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Wright, Julia M. 'Introduction to Lefanu's The Sons of Erin.' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 15 June 2004. 8 pars. <>

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1. The career of Alicia Sheridan Lefanu (1753-1817) as a published author extended to only one play, The Sons of Erin; Or, Modern Sentiment, but it was, in the words of a contemporary, "the successful effort of genuine talent."[1] The five-act comedy first appeared on 11 April 1812 at the Lyceum Theatre as Prejudice; Or, Modern Sentiment and was sufficiently popular for twenty-seven performances and numerous laudatory reviews as well as at least three London editions of the play.[2] "The piece was received with much applause" and one reviewer dubbed it "one of the best comedies that has appeared for some time."[3] Reviewers generally praised Lefanu's characters and the probability of the plot as well as the play's social relevance. The Scourge, for instance, approved of Lefanu's comedy for its "positive tendency towards the cultivation of legitimate taste, and the promotion of correct and genuine morality."[4] The Examiner took a more political view, concluding, "The piece . . . goes off with the success it deserves. Some political allusions are eagerly caught up by the audience; and the following in particular has obtained three distinct rounds of applause:–'In families, as in governments, make sure of the women, and your business is done'."[5]
2. Lefanu was born in Dublin to author Frances Chamberlaine Sheridan and actor, theatre-owner, and author Thomas Sheridan. She spent much of her childhood in England and France, but appears to have lived in Dublin for most of her adult life. In 1776, she married Joseph Lefanu, a government official in Ireland and the brother of authors Philip and Peter Lefanu. She had three children, the eldest of whom was Dean of Emly and the father of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, the prolific novelist and frequent contributor to the Dublin University Magazine. The extended family of Lefanus and Sheridans included numerous other authors: Lefanu's grandfather was a translator and friend of Jonathan Swift; her brother, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, remains one of the best-known playwrights of the late eighteenth century; her niece, Alicia Lefanu, with whom she is sometimes confused, published a number of novels and volumes of poetry as well as a biography of Frances Sheridan; her great-niece, Caroline Norton, was a successful poet and controversial essayist on women's rights.[6] The early generations of the family had a particularly strong presence in the theatre: Frances Sheridan's plays and a farce by Thomas Sheridan were regularly performed in the second half of the eighteenth century and R. B. Sheridan's plays were, of course, considerable successes in their day and since.

The central plot of The Sons of Erin is fairly straightforward. Emily Rivers, whose extended family is virulently anti-Irish, eloped with Arthur Fitz Edward in the wake of her mother's death and her father's remarriage to a much younger woman. Having frittered away his inheritance and lost his job as a member of the Irish Parliament when it was abolished by the Act of Union (1800), Fitz Edward is in financial straits that only Emily's wealthy family can resolve--but they have disowned her for marrying an Irishman. Fitz Edward travels with his servant Patrick O'Shee to London in search of employment and finds that a cousin, and former love interest, Lady Ann Lovel, is now an intimate of the Rivers' household and is being courted by the overly jealous Captain Rivers. Lady Ann devises a plan to resolve all. She sneaks Fitz Edward into the Rivers home as "Melville" and arranges his employment as a secretary for the scientist of the family, Miss Ruth Rivers. In the meantime, the new Mrs. Rivers has fallen under the spell of a rake who uses the language of sentiment as a prelude to seduction. Proving himself an able secretary, resolving the Rivers' marital crisis before Mrs. Rivers falls into ruin, and generally behaving very virtuously and diplomatically, Fitz Edward becomes the hero of the household just as Emily arrives at her family home believing that Fitz Edward has abandoned her for his friend Lady Ann. This misapprehension is quickly resolved, the Fitz Edwards are reunited, and the family welcomes Fitz Edward and gives up its anti-Irish prejudice.

