Contemporary Reviews of Mary Anne Sadlier's Writing



William D. Kelly's "A Benefactress of Her Race" from Ave Maria, April 4, 1891, 321-325.
(Illustrations added by the editor; they did not appear in the original.)


Without desiring to lessen in the slightest manner the indubitable influence which written or chanted verse exerts upon those who delight in reading or listening to its measures, and with no wish to narow in the smallest degree its admitted potency as a formative agency, it may, perhaps be questioned whether Fletcher of Saltoun would not have given expression to a better maxim if instead of his oft-quoted sentiment, he had declared that he would little care who made the laws of a land provided it was permitted to him to write its popular stories. True it undoubtedly is that there have been instances in which some grand poem or stirring song moved multitudes to noble action, and awakened impulses that no prosaic tale, however deftly told, could arouse. But such instances are comparatively very rare ones; and the statement can not well be grainsaid that the story-tellers of the world have won more triumphs as moulders of popular thought and action, than the singers thereof have achieved, be the explanation of that result what it may.

And in looking over the list of American Catholic novelists whose books have enjoyed population circulation, it is doubtful if a single one can be found whose works exerted in their day -- and still continue to exert in a certain measure, not at all small -- a wider, deeper or more beneficial influence than thsoe of Mrs. James Sadlier. Other authors may have written more artistic tales than hers (though there is not one of her books in which the reader can not discern superabundent evidence that had her stories been penned under circumstances than those that attended the production of most of them, it would have been an easy task for their author to give them the literary grace and finish whose abundence rigid criticism may deplore); but few fictionists have written more effective stories. The very simplicity of her style, the naturalness, so to spak, of her characters, the unaffected tone of their conversation, and the plain, unvarnished way in which she inculcates religious truths and homely virtues are it may be the very things which rendered Mrs. Sadlier's books so popular, and gave to her pen an influence which very few Catholic writers of her day wielded. In fact, it may be said that, taking into consideration the times in which she wrote, the class of readers whom she principally sought to reach, and the purposes she had in view, Mrs. Sadlier's stories, without claiming perfection for them, were admirably adapted to the audiences she addressed and the aims she always endeavored to accomplish.

And among the potent agencies to exert a salutary influence on her Catholic countrymen and women in those early days, when their religion was subject to constant assault and misrepresentation, and when temptations of various sorts beset them on all sides, must be reckoned those of her writings in which the Catholic Church and faith are defended with such womanly warmth, the rewards of fidelity to Catholic teachings so pleasantly described, and the consequences of disloyalty thereto so graphically portrayed.

Nor is the reign of her influence ended yet, by any means. Her books are still in demand, and the devout Catholic of today can not read the simplest of her stories without experiencing a warmer religious fervor and a larger love for his Church; the careless one can not peruse her pages without feeling a sense of shame for his tepidity; and who can tell how many wayward souls, that might otherwisehave become castaways, have been stayed in and recalled from their wanderings by reading the remorseful tale of that repentant renegade whose confessions closed with these terrible reflections: "I am old, friendless, and alone; burdened with harrowing recollections, and ready to sink into the grave, unhonored and unknown. I was poor and unlearned in those days which I now look back on with regret, but I had many hearts to love me. 'Now,' said I bitterly, 'I dare not breathe my name to any hereabouts, for the memory of my crime is traditional amongst the people. And did they recognize me, all the wealth I have would not bribe them to look with kindness on him was once -- an apostate!"

Mrs. Sadlier, whose maiden name was Mary Anne Madden, is a native of Cootehill, in the County Cavan, Ireland; and was born on the closing day of the year 1820. Her father was Francis Madden, a man of refinement and literary tastes, and a highly respected merchant. Her mother, who died when her talented daughter was still a child, shared her husband's love for poetry and legendary lore of their native land. Business embarrassments and financial troubles hastened Mr. Madden's death; and in 1844 his bereaved daughter came to this country, bringing with her, among her other treasures and relics, a goodly number of old and valuable books, including some rare editions of theEnglish poets which had formerly belonged to her father. In November 1846, Miss Madden became the wife of Mr. James Sadlier, one of the original partners of the well known publishing house of D & J. Sadlier & Company, and went to Montreal to reside, her husband being then representative of his firm in that city. For the ensuing fourteen years Mr. and Mrs. Sadlier remained in Canada, and it was during that period that several of her most successful stories were written; while in addition to her other literary work, she contributed copiously to the columns of the New York Tablet and other publications.

