Sadlier's Biography

Sadlier's Background

Sadlier had an extremely long and prolific literary career that lasted from the age of eighteen to eighty. Relatively little is know about the personal details of her life, as she never wrote an autobiography and left no collection of letters, although letters written to her by her friend Thomas D'Arcy McGee, the Irish-Canadian poet and statesman, have been preserved in the Public Archives of Canada (Lacombe, Frying Pans and Deadlier Weapons, 15). The few extant biographical sketches are often contradictory and always spare. It is possible to piece together a basic outline of her life from various records, as well as her public writings, but her private thoughts will most likely remain a mystery.

Sadlier's Youth

Sadlier was born in Cootehill, County Cavan, in the Irish midlands, on December 31, 1820, the daughter of Francis Madden, a "man of refinement and literary tastes, and a highly respected merchant" (Kelly, 1) who could afford to have his daughter privately tutored (Lacomb, Dictionary, 293). Sadlier's mother, who died while her daughter was a child, "shared her husband's love for poetry and the legendary lore of their native land" (Kelly, 1). Little is known of Sadlier's childhood, or whether she had any brothers or sisters. Francis Madden encouraged his daughter's literary pursuits, and she published her first poems at the age of eighteen in a "genteel" London magazine, La Belle Assemblˇˇ (Anna Sadlier, 31). Francis Madden suffered a series of financial setbacks, and died in 1844 when Sadlier was 23 (Fanning, 13). More than one biographer suggests that "business embarrassments and financial troubles hastened Mr. Madden's death" (Kelly, 1).


Left impoverished and without any other family, Sadlier left Ireland in 1844 and emigrated to Montreal (Kelly, 1). She supported herself for two years, at least in part, by publishing for the Canadian journal The Literary Garland, although scholar Colleen MacDannell has speculated that Sadlier also might have worked as a domestic servant. Publication records suggest Sadlier contributed poems, short articles and sketches to the Garland on a monthly basis, eventually writing longer pieces serialized over a period of six months in early 1847. Sadlier soon found a larger audience for her work in the three million Catholics of the United States: in addition to the Garland, Sadlier published stories in such Catholic newspapers as the New York Freeman's Journal, McGee's New York-based American Celt and the Boston Pilot, the largest Catholic periodical in North America (Anna Sadlier, 331). Sadlier began to write survival guides for immigrants only six years after arriving in the New World herself. Her own disillusionment most likely played a part in the pessimism and anxiety that fills her novels. In one of her early poems, "The Village Bell," Sadlier writes an elegy for her lost homeland: "I hear thee now when time has damp'd/ The hopes of earlier youth,/ And cold experience shown the world/ In all its chilling truth" (Lacombe, 98).

Sadlier's Early Novels

Sadlier published her first book, Tales of the Olden Time: A Collection of European Traditions, serially in the True Witness, later publishing it by subscription in 1845 (Lacombe, Dictionary, 292). Sadlier's preface insists that she wrote Tales of the Olden Time because of financial need. "Had it been my fate to belong to that fortunate class which is happily exempt from the necessity of working, I should, in all probability, never have presented myself before you" (Lacombe, "Frying Pans," 99). Sadlier is thus in good company with Susan Warner, Fanny Fern and most of the American women novelists of the nineteenth-century, who began writing largely out of financial needs. As the panic of 1837 prompted women authors such as Susan Warner to write her best seller The Wide, Wide World, Irish economic depression in the 1840s, and most forcibly the Famine of 1845-1850, led many Irish women to emigrate to America to seek their fortunes (Tompkins, 589; Warren, xiv; Baym, 35).