4. The play's handling of prejudice received much attention in the reviews. The Lady's Monthly Museum praises its "direct moral tendency" to eliminate anti-Irish prejudice and The Examiner cites "the laudable and seasonable intention of the fair writer to do away with the lingering prejudices with regard to the character of her countrymen," adding that "it is quite justifiable and proper to overturn gross and unmixed prejudices by favourable speciments of what they condemn; and while the frank and cordial features of Irish character will never want a proper appreciation from sensible people, those who condemn without having studied them, will find sufficient answer and refutation in the national portraits of Mrs. Lefanu."[7] A rare negative review objected to the charge that the English were prejudiced: "The principal end and jut of this comedy is to do away the imaginary prejudices of this nation towards our Irish brethren: but, if there be any such prejudice, it hath certainly not arisen from the influence of the English stage, as Irishmen are there depicted, almost exclusively, as the sole possessors of courage, gallantry, and generosity!"[8] The Sons of Erin addresses the subject of anti-Irish prejudice on a variety of fronts, contesting theatrical stereotypes, challenging the premises of the Act of Union, and presenting the audience with a greater national threat in France. Lefanu tacitly extends her discussion of prejudice by including not only a range of Irish characters but also a range of women characters.

In her "Advertisement," Lefanu took theatrical stereotypes as her main target: "The principal object of the Author in the following Comedy, was to do away any lingering prejudice that may still exist in England against the people of Ireland: this she has endeavoured to effect, by drawing a character she believes to be new to the Stage, that of an Irish Gentleman, such as he now exists in society." Her "Irish Gentleman" is an alternative to the stock theatrical figure of the "stage Irishman," a servant or a soldier with a broad brogue, a warm heart, and extravagant behaviour.[9] The Sheridan playwrights had a history of contesting the soldier variant in particular. Lefanu's father wrote a farce, Captain O'Blunder, or the Brave Irishman (1743), a popular stock piece which represents O'Blunder on more positive terms than are usually allowed to the stage Irishman, though his English is still marked by a thick accent and vivid idioms.[10] R. B. Sheridan famously fired an actor and revised The Rivals (1775) after his Irish character, Sir Lucius O'Trigger, was received as a stage Irishman.[11] The Sons of Erin retains the stock figure in Patrick, who closely conforms to the servant type: "these Irish serving men are depicted as faithful fellows, loyal and devoted to their masters, full of a sly resourcefulness and humour that helps them to make the best of a difficult situation."[12] But Lefanu's Irish Gentleman is not trapped in provincialisms and idiomatic English like her father's O'Blunder because he is a modern example who can, with a mere change of name, present himself as an English gentleman in an English household notorious for its anti-Irish prejudice. He has perfect manners and, more importantly, no brogue, no idioms, and no idiosyncratic clothing.


Lefanu's play thus arguably suggests that modern gentlemanliness transcends national character while the servants remain comically locked in its grip. Indeed, one of the reviewers complained, "her hero, though intended for an Irish gentleman, might be with equal propriety regarded as a Frenchman, a German, or an Englishman."[13] But Fitz Edward's cosmopolitan gentlemanliness is married to Irish patriotic sentiment and specific connections to recent national events, particularly the Act of Union which Lefanu's brother, R. B. Sheridan, strenuously opposed in the British Parliament. Under the Act of Union, the Irish Parliament was abolished and Ireland brought under the direct rule of the British Parliament which, post-Union, included some seats for Irish representation. Fitz Edward is presented as a member of the Irish Parliament who, on the Act of Union, lost his job and, implicitly, a promising political career. This historical context is crucial to the play, beyond its relevance to the plot in pushing Fitz Edward to find employment in London. Most literally, Fitz Edward's diplomatic and verbal skill contests the Act of Union's implication that the Irish Parliament was not competent to govern. More suggestively, Lefanu peppers her text with allusions to the anglicizing effects that the Act of Union was imagined to have: as Maria Edgeworth so bluntly put it in the year that the legislation was passed, "When Ireland loses her identity by an union with Great Britain . . ."[14] Fitz Edward's transformation into "Melville" implicitly invokes the parliamentary Act:

LA. A. And now your name, of my own authority, and without an act of Parliament, I change to Melville; and your country--

FITZ. Ah, my poor country! must I follow the example of some of your unnatural children, and renounce you too? (Act II)

Lady Ann is the appropriate schemer here, because her national identity is ambiguous at best. Fitz Edward is her "cousin" and "near relation" (Act V, sc. iv) and Patrick suspects that she is Irish, but she is never explicitly identified with any nationality. There was even some confusion in the reviews: The Scourge refers to her as "an Irish widow" while The Universal Magazine considers her a representative of English women.[15] Anglicization is raised more comically in Patrick's ongoing dispute with the English Mrs. Furbish over her refusal to pronounce the "O" that marks his name as Irish:

MRS. FUR. I promise you that I am not used to have friendship with one of your sort, Mr. Shee.

