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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 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.

Context

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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 significance of the marginal. The effect is that The Absentee may be read as the critique of marginality that Edgeworth originally intended.

This critique embraces not only the matter of Ireland but also the status of women. Edgeworth was realist enough to make Lord Colambre and various other young aristocrats the protagonists of her fiction. Yet she was also sufficiently insightful to realize these young men’s weakness and lack of direction, given their susceptibility to fashionable life. While Colambre may be the protagonist of The Absentee, Grace Nugent is its heroine, and this distinction is typical of Edgeworth’s work as a whole. The marginal, economically insignificant, and socially powerless female is depicted as steadfastly refusing to be dismissed, as being a model of integrity and self-possession, as being alive to the seductions of fashion but immune to them. Edgeworth’s female characters are nothing but themselves, a condition of independence which makes them vulnerable but gives them a degree of individuation which her male protagonists may earn only through deliberate effort. The same qualities are discernible in the author’s view of Ireland. It would force the issue to say that Edgeworth’s ideological and political views are essentially conditioned by her view of the role that women may play in the dramas of identity and self-realization upon which her fiction is based. Nevertheless, the interplay between the personal and the public may be seen either to be based on Edgeworth’s sense of women’s place or to reproduce a sense of that place as enabling rather than discredited. By confronting the issues of the day as they pertained to her sense of what was socially valuable, culturally viable, and morally desirable, and by establishing connections between these areas, Edgeworth found that much of what she had to say might be located in the status of her female characters. Her comprehension of the inner social reality of women is one of the more subtle imaginative acts revealed in her works.

Places Discussed

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*London

*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

*Ireland. Roman Catholic country ruled by Britain. The hero of Edgeworth’s novel, Lord Colambre, finds hope and salvation for the Clonbrony family in Ireland. Young and intelligent, he travels incognito to Ireland to investigate his family’s Irish estates and learn whether his mother’s negative ideas about Ireland are justified. Traveling anonymously to each of his father’s estates, he comes to know the truth. Known as Evans, on the first of his father’s estates, he finds that his father has just fired the likable and honest estate agent Burke for not extorting sufficient income from the estate’s tenants. The Brothers Garraghty manage the second estate, which Lord Colambre finds in complete disorder: Its church is falling down, its roads are almost impassable, and its tenants are terribly abused. Although the brothers almost openly embezzle estate funds, Lord Clonbrony fails to take action against them because they still send him enough money to support his sumptuous lifestyle in London. Again, Edgeworth emphasizes the decay of the Anglo-Irish social order.

Lord Colambre also finds a more peaceful existence in Ireland, where he comes to realize the true quality of the people his mother so severely criticizes. Eventually, he begins to view Ireland as a haven. Upon his return to London, he promises to pay off the family debts himself on the conditions that the Garraghty brothers are let go and his family ceases being absentee landowners. They must, he declares, return to Ireland and take up their ancestral responsibility of caring for their estates. Eventually, his family finds salvation by returning to Ireland—precisely what Edgeworth urges as the political solution to the decaying Anglo-Irish social order.

Bibliography

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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.

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