In 1860 his business interests compelled Mr. Sadlier to return to New York, to which city he accordingly removed his family; andhe continued to reside there until the date of his untimely death, nine years subsequently.

During her husband's life Mrs. Sadlier frequently received most valuable assistance and inspiring encouragement from his wise counsel, keen business instincts and truly Catholic spirit. In his capacity as publisher, Mr. Sadler enjoyed especial facilities for ascertaining the tastes of the Catholic reading public of the day; and he was, consequently, enabled to offer his good wife man timely suggestions in regard to the character and scope of her novels. He would never permit her to become a contributor to any paper -- an many were the publications which then sought her stories -- of which his conscience in any way disappeared. And in matters of thi kind he was not only a stern censor of his contemporaries, but also a model Catholic publishers himself, carrying his principles to that extent that, when he was the business manager of the Tablet, then the property of his firm, he time and again peremptorily refused advertisements, no matter how advantageous the terms on which they were offered, to which the slightest objections could be made by the most capitous critic; preferring to sacrifice the popularity and prosperity of the paper rather than endanger its Catholic reputations.

In return for all the aid which Mr. Sadlier rendered his devoted wife in her literary labor, he received much useful assistance from her ever-ready pen and versatile talents. Not alone did she gladly help him to keep the Tablet true to the lines on which he thought a Catholic journal should be conducted, but she furnished its columns with much of the original matter they weekly ofered its readers; was now its editor, then its sub-editor; and securing for it contributions from many of the prominent Catholic writers of the day, won it the distinction of being one of the leading and most intelligent exponents of Catholic thought and sentiment. It may be mentioned here that among the highly distinguished men who edited the Tablet while that publication remained the property of the Sadliers, were Dr. Brownson, Dr. Ives, Dr. Anderson, and the lamented John McCarthy. It would be no easy task, even now, to select four more illustrious names from the whole catalogue of American Catholic journalists.

Mrs. Sadlier's first literary ventures were sent, while she was still in her teens and a girl at Cootehill, to La Belle Assemblee, a London magazine of that time, of which Mrs. Cornwall Baron Wilson was the editor; and Mrs. Norton, the poetess, was one of the chief contributors. After her marriage and during the period of her residence in Montreal, Mrs. Sadlier wrote for many Canadian and American publications; frequent articles from her pen appearing in the Literary Garland and the True Witness, both Montreal papers; and in the Boston Pilot, the New York Freeman's Journal then controlled by James A. McMaster, whose death is still deeply deplored; and in the American Celt, the editor of which was the brilliant Darcy McGee who during his life was one of our novelist's warmest friends and admirers. The simple fact that such editors as these not only accepted but gladly welcomed and persistantly sought her writings for their papers, is of itself sufficient proof that they possessed high literary merit. And in addition to the articles she sent these journals, Mrs. Sadlier was at this time a regular contributor to the columns of the Table.

The first book to appear with Mrs. Sadlier's name as its author was a collection of short stories entitled "Tales of the Olden Time," which issued from the press of John Lovell & Co., Montreal, and met with a very flattering reception from the critics. After this first venture, which proved a financial success, came: "The Red Hand of Ulster," "Willy Burke; a Tale for Boys," and "Alice Riordan," a companion story for girls. The late Dr. Brownson was always a great admirer of "Willy Burke;" and readers of Brownson's own writings do not need to be told that it was no easy accomplishment for a woman to win his praises as a story-teller. "Alice Riordan" first appeared as a serial in the columns of the Boston Pilot. Among Mrs. Sadlier's other bestknown works are: "The Confederate Chieftains," "The Blakes and Flanagans," "Confessions of an Apostate," "Daughter of Tyrconnell," "MacCarthy More," "Maureen Dhu," "The Hermit of the Rock," "Bessy Conway," "Elinor Preston," "New Lights; or, Life in Galway," "Con O'Regan," "Aunt Honor's Keepsake," "The Heiress of Kilorgan," "The Old House by the Boyne," "Old and New," "Father Sheehy and Other Tales." There were many others, her novels and translations numbering upward of sixty volumes.

