Edgeworth, Maria: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Butler, Marilyn. "Edgeworth's Ireland: History, Popular Culture, and Secret Codes." Novel 34, no. 2 (spring 2001): 267-92.

In the following essay, Butler discusses Edgeworth's Irish fiction and its relationship to historical events.

During the 1990s more critical work has appeared on the Anglo-Irish "national novel" than in any decade since 1800-1810 when, by common consent, the sub-genre first appeared. The new edition of Edgeworth in twelve volumes is a contribution to this collective effort, but the edition is appearing after what is effectively a "school" of Anglo-Irish postcolonial criticism. In the course of the 1990s Tom Dunne, Seamus Deane, Terry Eagleton, and most recently Kevin Whelan have between them established an essentialist line, not closely concerned with the text, on what they see more broadly as a body of writing initially by Anglicized and Protestant Irish writers that made the "writing of Ireland" a topic dominated by the colonial relationship with England and addressed to the English.1 Some of the postcolonial group argue that the relationship has from the first been hierarchical: they instance the debate Edmund Spenser borrowed from a dialogue by the Greek, Lucian, that of Civility versus Incivility, which survived into the nineteenth century with the Irish permanently cast in the role of barbarians. Critics vary somewhat in the closeness with which they make such general propositions fit individual writers. Whelan is most dogmatic in fitting the colonizer-stereotype to Edgeworth and in the process giving her a specific political role:

By properly playing their civilising leadership role, the [Protestant] Irish gentry could also wean the native Hibernians from clan to state loyalties; their assent thus ensuring the hegemony of that landed class.

(Whelan, Foreword xiii-xiv)

The proposition I shall put in my reexamination of Edgeworth's Irish writing is that when read closely all five of the works concerned indeed exhibit political objectives, but they are not these. Edgeworth has other objectives, including but not limited to nationalism, that prove her much more expressively committed than has hitherto appeared to the history, language, culture, and future of Irish people.

The best critical writing on Edgeworth in this decade has been more nuanced and more responsive to the texts themselves, as are the articles of Mitzi Myers, W. J. McCormack, Ina Ferris, and Katie Trumpener's excellent overview of the Irish "national novel," Bardic Nationalism (1998). Ferris and Trumpener however have defined this new genre narrowly, by only one of the formats in which it appeared, the fictionalized travelogue as allegorical romance, as used by Sydney Owenson in The Wild Irish Girl, which I regard as too concentrated on antiquarianism and too bluntly propagandist to offer an adequate basis for a discussion of how novelists collectively learned to represent nationhood as a social and cultural concept. Instead, I offer an account of Edgeworth's characteristic themes and methods when representing the Irish and how she developed them as a rich, ambitious blueprint for the national novel.

Edgeworth as a fiction-writer distinguishes her characters, with a new subtlety in relation to their gender, class and nationality, by what they have been reading. In her best, most bookish fiction of upper-class life she introduces a novel kind of sub-text that makes reading and conversations on reading an indicator of rationality and moral worth.2 An indicator of the opposite, as well, as in her satirical treatment of great men in her two most trenchant anti-Whiggish political novels, Vivian (1812) and Patronage (1814).3 In general terms, Edgeworth's characteristic use of allusive conversations conveys a sense of knowledge shared. The name of an author or the title of a book not only opens up other imagined worlds, but also gives us access to the world of books, the reading community, and (by the early 1800s) a specific community, local or national, which may never before have been described as an entity.



For all Edgeworth's reputation as mimetic mirror, the ideal reader her stories expect knows a lot about literature, knows the eighteenth-century traditions of romance and philosophical tale, and can appreciate her blurring of genres as hybrid forms that address the lived issues of women's lives. Her romantic impossibilities and unnatural incidents achieve their effects not because they seamlessly resolve contradictions and bestow the illusion of closure, but because their sophisticated variations on stylized genres befriend her readers as well as her protagonists. They playfully make us laugh; they purposively make us—as Edgeworth's characters are always enjoined to do—think for ourselves.