Married Life

At some point after she settled in Canada, the young writer met James Sadlier, junior partner and Montreal branch manager of the New York Catholic publishing house D. & J. Sadlier & Company. The couple married in 1846. The Sadliers appear to have had a profound impact on each other's literary careers. Mary Anne Sadlier was both a contributor and editor for her husband's magazine and many books; James published, promoted and advised her on most of her books after their marriage. James frequently gave his wife advice on the reading habits of the Irish Catholic market, using his "wise counsel, keen business instincts and truly Catholic spirit," most likely focusing her novels on themes that would sell (Kelly, 1). Anna Sadlier, who became an author in her own right, notes that her mother "usually consulted with her husband as to the nature and scope of the story, and his practical business instincts, combined with the unerring judgment which led many to call 'the ideal publisher,' were of immense help" (Anna Sadlier, 335). The younger Sadlier may here simply be inflating her father's influence in order to conform with patriarchal marriage roles that demand the husband make all family decisions. It does appear, however, that Sadlier was responsive to her readers' demands; she changed the ending of Alice Riordan; the Blind Man's Daughter (1851) while preparing it for publication as a book, and gave her heroine a traditional happy ending -- marriage -- in addition to the good end Sadlier had planned -- spiritual salvation -- in response to reader requests (Lacombe, "Frying Pans", 107). In this light, it does appear likely that Mary Anne Sadlier adapted her writing to popular taste in order to increase sales.

Domesticity and the Woman Writer

Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sadlier combined motherhood with a busy writing career (Lacombe, "Frying Pans," 100-101). Sadlier's phenomenal productivity indicates she must have been working full-time. Sadlier and her family lived in Montreal for fourteen years, during which time she bore six children -- three boys, three girls and one foster son -- including Anna Teresa in 1854. Two of her sons later died young (James, 219). It should come as no surprise that Sadlier the working mother did most of her writing at home in her own library, and wrote most of her work as she went along, "chapter by chapter, often when an emissary from a too-exacting printer was waiting in the hall" (Anna Sadlier, 334-5). Indeed, Sadlier's literary pursuits, copious as they are, did occasionally take a backseat to her family's needs. "That Sadlier wrote her serial novels to weekly deadlines in the manner of Charles Dickens is clear from a note in the Tablet of April 1, 1865, temporarily suspending publication of this one, due to the 'dangerous and protracted illness of one of the author's children" (Fanning, 116).

Sadlier's lifestyle and her writing, like that of Stowe and most other female domestic novelists, were in stark opposition. Although Sadlier preached that women should stay home and tend to their families, she produced sixty books, edited a weekly newspaper, ran a business and was far more famous than her husband. In The Blakes and Flanagans, Eliza Blake is depicted as vain and foolish for learning French rather than acquiring domestic skills such as sewing; yet Sadlier not only read French fluently, she also translated at least sixteen French novels and religious works. Sadlier depicts Sister Mary-Teresa as the ideal woman, one who lives in retirement and selflessly devotes her talents to God and the benefit of others. The school teacher Sister Mary-Teresa was:

"a woman of excellent understanding, with a strong and vigorous mind, well fitted to grapple with the most abstruse subjects, if such had been her taste . . . Had she been a Protestant, she would have been "a strong-minded woman," beyond all doubt; she might have taken the lead at public meetings, edited a daily newspaper in some of our great cities, delivered public lectures, and written huge volumes on metaphysics or philosophy. But being a Catholic . . . her mind was early imbued with the old-fashioned Catholic notions regarding feminine modesty and Christian humility. . . . her talents were hidden in "the bosom of her God," and devoted to him in the service of his creatures." --- Blakes and Flanagans, 106-7

Sadlier was often described in precisely the terms she used to evoke the true Catholic woman.

"She was not a literary woman in the sense in which that term would now be applied. She did not follow writing as a career; she lived in as much as in retirement as circumstances permitted. Her instincts were purely domestic, and in those early days, it was the exception for women to devote themselves to anything outside the home circle." (Anna Sadlier, 331)

Anna Sadlier's justification of her mother's career, or non-career as she describes it -- in spite of the fact that Sadlier single-handedly ran her husband's publishing house for ten years after his death -- reads as if Sadlier's public life was in need of defending. Indeed, Sadlier's male editors were not naturally inclined to hire a woman. The male writer of a biographical sketch touches on the difficulty women faced in gaining respect for their work when he discusses the editor of the Quarterly: "The late Dr. [Orestes] Brownson was always a great admirer of Willie Burke, and readers of Brownson's own writings do not need to be told it was no easy accomplishment for a woman to win his praises as a story-teller" (Kelly, 324). Women such as Stowe and Sadlier may have had to negotiate patriarchal conventions in this manner in order to take the unconventional roles they did. As productive as Sadlier was, all of her writing was anchored about the most traditional and conservative of roles for women -- religion, family, children, education, and patriotism.