PAT. O'Shee, if you please, Madam; I had the O in my family before your first ancestor was born. And let me tell you that the friendship of an honest Irish lad would n't disgrace one of your sort, though you kept a house as broad as St. Giles's and as high as the Monument. (Act II)

MRS. FUR. Come, Mr. Shee.

PAT. How often must I repate to you that that isn't my name?--Faith, if you were a man instead of a woman, I'd make you say O' I warrant you. (Act IV)

If the pressure to anglicize in the play resonates with the aim of the Act of Union to blur national distinctions across the British Isles, the characters' responses do not bode well for its success. Lady Ann praises Irishmen and helps to overthrow the Rivers' prejudices, Patrick sticks valiantly to his "O," and Fitz Edward uses his guise as Melville to covertly mock the Rivers' anti-Irish prejudice.


Lefanu not only paints an Irish hero to contest the "stage Irishman" and the Act of Union, but also gives her English audience an alternative enemy in France. The play repeatedly associates French culture with moral threat. Mrs. Rivers, on the slow road to perdition, is fond of every French fashion and even has a statue of Friendship in her boudoir in a possible allusion to Madame de Pompadour.[16] The fop who is trying to seduce her uses French phrases and has a surname with French roots, "Fillamour," and La Jonquille, the servant who facilitates their improprieties, is the French counterpart of the stage Irishman. The play opens with the John-Bullish Oddley complaining to La Jonquille that the Rivers' house has been redecorated in French fashion and the play's resolution depends upon the chastisement of La Jonquille and the expulsion of Fillamour. The French, moreover, are abjected before the Irish. Fitz Edward out-gentlemans Fillamour in their conversations and, in one of the more burlesquely comic scenes, Patrick trounces La Jonquille in a war of words:

LA J. To be sure I vill--you can read de address?

PAT. I can read?--What should ail me?--it's light enough.--[reads] "To Mrs. Fitz Edward, Stephen's Green, Dublin."--Well to be sure, that is comical enough!--Pray who was after writing her this letter?

LA J. After? I don't understand after.

PAT. Why you don't understand before or after: you Frenchmen never understand a word that's said to you: so I'll go off with myself and my letter, and I am obliged to you for all your civility--Mr. John Quill. (Act IV)

Although each is confused by the other's accent and idiom, Patrick gets the last word by claiming a better command of English and mocking La Jonquille's manners (or lack thereof).


National character is not the only concern of the play, however. As the Manns note, "Sons of Erin is as preoccupied with gender issues as it is with Irish prejudice."[17] Miss Ruth Rivers is a bluestocking chemist who takes a bleak view of marriage and terms men "lordly tyrants" who "would enslave the mind, trammel our genius, set bounds to our invention, and deprive us of the rights of rational creatures" (Act III). Ruth in particular drew the ire of the Universal Magazine: "his scientific virgin is a declared bas bleu, and twin sister to Mr. Moore's chemist in petticoats, whom he brought forward in his opera of M.P.; yet as this race of affected females are extinct . . . we can trace no apology for their being so pertinaciously thrust forward, now, upon the dramatic censor, as their literary agency is abolished, and their vain pretensions disavowed".[18] Lady Ann, the charming, clever woman of the piece, also resists marriage, however: "My father chose to marry me at sixteen to a man whom I tried to esteem, but whom nobody could love; and when, after six years bondage, I recovered my freedom, I determined not to surrender in a hurry" (Act II). She also gently mocks Emily Fitz Edward for fulfilling a contemporary ideal: "You would not be half so interesting--is not that the word? Men feel their own superiority so much, when they are protecting, soothing, coaxing dear little helpless souls, that they quite doat on them" (Act V, sc. iv). Other characters in the play extend the range of women's roles. Patrick's foil, Mrs. Furbish, is a businesswoman who runs a successful rooming house for the well-to-do. Even Mrs. Rivers, the dupe of the rakish Fillamour, shows some depth of character. Her return to propriety is motivated by reason rather than emotion or coercion and, unsubmissive, she cashiers Fillamour herself: "You had supposed me very silly; and I had persuaded myself that you were very amiable--we are both undeceived:--and perhaps you might reform, if the warnings of reason and honour were not overwhelmed in the suggestions of cruel, worthless vanity" (Act V, sc. ii). Lefanu does not overlook any opportunity for comedy: we are encouraged to consider Mrs. Rivers "very silly" until the final act and Miss Ruth Rivers' scientific aspirations and crush on the much younger Fitz Edward are both comically presented. But the stage is dominated by women who are anything but naive about the effects of patriarchal power and, from the chemist to the businesswoman to the independent woman of means and the rational wives, do not fall into traditional types.