Myers, Mitzi. Excerpt from "'We Must Grant a Romance Writer a Few Impossibilities': 'Unnatural Incident' and Narrative Motherhood in Maria Edgeworth's Emilie de Coulanges." The Wordsworth Circle 27 (Summer 1996): 151-57.

In the Irish tales after Castle Rackrent, classic scenes of conversation in high life occur, especially in the opening chapters. These were particularly noticed by reviewers, since the Irish Ennui (1809) and The Absentee (1812) were each in turn hailed as Edgeworth's best work so far. In the body of the tale, however, where the setting is Ireland, she innovatively alludes to and incorporates popular culture: from recent or current Dublin and Belfast writing in English, satire, lampoon, and United Irish broadsheet propaganda; from the rural Gaelic-Irish tradition, folksong, story, legend, nationalist history, and occasionally magic. Edgeworth's level of encryption in the Irish tales is then a distinctive phenomenon, not recurring elsewhere in her own work or in the work of Irish predecessors or contemporaries. It is an intellectually self-conscious attempt at a group portrait of a hybrid, often disunited people who may have their own languages, some of them secret. It plainly addresses different readerships, either within the one nation or outside it. There is an implicit assumption behind this mode of writing that the English Protestant reader and the Gaelic Catholic reader will have a different reading experience. This is to set down in outline the case for a re-reading of Edgeworth's Irish tales for their intellectuality, their technical virtuosity, their role in literary history, and their move to open up the novel and literature itself to popular language.

A book that uses literary language and other literary devices demands the attention of its readers. A novel stands or falls by its use of language, narration, and plot—not by who the writer is. "Identity," in the simple sense of national or racial or religious identity, cannot itself explain the allegiances and motivations of even a single writer, especially when the writer consciously addressed a diverse public. Edgeworth from the outset wrote fiction for different audiences—between 1792 and 1801, lively short stories for children of various ages and "lessons" cast as dialogues for parents teaching at home; after 1801, novels and novellas set in English high-life; a sub-genre of these introducing French or Frenchified main characters; and her Irish tales, which also have sub-plots or substantial episodes introducing English or French characters.

The language Edgeworth uses in these different genres and sub-genres is tailor-made for its imagined audiences. In the children's tales the main child character, who is either decidedly rich and spoilt or decidedly poor and spunky, may be eight, ten, or twelve to fourteen—in the last case, he or she is struggling with an often dark adult world, and vocabulary and sentence-lengths adjust accordingly. Edgeworth's adaptability fosters her experimental plotting. She uses non-realistic devices from (say) fairy tale and a playful allusiveness to other texts in both dialogue and third-person narration. Her High Society is sometimes scientifically informed or chic and Parisian, that is, well-read in literary classics in English or French, reaching back to 1600 or before. Or, it can be intermittently raffish, as in Belinda (1801), from the introduction of other voices quoting more or less exactly from current newspaper items, fashionable scandals, popular caricature, advertisements, reviews, and the subculture of a big house, the servants' quarters belowstairs.

By characters' easy cross-references to their reading, the Edgeworth text supplies its real-life context. Books by 1800 had a cosmopolitan readership: novels were popular, bookish novels more popular than most. Edgeworth was speedily translated into French from this time, and responded by creating for her readership three socially tiered societies: metropolitan France, metropolitan England, and rural Ireland. Intellectuals of the late Enlightenment were fully aware of the social and political impact of the Europe-wide and Atlantic print network, of belonging to a reading public that knew itself by reading Reviews, memoirs, travels, and novels. Dugald Stewart, philosopher and mentor of the early Edinburgh Review, considered the circulating print network a guarantee of nineteenth-century progress.

