Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Maria Edgeworth wrote two series entitled Tales of Fashionable Life. The first was published in 1809, and the second, to which The Absentee belongs, appeared three years later. Although The Absentee is an important work of Irish fiction, it may also be seen as a commentary on London’s life of fashion and on the moral consequences of such a life.

In one sense, The Absentee resembles a travel work, a form in which Edgeworth was very interested, to which numerous members of her very large family contributed in their letters, and to which she made her own contribution later in her writing career. The disturbed state of Europe during the Napoleonic period caused many to rediscover the remoter areas of the British Isles, Ireland among them. Although Edgeworth does not use Europe as a point of comparison, she does adapt the travelogue to explore some of its cultural and narrative underpinnings. These explorations, in turn, have the effect of internalizing the travel experience, so that the end of the protagonist’s journey is self-discovery. Such a conceptual framework is used in Ennui (1809), the other work in Tales of Fashionable Life that has an Irish background, and in a later Irish work, Ormond (1817).

Despite its debt to the travel book, the landscape of The Absentee is a somewhat generalized entity. Lord Colambre’s travels introduce him to generic features of the Ireland that existed in the wake of the passage of the Act of Union. This piece of...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Maria Edgeworth’s Irish works, in particular, are a vivid indication of her ability to confront and give literary structure to some of the pressing issues of the day. This ability, and the inimitable intimacy of her demonstration of it, was first acknowledged by Sir Walter Scott and has been a staple of Edgeworth criticism ever since. Unlike Scott, Edgeworth is not a historical novelist, or rather her fiction tends to see historical tendencies in the present. The range of her work, therefore, is greater than those of most of her contemporaries, and in the history of women’s writing she has earned a special place by enlarging the intellectual, cultural, and tonal range of fiction by women. The extension of tone, particularly her ear for dialogue and her frequently satirical narrative address, is especially noteworthy. It is perhaps the area in which her work may most profitably be compared with that of her most illustrious contemporary, Jane Austen.

The use of rediscovery as a fundamental narrative pretext in most of Edgeworth’s Irish works, as well as the criticisms of city life that pervade her other fiction, has resulted in her being classified by literary historians as a regional novelist. Although this classification has long been synonymous with being marginal to metropolitan (and implicitly more significant) literature, changes in critical opinion and methodology have allowed the fashioning of the conceptual tools necessary to seeing the...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Capital of Great Britain and leading city of the British Isles, in which the Anglo-Irish absentee landlord Lord Clonbrony and his ruthless, social-climbing wife maintain an extravagant lifestyle. The Absentee is set in a historical period when the Irish social order was split over the question of union with Britain. Although the class of people known as “Anglo-Irish”—wealthy Protestant landowners—had dominated Ireland for generations, many of them, like Edgeworth’s fictional Clonbronys, spend their lives in England and on the European continent, living in luxury, while reaping profits from their Irish agricultural properties. Many of them never even set foot in Ireland, leaving management of their lands in the hands of exploitative overseers.

Ireland’s absentee landlord system, coupled with the emerging greedy Irish middle-class, oppressed the disenfranchised, indigent Irish peasants. In London, the Clonbrony family, especially Lady Clonbrony, attempts to buy its way into high society. Going to great lengths to deny her Irish roots, Lady Clonbrony denigrates her former country and attempts to marry off her son, Lord Colambre, to a local heiress. London here represents decay, and because of the absentee landlord system, the Clonbrony family sinks into decline.


*Ireland. Roman Catholic country ruled by Britain. The hero of Edgeworth’s novel, Lord Colambre,...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. Despite its title, this work contains an important chapter on Edgeworth. The overall context of the Napoleonic Era is taken into consideration. The obvious contrast between Edgeworth and Austen, and its consequences for the development of English fiction, results in a stimulating critique of Edgeworth’s oeuvre.

Butler, Marilyn. Maria Edgeworth: A LiteraryBiography. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1972. The standard biography, providing comprehensive information on all aspects of Maria Edgeworth’s life, work, and family. The sources, intentions, and reception of all of Edgeworth’s writings are discussed. Contains a thorough account of The Absentee’s social, artistic, and political contexts.

Davie, Donald. The Heyday of Sir Walter Scott.London: Routledge, 1961. A pioneering study of Scott’s influence on English and European literature. The distinctive place of Edgeworth’s fiction in this overview is clearly established. The Absentee receives concise and pertinent treatment.

Dunne, Tom. Maria Edgeworth and the ColonialMind. Dublin: National University of Ireland, 1985. An influential study of Edgeworth’s work, to which subsequent considerations of Edgeworth’s politics and culture colonialism are indebted. Dunne’s discussion is directly relevant to the concerns addressed in TheAbsentee.

Edgeworth, Maria. The Absentee. Edited by W. J. McCormack and Kim Walker. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988. Contains a scholarly introduction, bibliography, and explanatory notes. Also reprints material on the connotations ofthe name Grace Nugent and Edgeworth’s notes for an essay on Edmund Burke.

Harden, Elizabeth. Maria Edgeworth. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Harden chooses the theme of education around which to organize her survey of Edgeworth’s life and works. This approach reveals in broad outline the range of Edgeworth’s sympathies and activities. Contains a full bibliography.

McCormack, W. J. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1985. Contains a section on The Absentee, which is appraised in the light of Edgeworth’s reading of the writings of Edmund Burke. A path-breaking contribution to Irish cultural history.