Sadlier's writing suggests that she was aware of these issues and grappled with them herself. In her preface to Tales of the Olden Time, written in 1845 before she was married and while she was supporting herself, confronts the position of the woman writer directly:

"Authorship is a perilous craft . . . seeing that there are so many master to be pleased. It is foreign to a woman's nature, moreover, to 'move in the uncongenial glare of public fame' -- hers are, or should be, the quiet shades of retirement, and woe to her who steps beyond their boundary, with the hope -- of finding happiness. A fair young Poetess, who only appeared in the hemisphere of Literature, to vanish forever from our sight, has sweetly and truly sung, 'Yet, genius, yet -- thou art a fearful thing -- Madness -- a broken heart -- an early grave --These are thy portions." (Tales of the Olden Times, preface).

Sadlier ends the preface to Tales of the Olden Time with a quotation that underscores her anxiety, or at least mixed feelings: "And there is as much wisdom as melancholy beauty in the well-known wish of a distinguished writer, 'May my sons be talented -- and my daughters happy!' Alas! that the distinction should be so just" (Tales of the Olden Times, preface). Sadlier here appears to agree with Ruth Hall's advice to her daughter: "No happy woman ever writes." Six years later, in Alice Riordan, Sadlier again takes up the question of woman's proper public and private roles. In the "Epigraph" for that novel, however, Sadlier sounds as if she is reconciled to a domestic role and takes pride in it, in contrast to the anxiety of the earlier preface. "Warriors and statesmen have their meed of praise,/ And what they suffer men record;/ But the long sacrifice of a woman's days/ Passes without a thought, without a word" (Sadlier, Alice Riordan). Although Sadlier describes many working Irish woman -- domestic servants, wash women, sweatshop workers -- she never mentions a married woman who works outside the home.

Sadlier experienced her most productive literary period after her marriage and was most creative after about the time all of her children were born. While living in Canada, Sadlier published eighteen books -- five novels, one collection of short stories, a religious catechism and nine translations from the French -- in addition to assorted magazine articles she contributed to the Pilot and American Celt free of charge. After moving to New York in 1860, she produced 26 books, including 14 novels, within nine years. Sadlier apparently donated her articles out of sympathy with the nationalistic causes of Irish journals. In addition to the novels already discussed, during her stay in Montreal Sadlier also wrote two novels set in Ireland: Alice Riordan; the Blind Man's Daughter (1851) and New Lights; or, Life in Galway (1853). In New Lights, Sadlier deals with the Famine for the first time. The book proved one of her most popular, going through at least eight editions in fifty years. In this novel, Sadlier focuses a polemical attack on the Protestant practice of converting Irish peasants by promising them soup, but condemns peasant retaliation and violence (Fanning, 116).

The Sadlier's New York home became the hub of literary activity in the Catholic community, and Sadlier also enjoyed the company of the brightest Irish writers in the United States and Canada, including New York Archbishop John Hughes, editor Orestes Brownson and McGee. She held weekly salons in her Manhattan home, as well as her summer home on Far Rockaway on Long Island (James, 219). Her closest friend was McGee, a poet, Irish nationalist exile and Canadian statesman known as one of the founding "Fathers of Confederation" who helped bring about Canada's independence. McGee and Sadlier shared an interest in a "national poetry" that would not only capture the spirit of a people, but inspire them to political and national independence. While McGee, as a man, could take part in political rallies and organize Irish- American support for Home Rule, Sadlier, as a woman, directed her support for Irish independence into literature. McGee's associates in "Young Ireland" included Samuel Ferguson, who in the words of one critic "become a link with the Irish Literary Revival of Yeats's generation" and were the founders of the Dublin newspaper the Nation" (Klinck, 169-170). McGee's biographer notes that Sadlier's success inspired him to write emigrant novels, and was planning a novel on this subject at the time of his death (Phelan, 285). McGee's controversial politics that cost him his life, when an Irish-American radical who opposed McGee's shift to the right assassinated him in 1868. McGee, who sorely missed the Sadlier family after their move to New York in 1860, had been planning a visit when he was shot. His death was "a crushing blow to Mrs. Sadlier and her husband, who were his enthusiastic friends" (Anna Sadlier, 332). Sadlier edited a collection of McGee's poetry in 1869 in tribute to his memory.

