Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 939

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The Act of Union of 1800, which brought Ireland under the direct rule of the British, was a significant influence on the conception, execution, and reception of The Absentee. Some of the act’s direct implications may be gathered from the depiction of the Dublin that Lord Colambre encounters on his arrival in Ireland. The city that had asserted parliamentary independence about twenty years earlier is a shadow of its former self. The prospect of independence was part of the public atmosphere in which Maria Edgeworth grew up. Beyond that, the kind of juridical and administrative independence conceived by the Dublin parliament was one with which Edgeworth’s family of enlightened landowners readily identified.

The Act of Union dislocated the landowning class’s sense of where their interests lay, dividing their sources of identity between the control they had over their land and the judicial and parliamentary sanction for that control, which was now lodged explicitly in the organizations of the British state. The condition of dislocation was lived out literally by many Irish landlords who spent the rents earned by their land in a manner exemplified by Lady Clonbrony in The Absentee. This subset of landlords was known as absentees, and while their absence had been a feature of Irish life long before the Act of Union, the new political order made their dereliction of duty more difficult to overlook.

Edgeworth’s sense of the significance of the various problems deriving from the new institutional and administrative arrangements forms the narrative core of The Absentee. Because it belongs to the two series of novels and novellas known by their collective title as Tales from Fashionable Life, this novel may be considered representative of the so-called silver-fork school of fiction. There is, however, a great deal more explicit cultural and political awareness in The Absentee than in most other works of that type. Silver-fork novels concentrate on fashionable life to the virtual exclusion of other concerns. Although it is extremely difficult to depict fashionable life without being aware of its economic and ideological underpinnings, such an awareness is typically merely latent. In the case of The Absentee, however, it is Lord Colambre’s heightened awareness of the insufficiency of fashionable life that provides both narrative and plot with momentum and moral insight.

Thus The Absentee is not merely a search for a responsible agenda for Irish landlords and, by extension, Irish social and economic life. It may also be considered a critique of some of the vulgar consumerist excesses in early nineteenth century England. The freedom without responsibility that Lady Clonbrony exhibits is understandably embarrassing to her son. However, Edgeworth is also careful to note that she perpetrates her spendthrift excesses in order to gain credibility as an equal member of the society putatively enlarged by the Act of Union. The fact that she will never be accepted as an equal by the matrons who patronize her parties makes the point. Parliamentary independence may have been surrendered because of the Act of Union, but Edgeworth shows that there is no need for self-respect to vanish also. Lord Colambre’s decision to return to Ireland and to a responsible role there as landlord implies that the situation cannot be rectified by exclusively parliamentary means.

By going to Ireland, Lord Colambre forsakes the metropolis for the rural life, the fashionable for the unprepossessing, the self-denying mimicry of the salon for the self-empowering possibility to learn through experience. The strangeness of Ireland and the fact that Colambre does not bring with him all the moral resources and ideological self-consciousness necessary for him to live the life for which birth and fortune equip him are vital to the didactic purpose that here, as always, underlies Edgeworth’s fictional preoccupations. Lord Colambre’s experiences in Ireland register the country’s distinctive and frequently disturbing difference, and they challenge him to confront that difference.

The importance of his capacity to sustain such a confrontation is not merely to authenticate Lord Colambre by virtue of his personal adaptability to change. In addition, Edgeworth implies that if Colambre can adapt to Irish conditions and intervene in them productively, he will be well on the way to becoming a model landlord. With commitment, control, and maturity, he can redress the social and moral ills of absenteeism. The Act of Union will take its place among the statutes without having impinged on the integrity of the new generation represented by Lord Colambre. As a result, the integrity of relations between landlord and tenant can be restored, an act of union far more significant than its parliamentary counterpart because of the demonstrable social contract that is its premise.

Edgeworth grounds these social and cultural concerns in a series of challenges that Colambre must overcome before he arrives at the appropriately mature identity. Although Edgeworth’s significance as a novelist derives in part from the fact that she never shirks the large question, that question is shown here to have an unsuspected number of facets. Among the more noteworthy of these are the state of Irish culture, with which Lord Colambre engages through his acquaintance with Count O’Halloran, and the young lord’s emotional integrity, which is exemplified by his relationship with Grace Nugent. The fact that there is a link between these two areas suggests that Edgeworth is aware of the significance of providing Lord Colambre not only with property and moral intelligence but also with an extensive inner life, the existence of which distinguishes him from his hollow and defeated parents. It is the combination of the various elements of Colambre’s experiences that distinguishes Edgeworth’s The Absentee.