is worthwhile, here, to compare Owenson’s scene with Reid’s pioneering 1764 distinction between sensation and perception, which worked, from within empiricism, to arrest the skeptical impulse latent from the beginnings of associationist theories of mind. It is indeed the case, Reid argues, that sensation is autotelic, “can have no existence but in a sentient mind,” but “perception . . . hath always an object . . . which may exist whether it be perceived or not. . . . [T]he perception of an object implies both a conception of its form, and a belief of its present existence” (Reid 289–90). This common sense brake on skepticism functions poetically as well as metaphysically: if for Locke, as Natania Meeker and Helen Thompson have argued, “substance can only be apprehended as figure,” then for Reid, in the process of perception, the figure takes fully resolved shape with a stable referent in the things of nature (Thompson and Meeker 185). “The signs by which objects are presented to us in perception,” he proposes, “are the language of nature to man,” so that “there is certainly a resemblance, and necessary connection, between the visible figure and magnitude of a body, and its real figure and magnitude” (Reid 153, 296). Though the form of a “visible figure” may be more or less complete according to the viewer’s perceptual capabilities, as in the case of “a man born blind,” the thing perceived will always appear to a sighted viewer with all the formal completeness of a reflection in a mirror (Reid 154). The figural range of perception, in short, is determined by poles of incompleteness and completeness, or partially and fully apprehended form, which is to say, synecdoche on the one hand and metaphor on the other.
11. The presence of the thing, and the referential bond between this “real figure” and the “visible figures” that represent it in the mind, is never in question in Reid’s philosophy, for it is warranted by what he calls “the Author of [his] being” (Reid 294). In Owenson’s Woman, in contrast, lexical range and plenitude and syntactical restlessness and uncertainty mean that the figures of sensation are left unresolved. They don’t fully take shape, and the glancing sensations they capture are left unpinned to the assumption of a stable referent. Thus they are best understood as a series of metonymies: shifting sensations, often minute, impermanently as well as imperfectly established as a partial reference to any fully formed or fixed “external thing.” Not for nothing did Owenson’s contemporaries describe her early novels as “extravagant,” or wandering, figuratively, outside the straight paths of representation marked by metaphor, synecdoche, and common sense philosophy.  The descriptive passages in her early novels typically remain both formless and fluctuating. If they frustrate such readers as Gifford by inciting them to fruitless motion, they engage another kind of reader, such as, avowedly, Shelley, who enjoys the invitation to wander.
3. Form and the ethics of sensation: Owenson on “identity” and “life”
12. In the series of philosophical essays included in the Book of the Boudoir, Owenson Morgan argues that the process of wandering of, and in, sensation, is commensurate with “life.” “To measure human action against time, and to overtake it,” she writes in the essay on “Rapidity,” “is to double existence. To live fast (properly understood) is not to wear out life briefly, but to multiply the sensations which extend it” (Morgan, “Rapidity” 1: 95). Such a motile and formless life is, in turn, in Morgan’s assessment, at odds with conventional notions of unified, stable being—with such notions, equally, as applied to the sensing agent and to what and how the agent senses. The constant train of sensation contributes to what Morgan calls, in the opening essay of The Book of the Boudoir, “the great mystery of identity,” which she describes with the observation that “even the hand which traced the first line of this farrago, is not the same agent of the same volition, with that which will write the last” (Morgan, “My Book” 1: 5). Her agnostic apprehension of “identity” denies her readers even the consolatory “fiction of continu’d existence” Hume proposed to account for the human “propension to unite . . . broken appearances,” including proprioceptions (205). In 1827, an assessment of The O’Briens and the O’Flahertys in The Monthly Review had complained that “Lady Morgan is still devoted to the tessellated style of writing” (Review 518). The Book of the Boudoir responds to such references to her preferred prose form (from tessellation to “farrago”) by associating her composite, mobile, and formless prose with the mixing of sensations that comprises “life” and complicates “identity.”