Edgeworth, then, is not narrowly concerned with inventing either the national novel or the naturalistic novel, though she contributes to both; she participates in a historical process by developing a more stylized, consciously intellectual cosmopolitan novel, an intrinsically comparative and interactive exercise. Her high-life scenes in London Society portray a wartime English plutocracy driven by greed as illustrated by the London marriage market in Belinda. It is an idle, discontented class, further enfeebled by its own love-affair with French old-régime cynicism and amorality—as Edgeworth shows in her epistolary novel of espionage and adultery, Leonora (1806, pub. 1805), and Patronage (1814). Not exactly satire as Pope's generation understood it (though Pope is a leading presence in these novels), Edgeworth's high-life fiction is critical in a form understood by (for example) Jeffrey, Croker, and Jeremy Bentham.4

Edgeworth's Irish tales and the Essay on Irish Bulls are among her best, most characteristic writings. All five works are consistently and deliberately historical, but in an idiosyncratic mode that relies on quotation, the naming of authors and books, and allusions to familiar thoughts and ideas. These techniques make characters knowable, but in a new way, by having them reveal their own cultural milieu, deepened for the reader by the use of real-life people and the words they used. Radcliffe's gothic Mysteries of Udolpho and Scott's Waverley or Ivanhoe are obviously historical in that the author dates the action in a past age, but their authors' interests cannot be said to be more historical than those of Edgeworth, whose method is theoretically more organic and intrinsic. Her three later Irish tales all seem to situate the action in 1798 or later; yet the flow of names in narrative and dialogue is topographical, historical, literary, and cultural, embedding the characters richly in their own pasts and giving the reader access to the past. Her invented Ireland is fed by a broad stream of references to the history, personalities, and families of the island, its local place names and topography, its extant documents and archives, especially those bearing on the ownership of land.

Edgeworth's first solo book and for some her masterpiece, Castle Rackrent brings together in a narrational tour de force the archive of her own extended family, focusing on (yet also masking) its internal quarrels over money, land, and religion in North Longford between 1688 and 1709. Given that this is what Thady's narration actually is, Edgeworth misleads her readers in providing Castle Rackrent with the subtitle: "An Hibernian Tale/Taken from Facts, and from the Manners of the Irish Squires before the year 1782." The subtitle makes a point of being historical; yet, since the book was published in the beginning of the year 1800, only eighteen years on, it hardly reaches back into history. Critics beginning with Thomas Flanagan have unsuspiciously connived with her by interpreting Rackrent as a study of big historical events, such as the loss of the notionally independent Protestant-Ascendancy parliament, and the incorporation in 1800 of the Irish constituencies and some Irish peers into the parliament at Westminster. It is better to assume Edgeworth was out to puzzle her reader, or even play a joke, as she was doing in the contemporaneous Essay on Irish Bulls (1802). This could explain why we have yet to see a satisfactory explanation of how Castle Rackrent is supposed to be rendering such public events; or why the manners of squires a generation earlier might be relevant to such a theme; or whether, indeed, Rackrent qualifies as either a national tale or historical tale at all.

The story, told by the aged steward Thady M'Quirk, serves as the fictionalized memoir of his service of four successive squires on a remote Irish estate over a period of eighty years. The Rackrent family chronicles, it is now generally conceded, really do derive from a similar family memoir not fictional at all. It was written in the late 1760s by Maria Edgeworth's grandfather Richard Edgeworth (1701-70) from family papers; complete with legal documents, it is available in the National Library of Ireland. Richard Edgeworth stops at the point when both his parents died within a few weeks of each other, that is, in the year 1709, when he was only eight. The orphan boy was left alone as the couple's only surviving child. Half a century later he recalls his father, Frank, dying heartbroken after losing the lands and title deeds to the new house he had built at Edgeworthstown. That dark scene closes the memoir, known in the family as the "Black Book of Edgeworthstown," and it also closes Maria Edgeworth's tale of Sir Condy, last of the Rackrents.