Julia M. Wright
Wilfrid Laurier University

Julia M. Wright is Canada Research Chair in English at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is the author of Blake, Nationalism, and the Politics of Alienation (Ohio UP, 2003), the editor of The Missionary: An Indian Tale by Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan (Broadview, 2002) and the co-editor of Romanticism, History, and the Possibilities of Genre (Cambridge UP, 1998), Nervous Reactions: Victorian Recollections of Romanticism (SUNY P, forthcoming in 2003), and Captivating Subjects: Writing Confinement, Citizenship, and Nationhood in the Nineteenth Century (U of Toronto P, forthcoming).


I am grateful to the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Canada Research Chairs Program for their generous support of this research. I would also like to thank Jason Haslam for his always-generative comments and my research assistants, Holly Crumpton and Lisa Butler.

[1]The Literary Panorama 11 (May 1812): 859. In publications of the period, the playwright's surname is usually spelled "Lefanu" (rather than LeFanu, the spelling preferred by her famous grandson), so that variant spelling is used here. (back to text)
[2]David Mann and Susan Garland Mann with Camille Garnier, Women Playwrights in England, Ireland, and Scotland, 1660-1823 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996), 197 (hereafter Women Playwrights). Lefanu's play was sometimes subtitled in the plural ("Modern Sentiments"). The play was widely reviewed. See, for instance, The Examiner 225 (Sunday, 19 April 1812): 253-54; The Gentleman's Magazine 82 (April 1812): 385; The Universal Magazine 17 (April 1812): 320-22; The Literary Panorama 11 (May 1812): 859-60; The Lady's Monthly Museum 12 (May 1812): 293; and The Scourge; or, Monthly Expositor of Imposture and Folly 3 (June 1812): 502-08. (back to text)
[3]Gentleman's Magazine, 385; Examiner, 254. (back to text)
[4] Scourge, 508. (back to text)
[5] Examiner, 254. (back to text)
[6]For a brief family tree, see Patrick Rafroidi, Irish Literature in English: The Romantic Period (1789-1850), 2 vols. (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1980), 2: 206. Reviews of Sons of Erin often cited Lefanu's relationship to R. B. Sheridan; see, e.g., Examiner, 253; Universal Magazine, 322; Literary Panorama, 859-60. (back to text)
[7]Lady's Monthly Museum, 293; Examiner, 254. (back to text)
[8]Universal Magazine, 321. (back to text)
[9]For a useful survey of the type, see Annelise Truninger, Paddy and the Paycock: A Study of the Stage Irishman from Shakespeare to O'Casey (Bern: Francke, 1976). (back to text)
[10]See Leo Hughes and A. H. Scouten, Ten English Farces (New York: U of Texas P, 1970), 222, 226; this volume includes the text of Sheridan's farce. (back to text)
[11]See Michael Cordner, "Notes," The School for Scandal and Other Plays, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998), 342. (back to text)
[12]Truninger, 24. (back to text)
[13]Scourge, 503. (back to text)
[14]Maria Edgeworth, Preface to Castle Rackrent (1800), Castle Rackrent and Ennui, ed. Marilyn Butler (Markham: Penguin, 1992), 63. (back to text)
[15] Scourge, 503; Universal Magazine, 321-22. (back to text)
[16]Madame de Pompadour commissioned a number of sculptures of Friendship; see Colin Jones, Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress (London: National Gallery, 2002), 70-73. (back to text)
[17]Women Playwrights, 315. (back to text)
[18]Universal Magazine, 321. (back to text)