13. Defining Romanticism as “a wide-sweeping inquiry into the phenomena of life,” Denise Gigante has argued for the prominence of epigenesist conceptions (those focused on the “power” of self-actualizing formal potential and self-organizing form) in the poetic as well as the biological thought of the period (Gigante 26, 39). For her the key figure in Romantic debates about life is Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who repurposed his key phrase “multëity in Unity,” the definition of poetic beauty, to define life as “unity in multëity” (Gigante 3).  Against the dominance of Coleridge, Amanda Jo Goldstein has recently posited the Shelley of The Triumph of Life, who, Goldstein argues, pursues a “Lucretian poetics of transience” wherein the relations between and mutual impacts of living, not-quite-living, no-longer-living, and more-conventionally-understood-as-inanimate beings and things come together in an understanding of life as collective, contingent, historical and therefore perpetually in flux (Goldstein 62–63). To make this argument, for Goldstein, is also to take issue with Paul de Man’s reading of figuration (understood both as troping generally and as face-giving, or prosopoeia) as “a power radically alien to life, relation, and sense” and the dominant force in Shelley’s poem (Goldstein 66).  Here her argument takes an explicitly ethical turn: when the category “life” takes on a distinct ontological status, “life” also becomes a comparative and implicitly value-laden term (Goldstein 69). Or, as Goldstein puts it, “when science affirms specific forms of life [those less organized; those less fully formed] to be medically less alive already, it helps to render their deaths less reprehensible—a logic familiar to twenty-first-century readers from its realization in fascist thanatopolitics” (70). For her Lucretian Shelley, in contrast, faces are everywhere together. In the final few words of this essay, I would like to consider the implications of Goldstein’s rigorous and important reading of Shelley for approaching the novelist whose poetics of sensation helped make Shelley think so strangely.
14. Owenson’s motion-capture of the play of sensation that is tantamount to life is at least as tropical as the face-giving Triumph of Life for which it provided Shelley with a model. Yet unlike Shelley, or Lucretius, the Owenson of Woman and The Missionary rarely, if ever, makes faces. Her closest approach to prosopoeia might be the moment when the narrator asserts that the scene of the protagonist’s “delightful and delighted wanderings . . . seem[s] . . . to smile into a luxurious garden” as the “English traveller” approaches Ida’s home (Owenson, Woman 17–18). Here, though, the narrator’s figuring of the traveller’s sensation yields a motion and a resemblance rather than a face and an identity, however contingent, whether singular or composite. As ever in Owenson’s early work, sensation, while figural (here, that most mobile of tropes, the simile) is specifically not form-making.  If we compare Shelley’s Lucretian atomism with Owenson’s descriptions of sensation, we will discern Owenson’s contrasting emphasis on a perpetual motion of fleeting minutiae, atoms of sense that elude formal resolution: a rigorous (and, with respect to Shelley’s prosopoeia, proleptic) resistance to pareidolias of all kinds.
15. I have cited the passage in The Missionary in which Hilarion, transformed by his journey through Cashmire, is stripped of “perception” while “sensation” survives (Owenson, The Missionary 105). Let me now add that in The Missionary Owenson contrasts Hilarion’s “waking dream,” in which feelings associated with the “enjoyment” of sensation “possess . . . themselves of his whole being,” with the early, imperial ambition he conceives on his arrival in India (Owenson, The Missionary 105). On first seeing India’s “shores, which were rather imagined than perceived in so great an interval,” his “spirit . . . partook [sic], for a moment, the sublimity of the objects he contemplated, the force of the characters he reflected on, and, expanding with its elevation, mingled with the universe” (Owenson, The Missionary 80–81). This is not just a formal but also an explicitly ethical break with perception as a scene of self-making, retroactively characterized, by contrast with the Cashmire passages, as hubris and grandiloquence.
16. By emphasizing the unbridgeable gap between description and things, Owenson prompts her readers to consider their own composite, mobile quality and their suffusion in a world of sensation—an experience that, she reminds them in The Missionary, can also be understood as the varied texture of love. What her contemporaries called decadent (but also recognized as radical), and what subsequent readers have sometimes dismissed as an effete leisured dalliance becomes an ethics of interdependency as pleasure—lacking in determined outcomes, radically unproductive and, therefore, in Owenson’s terms, “free.”  Such an ethics stops short of what Tim Milnes, in his essay in this volume on the essayistic and pragmatic character of empiricism between Hume and J. S. Mill, identifies as the “possibility of a shared experience,” which, Milnes argues, is the implicitly ethical as well as epistemological goal of Romantic moral philosophy. Yet Owenson’s prose, like the philosophical essays of Charles Lamb and others, both avowedly subscribes to and formally enacts a conception of literary form and literary experience that is, like the sensation it cultivates and describes, exuberantly autotelic. Such an ethics of sensation emerges with inconceivable but especially insistent liveliness when it is read amid the histories of Romantic form and life.