McGee's death in 1868 was the first of two devastating losses; Sadlier also lost her husband James in 1869. D. & J. Sadlier began to decline during the 1870s. An index of D. & J. Sadlier's success was its publication from 1864 to 1896 of Sadlier's Catholic Directory, Almanac and Ordo, a listing of all the Catholic parishes in the nation, the privilege of printing accrued to the most powerful publisher. Rival directories began appearing in 1886 as the company's influence wanted. James's death in 1869 prompted Mary Anne to assume a more active role in running the company. Denis was able to carry on the business, and emerged from the Panic of 1873 unscathed (Adams, 283). Financial troubles brought on by increased competition and unfortunate real estate speculations began to plague the firm in 1879, however, and the company was never able to fully regain its stride (Healey, 39). In 1881, Denis Sadlier was forced to close down the Tablet to ease his burden of debt (Lacombe, "Frying Pans", 103). Mary Anne Sadlier was forced to run the company alone after Denis's death in 1885, managing to direct the firm from Montreal for ten years until she lost control of the business to William Sadlier, Denis's son. D. & J. Sadlier was then "swallowed up" by P.J. Kenedy, who bought out the copyrights, and proceeded to reprint all of Mary Anne's best-selling work. A new tide of Irish immigration in the 1880s made Sadlier's 30- year-old stories marketable once again -- although Sadlier herself reaped few of the profits. Even P.J. Kenedy's official history of the period credits Mary Anne for her valiant efforts. "Henceforth, all the tireless Mrs. Sadlier's own work appeared under the Kenedy label. The original Sadlier firm survived on a very subdued scale until 1912, when the remaining assets were sold to P.J. Kenedy and Sons" (Healey, 39).

Sadlier's literary output declined steeply after James' death in 1869; she wrote no novels after 1870. In addition to the emotional loss of losing McGee and her husband within a year of each other, James's death meant increased business responsibilities. With the exception of one historical novel and a collection a short stories, most of Sadlier's writing consisted of readers for Catholic school children, a few one-act plays and translations. During the 1870s, she devoted much of her spare time to public works, in effect creating the kind of Catholic charitable institutions whose lack she had lamented in novels such as Willy Burke and Aunt Honor's Keepsake. In these novels, Sadlier had "exposed" the practices of American Protestant relief agencies, which aided the poor but insisted on their conversion. To provide Catholic alternatives, Sadlier founded the Home for Friendless Girls, the Foundling Asylum and the Home for the Aged. After Denis's death in 1885, she moved back to Montreal to be closer to her adult children, particularly Anna, with whom she collaborated on Stories of the Promises (1895). The tragic death of Sadlier's son Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest, in Rome in 1885 prompted her to write Purgatory: Doctrinal, Historical and Poetical the following year (Lacombe, Dictionary 294).

Sadlier, once something of an affluent New York society matron, was reduced to financial straits in 1895, toward the end of her life, when she lost control of D. & J. Sadlier to her nephew William and control of her copyrighted material -- a lifetime of work -- to other publishers. Once again, Sadlier was forced to turn to writing as a source of income, fifty years after emigrating to North America. "It must have been with no slight pang of disappointment that she left the home on Sherbrooke Street [Montreal], where for so many years she had tasted with her children an unruffled peace and received so many distinguished guests, to seek a residence in lesser quarters" (Lacombe, "Frying Pans," 104). Concerned friends in Montreal responded to her plight by creating the "Sadlier Testimonial Fund," raising $1300 which, as "the times were not propitious," Sadlier accepted. Friends also recommended her for several awards, so that the last years of her life gave Sadlier some recognition for her work. In 1895, Notre Dame University awarded her the Laetare Medal for literature. In 1902, the year before she died, Sadlier received a "special blessing" from Pope Leo XIII in recognition of her "illustrious service to the Catholic Church" (Lacombe, Frying Pans 105). Sadlier died in 1903 at the age of 82. With the exception of a few Catholic and Canadian histories -- she and work were forgotten after her death.

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