Allusion has already been made to the fact that in all, or nearly all, of her works, Mrs. Sadlier had an especial aim and distinct objective in view, in addition to the general desire of furnishing the Catholic masses with reading that should be an antidote to the pernicious literature which was then current, and which was often thrust upon Catholics by persons desirous of accomplishing their religious perversion and ruin. For instance, "The Blakes and Flanagans" was written to warn Catholic parents of the periols to which the faith of their children was exposed in the public schools, wherein sectarianism was then so rife and belligerent.

"Bessy Conway" was principally penned for those Irish-American girls who were employed in service where their religion, and sometimes their virtue, were constantly and insidiously assailed. Again, it was chiefly for the purpose of ridiculing that silly and vulgar imitation of Yankee ways and speech which certain Irish immigrants affected, and to deride such individuals for being ashamed of their kith and kin, that "Old and New" was published. Others of her books aimed at making Irish Catholics, no matter what other country they owed allegiance and fealty, proud of their native land and their mother Church; and at keeping alive and active their affection for the old folks at home, and the good old Catholic customs and practices of their forefathers.

Not a few of her books were written at the request, or upon the suggestion, of eminent ecclesiastics or distinguished laymen, who, recognizing what a potent agency for good her writings were, naturally desired to see new additions made to the number of her books. "Aunt Honor's Keepsake," for example, was undertaken at the instance of Dr. Ives, with reference to the then vital issue of the New York Catholic Protectory, in which, as the prime mover of the institution, that distinguished convert took an intense interest. "Bessy Conway" was prompted by some conversations the author had with her late Father Hecker; and it was the request of Archibishop Hughes that our author translated the Abbe Orsini's "Life of the Blessed Virginia," as a companion volume to which she subsequently rendered into English De Ligny's "Life of Christ." Among her other devotional works, the greater part of which were translations, may be named: "The Year of Mary," "Collot's Doctrinal Catechism," and "The Catechism of Examples." Mrs. Sadlier also compiled a "Catechism of Sacred History," which is still used in Catholic schools.

A few years ago Mrs. Sadlier, who had continued to reside in New York after her husband's death, returned to Montreal, in order that she might be near some of her children who are married and domiciled in that city. Her family at one time consisted of three girls and the same number of boys. Of the [sons] the oldest, a youth of promise, died suddenly on attaining his majority, his death proving a severe blow to his mother. The second son, who was named after that great apostle of the Indies, in the hope that he might one day be enrolled among the disciples of St.. Ignatius, became a Jesuit, spending twelve years in the Order, and dying three months after his ordination to the priesthood. The oldest daughter is married to a son of Sheriff Leblanc of Montreal, and resides in that city; another girl wedded a nephew of the late Right Rev. James Chadwick, Bishop of the English dicocese of Hexham and Newcastle; the third, unmarried, devoted herself to literature, and has given the Catholic reading world abundent evidence that she inherits in a remarkable manner the literary talents and tastes of her gifted mother.

