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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634

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.

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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 legislation, passed in 1800, suspended the operation of the Irish parliament in Dublin and made the country subject to the English parliament. The demise of the Irish parliament removed one of the main focal points for fashionable life in Ireland. For this reason, absentees grew in number—landlords who declined to live on their estates and who spent their incomes in London and at English spas. The existence of this social group, however, does not owe its origins to the Act of Union, as Edgeworth’s novel Castle Rackrent (1800) shows.

The forsaking of Ireland for England is exemplified in the behavior of Colambre’s parents, Lord and Lady Clonbrony, and it is one of the most salient formative influences on him. Their behavior implies that there is nothing in Ireland with which they can identify. Colambre’s journey is intended to open his eyes to the falseness of such a position. The difficult but necessary transition from one jurisdiction to another is mirrored in both the public and private life of Colambre. In private, he must relinquish the claim that his parents’ behavior exerts on him, and on his future and autonomy. Analogously, he finds himself obliged to undergo the rite of passage from the master culture of a politically triumphant England to the servant culture of a politically eclipsed Ireland.

Edgeworth’s depiction of the Ireland that Colambre encounters, therefore, should not be thought of as merely a realistic reproduction of Irish conditions at the time. Much admired though Edgeworth is for her sharp eye for detail and for her breadth of sympathy and informed awareness of Irish conditions, there is more at stake than mere reportage. Colambre’s experiences with both Grace Nugent and Count O’Halloran make this clear. Both these characters are central to the evolution of Colambre’s Irish education, and both are not at all what Colambre expected to find in his native country. In her conception of these characters, Edgeworth seems to argue that whatever the quality of Irish living conditions, the quality of its people is second to none. This discovery is one of the more important that Colambre makes, and it is one of the primary reasons that he is able to envisage a life for himself in his native country, thereby removing the stigma of being an absentee.

(The entire section contains 2011 words.)

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