• About Frances Browne

    by Shirley-Anne Godfrey, IRC Scholar, NUI Galway. August 2021

  • Frances Browne: Literary Achievements

    Despite a lack of formal education, being blind, and the limitations of geographical isolation, poverty and gendered expectations of her time, Frances Browne became a literary celebrity in her day. Known as “The Blind Poetess of Ulster”, she worked chiefly in Edinburgh and then London.


    Browne wrote three collections of poetry, three three-volume novels, many short stories and essays. She was a prolific journalist and reviewer for many prominent magazines and is chiefly remembered for her best-selling children's storybook Granny's Wonderful Chair (1857). Browne became a literary celebrity in Edinburgh and London literary circles: a poet, novelist, children’s author as well as a popular and prolific non-fiction essayist and writer of serialised fiction. It is estimated by Alexis Easley that by 1866, Browne had published a staggering 178 articles in periodicals, 109 individually published poems and seventy-eight works of periodical fiction, including sixteen serials.


    These enormous achievements have not translated into contemporary recognition, and Frances Browne has been effectively erased from the Canon of Irish literature. Apart from cursory references in anthologies, Browne is virtually absent from the public memory with the exception of local interest.


    Patrick Bonar’s The Life and Work of Frances Browne (2007) pioneered a revival of local interest in Browne, and Raymond Blair’s The Best of Frances Browne (2012) further emphasised the sheer variety and breadth of Browne’s prolific literary output. in an Irish context Pauline Holland’s chapter on Browne in Treasure Each Voice (2010) provided the first scholarly consideration of Browne’s life and work and evidences a recent renewed academic interest in Browne’s writing.


    In New Media and the Rise of the Popular Woman Writer 1832-1860 (2021), Alexis Easley discusses how Browne’s savvy construction of her public image and her ability to present different aspects of her identity to different publics meant that she could at once occupy the role of rural, working-class artist in the Irish Penny Journal and a more cosmopolitan, urbane commentator for the high-brow Athenaeum, as well as simultaneously write with an Irish nationalist tone in her poetry.


    Heather Tilley discusses Brown’s novel My Share of the World in dialogue with Wilkie Collins’ Poor Miss Finch in Blindness and Writing : from Wordsworth to Gissing. (2018) Apart from these contributions from Victorian studies and Disability studies, Browne is chiefly referenced in studies on children's literature.


    Prior to the recent scholarship of Heather Tilley and Alexis Easley, the most significant critical engagement with Brown, was Thomas Mc Lean’s article “Arms and the Circassian Women”, about Brown’s dramatic epic poem The Star of the Atteghei which remains a foundational text in this growing field (2003).

    Andrew Sneddon and John Privelege, at the Coleraine campus, University of Ulster, include Granny’s Wonderful Chair and a poem The May Yarra in their database ‘The Supernatural in Ulster Scots Literature and Folklore Reader’ and point out that Brown “arguably anticipates the supernaturalism of the Irish literary revival.”


    Browne’s writings champion the working class, tenant rights, children’s rights, and the urban poor. Her anti-slavery, anti-war and anti-imperialist political positions and non-sectarian attitudes are evident in her writing and demonstrate just how essentially modern her consciousness was.


    Her successful writing career at a time when it was considered barely respectable for a woman to write, as well as clearly proto-feminist intentions in some of her work, mean that a reconsideration of Browne’s work is both timely and necessary. Browne’s own complex identity embraces Irishness and an Ulster Scots heritage.


    Writing from the seat of empire, Browne’s representation and celebration of cultural complexities in her Legends of Ulster and other writings make her a worthy avatar for cultural pluralism on this island and beyond. Never entirely embraced by one “tribe” or another, rehabilitating her literary legacy and sharing her heritage(s) remain urgent and exciting projects.


    Note: October 2023: This article is currently being reviewed and updated. We acknowledge the growing interest and body of work accumulating regarding the life and works of Frances Browne. We seek to acknowledge all who bring new insight, knowledge and elucidation to this body of work. If you are aware of any new articles, research or other works in this area, please do forward it to us at info@francesbrowneliteraryfestival.com

  • Selected Works

    Most of Browne’s original writings can be accessed on Google Books, or archive.org


    The Star of the Atteghei, the Vision of Schwartz; and other Poems (1844)


    Lyrics and Miscellaneous Poems (1847)


    Pictures and Songs of Home (1856).


    My Share of the World (1861)


    The Castleford Case (1862)


    The Hidden Sin (1866) (anonymously)


    The Legends of Ulster (1849-51)


    These twelve legends include the following set in Donegal : The Unlucky Birthnight (Barnes Gap), The Wreckers of Fannet (Fanad), The Sharon Ruction (Newtoncunnigham) , O Donnell’s Penance (Donegal town), O’ Cleery’s Tenant Right (Dungloe) The May Eve’s Yarra (Inishowen)

    Children’s literature

    The Ericksons; The Clever Boy or Consider Another -two Stories for my Young Friends (1852)


    Granny’s Wonderful Chair and its Tales of Fairy Times (1857)


    The Orphans of Elfholm (1862)

    Other Fiction

    The Young Foresters. Groombridge, 1864.


    The Exile's Trust : a Tale of the French Revolution and Other Stories. 1869.


    The Nearest Neighbours, and Other Stories., 1875.

  • Published Resources

    Blair, Raymond. The Best of Frances Browne : Poems, Stories and Essays by the Blind Genius of Stranorlar. Rathmore Books. 2012.


    Bonar, Patrick. The Life and Works of Frances Browne. 2007


    Easley, Alexis “Publishing and Reception”. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women's Poetry, edited by, Linda K. Hughes, Cambridge University Press, 2019, Hughes, Linda K. p 97-113.


    Easley, Alexis New Media and the Rise of the Popular Woman Writer 1832-1860. Edinburgh University Press. 2021.


    Holland Pauline ed. Treasure each voice: 400 years of Anglo-Irish, Irish and Ulster-Scots literature from Stranorlar. 2010 p. 743-750


    Mc Lean, Thomas. “Arms and the Circassian Women.” Victorian Poetry. 41.3. (2003) : 259-318.


    Tilley, Heather. “Frances Browne: Toward a poetics of Blind Writing.” Journal of literary and Cultural Disability Studies. 3.2. (2009) : p.147-161.


    Tilley, Heather. “Embodying Blindness in the Victorian Novel Frances Browne’s My Share of the World and Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch”. Blindness and Writing : from Wordsworth to Gissing. Cambridge University Press, 2018. p.182-207.