Burning Down the [Big] House: Sati in Sydney Owenson’s The Missionary

2017-05-22T02:16:47Z (GMT) by Frances Botkin
Sydney Owenson’s prodigious career reflects her preoccupation with issues of identity and performativity, topics that dominated her literary and political agendas. Best known for her 1806 novel The Wild Irish Girl, Owenson famously adopted the public persona of her eponymous heroine and performed the role of the Irish princess for literary and social circles in London and Dublin. Owenson learned her love of Ireland and the art of performance from her father, an Irish actor and theater manager who was committed to establishing a National Theater in Ireland. Owenson’s many Irish novels attest to her own commitment to Irish independence and Catholic emancipation, but she also wrote controversially about France, Greece, Italy and India. Her writings are populated with zealous protagonists – particularly women – who are profoundly devoted to the preservation of their religious or national identities. Her 1811 novel The Missionary: An Indian Tale, for example, introduces a heroine whose performance of sati disrupts colonial and missionary power. Examining the Hindu woman’s vexed status as a repository of culture, The Missionary explores the ritual space of sati as the gendered site for the articulation of cultural resistance.