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 Most relevant to this essay are the comments of Gelpi and Hogle, on sensation in conjunction, respectively, form and philosophical implications. Gelpi attributes to Owenson’s The Missionary some part of the origin of the “drifting atmosphere of reverie” produced by the “associative and evocative image clusters” in Prometheus Unbound (170–71). Hogle makes The Missionary one of the influences on Alastor that pile up “in an astonishing, interweaving transference” coupled with a “dim awareness that his own ‘variability’ may come from a movement, a Lucretian one at bottom, commanding the verses [and, in Owenson’s case, the prose] of his older contemporaries just as much as his own” (45–46). More recent criticism, by, for example, Wilson and Goldstein, has not elaborated these brief mentions of Owenson’s connection with Shelley’s formal practice or its relations to sensation. A second well-known, and related, though less favorable contemporary comment on Owenson’s anomalies of form and sensation is Austen’s snarky remark to her sister in January 1809: “We have got Ida of Athens by Miss Owenson. . . . We have only read the Preface yet; but her Irish Girl does not make me expect much.—If the warmth of her Language could affect the Body, it might be worth reading in this weather” (166). See also Burgess, “Sydney Owenson’s Tropics” 283. BACK
 For these specific terms, see Gifford (52); see also Croker’s references to “qualities . . . highly esteemed in the realms of gaiety, and the circles of intrigue” as well as to a “striking system of morality” at odds with religious convention. BACK
 On sensation, see especially Wang, Terada, Jackson, and Goodman. On Owenson and the philosophical tradition of empiricism (read here in its iteration as moral philosophy, particularly its emphasis on sentiment and sympathy, here associated with “romance”), see Nersessian 110–41; Connolly 85–124; Ferris 60–62. BACK
 Terada’s model takes note that most if not all Romantic phenomenophiles are men, commenting that some narrative genres of the period, notably the Gothic novel, that were “next door to mere phenomenality” were more hospitable to female writers. BACK
 The scene of the traveller’s distantiated gaze, familiar to contemporary readers from Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl, is here substantially rewritten in being deprived of substantive details: the “scarlet, “bodkin,” and “diadem” of The Wild Irish Girl’s Glorvina gives way to vapors, and the traveller Horatio’s experience of Glorvina, who seems to him “like the incarnation of some pure ethereal spirit” but whose beauty is anchored in the “symmetrical contour” of her body—a literal “figure” indeed—yields to the mobile agentless attitudes of Woman (Owenson, Wild Irish Girl 48). BACK
 According to a review of Woman in the Dublin Satirist of November 2009, quoted in Belanger 119, Owenson’s “extravagant picture” would be “more creditable to her head and heart” if she were “to keep within the bounds of decency, probability, and common sense.” I rely here on Paul de Man’s account of metonymy as “purely relational” and his account of metaphor as associated with “an element of truth” in his reading of Proust, and follow de Man’s association, in this reading, of synecdoche with metaphor rather than metonymy (de Man 14). For a reading of sensation as a figural event, which Reid, like de Man’s Proust, pursues, the association is more convincing than what de Man acknowledges is the synecdoche-metonymy pairing more common in “classical rhetoric” (de Man 63n). BACK
 Goldstein is commenting on de Man’s claims that “disfiguration”—“the repetitive gestures by which language performs the erasure of its own positions”—is a process internal to figuration and is figured by the measured treat of the Shape All Light in The Triumph of Life (de Man, “Shelley Disfigured” 119). BACK
 Carlson’s account of Shelley’s similes is relevant here: “Shelley’s similes work against entrenchment in linguistic and ethical realms, perpetually un-building the object world, including its putative opposition to the internal life of the subject, by showing objects to be as ethereal and ever-changing subjects and the so-called subjective” (Carlson 77). BACK
 The adjective “free” is everywhere in Woman and The Missionary; it not only refers to republican polities (the opposite of “slavery”) but also to “love” as an “intimacy” of “mind” and “heart” (Owenson, Woman 1: 202; 3: 161). Carlson writes illuminatingly about “freedom” and love in Shelley; Jackson makes a compelling case for the ideological character of Erasmus Darwin’s aesthetics of pleasure, which influenced Owenson philosophically and formally (Jackson, “Erasmus Darwin’s Romanticism” 175–77, 187). See also Burgess, “On Being Moved” 314–18. For an “effusive” and “aristocratic” Owenson, see for example Moore. BACK