Perhaps the most prominent trait of Mrs. Sadlier's character is, and always has been, a natural love of retirement, that prompted her on all occasions to shrink from and to shun publicity as much as possible; and that rendered her indifferent to the distinction which her many literary successes often brought her. So long as she was assured that her books were being productive of good among the people for whom they were principally written, and as long as she knew that the purposes she had in view in writing them were being attained through their influence, she cared very little for the accidents of literary fame or reputation. Let it not be concluded, however, that she was in any sense cold or reserved. On the contrary: of kindly and sympathetic nature, she received people of all ranks and conditions, befriended all alike; and the humbler or poorer the caller upon her was, whether it was her charity or her patronage that was solicited, the warmer was certain to be her welcome, and the more generous the assistance she proffered. The genteel poor were her especial proteges, and she was always gracious in her demeanor to young literary aspirants.

When she resided in New York she took an active interest in all the Catholic charities of that great metropolis, aiding them to the best of her ability with both purse and pen. The Founding Hospital, St. Joseph's Home for the Aged, the Association for Befriending Young Girls, and the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, were institutions of special regard withher; and many other establishments were often made the recipients of her bounty. Prelates and priests frequently besought her services in behalf of religion and humanity; and whenever she could possibly do so, and many times at the sacrifice of her own interests, she cheefully complied with all such requests.

In the many family bereavements which have fallen to Mrs. Sadlier's lot, that faith which illuminates and beautifies so many pages of her books has sustained and comforted her; and the edifying piety with which she has invested so many of her most charming characters is but a reflex of her own religious devoutness.

During the days of her residence in New York, and before her first departure from Montreal, she numbered among the hosts of her friends and acquaintances the leading literary men and women of her time; and she was associated in her journalistic work with such eminent writers as Brownson, Ives, McGee, Anderson; while she had as contemporaries such personages as Dr. Pise, the Rev. Father Boyce, the Rev. Donald MacLeod, and many others of the clergy and laity, whose names are found in every list of Catholic litterateurs.

Her correspondents during the period of her literary activity was as extensive as it was unique and curious. Letters came to her from all parts of the world -- from every quarter and corner of this country and Canada; from various countries of South America; from all over Ireland, and from all parts of Great Britian; from Continental Europe and far-away Australasia; and in fine, from every locality where the "sea divided Gael" had found a habitation -- and whre is the region which that ubiquitous race has not penetrated? -- some glowing with warm praises forher books; other criticising this or that passage, character, or bit of local description in them' these full of the tenderst pathos, and telling of dear but sad recollections awakened by reading her pages; those racy with humourous recital, and thanking the novelist for having so faithfully portrayed some cruel, rackrenting landlord or heartless agent; and each and all bearing indubitable testimony to the incalculable amount of good her gifted pen was accomplishing among the scattered children of her native land, by confirming them and their descendants in the faith and virtuous ways of their fathers.

And it is when her writings are viewed in this light that Mrs. Sadlier stands pre-eminently forth, and is justly regarded as one of the greatest benefactresses of her people in this and other English-speaking lands. Especially was she such a benefactress to her countrymen and countrywomen in those lands whereinto their entrance was surrounded by circumstances similar to those that attended their coming hither. Twenty-five or thirty years ago Catholics occupied a far different position in the United States and in many parts of Canada from what they now enjoy.

It is unnecessary to mention here the many changes for the better that have since taken place. At the time when Mrs. Sadlier was writing her novels, Catholic books, and more especially Catholic stories, were comparatively scarce, while antiCatholic tracts and tales were many and multiform. The Catholic press, it is true, was even then doing valiant duty in defence of religion and truth; but there was an immensely large element, and no small section of it Catholic, which the Catholic newspaper failed to reach. It is the same today. For that Catholic element Mrs. Sadlier's books were chiefly written; to that audience she addressed herself; and addressed herself so well that it listened and laughed and learned, as she told it of its duties, amused it with her wit and humor, and warned it of the dangers the surrounded it. Her work was all the more valuable because there were few persons then capable of performing it in the acceptable manner she did. And that she was regarded as a real benefactress of her race was abundently proven by by the many flattering recognition of her labors on the part of prelates and priests, of persons eminent for their learning and piety; and it was demonstrated, perhaps by the many letters which came to her humbler classes of her readers, who wrote to thank her for a moral victory won or a better spirit awakened by the perusal of her books.


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