The first Edgeworth to settle near Mastrim, afterwards known as Edgeworthstown, was the emigré English lawyer Francis Edgeworth. The Dublin-based husband of Jane Tuite, a firmly Catholic woman from nearby County Westmeath, Francis bought a medium-sized estate at Cranalagh, north of Mastrim, when it came on the market as part of an official reapportionment in 1619. The original owners of the property were O'Farrells, still in 1619 the dominant family in a territory known as Annaly until its modernization in 1570 as County Longford. Francis Edgeworth and others like him benefited from this second wave of anti-baronial modernization: big Old Irish or Old English estates were reduced in size as new gentlemen-farmers from further east or from England were introduced as improvers. Francis Edgeworth was the first of a line of four squires who lived at Cranalagh, two miles north of Mastrim, until Frank, the fourth, built his new house at what became Edgeworthstown.

But Maria Edgeworth changes the real-life story by making the first of the Rackrents an Irishman by descent. This was a purposeful decision: the central family in all four of her Irish tales is of Gaelic origin. Sir Patrick O'Shaughlin, a spend-thrift and jolly hospitable host, takes over the house and small estate from a relative on condition he changes to the English name. As a type Sir Patrick strongly resembles Captain John Edgeworth, who inherited the property from his father Francis in 1627, a landlord nicknamed by his tenants "Shaen Mor," Irish for "Big John." The fictional landlords between Sir Patrick and Sir Condy, who are called Sir Murtaugh and Sir Kit, are not specific portraits, but contrasting types pieced together, without regard for chronology, from one striking figure in the real memoirs, and one equally notorious neighbor—of whom more will be said. The original for the mean half-crazy lawyer Murtaugh was not an Edgeworth eldest son, and thus a legitimate heir, but the unfortunate Frank's younger brother Robert, a Catholic; a still younger brother and another Catholic, Ambrose, tricked Frank out of his house with the help of a perjured witness, as one of the glossary notes describes.5

Thady's fictional narrative allegedly covers eighty years, with considerable fidelity to small detail and notable omissions. His life-story matches landlord régimes spanning eighty-two years in the Edgeworth family chronicle. Instead of representing the era immediately prior to 1782, as the subtitle claims, the annals recount the eighty years prior to that, ending in 1709. Consequently, they cover Irish history through two periods of religious and dynastic war, followed in the 1690s by William of Orange's penal legislation against the Catholic gentry—the most determined scheme yet devised to break up big Catholic estates and disrupt a basic precept of English law, the rule of inheritance by the eldest son, and thus of ongoing family wealth and power. It is those two civil wars, of 1641 and 1688, that stand as the largest omission from Thady's narrative.

The Irish local historian Raymond Gillespie, editor of a collection of new essays on County Longford (1991), in his own contribution to the volume narrates the real-life slow decline of the county's leading Catholic family, the O'Farrells. He brings out elements in their story—a major schism between two branches of the family; then, incompetence, bad luck, backwardness, absenteeism, and in the senior branch, sterility—factors that regularly appear in Edgeworth's history of the Rackrents. There was, however, a point of difference: whereas the O'Farrells ran out of male heirs in mid-century, the Edgeworths by the 1690s had all too many quarrelsome siblings. Edgeworth holdings in County Longford had once belonged to the northern branch of the O'Farrells, which farmed the more boggy and mountainous terrain between Granard, near the Westmeath border, westward toward Roscommon and northward toward Leitrim. The Edgeworths were sharply reminded of the old owners by a dramatic incident in the house at Cranalagh during the rebellion of 1641. Big John was away from home, as the "Black Book" tells it. Tenants and local men broke into the house, stripped John's wife Mary, English Protestant daughter of Sir Hugh Cullum of Derbyshire, and drove her out naked into the countryside. A family servant, Brian Farrell, seized the couple's child, the future Sir John, then aged three, and fiercely declared he would kill him. He stoutly prevented the mob from proceeding with their main aim after plundering the house, which was to burn it down: the Farrells, he said, the real owners of the estate, might want to live in it. That done, he left with the child and hid him in the bog until he could be spirited away. Brian Farrell's descendents continued to live on the estate into the next century. He was, in his way, a double agent and prototype of Thady, though in a different political cause.

Since Gillespie, another Irish local historian, W. A. Maguire, in a 1996 article on County Longford, decisively re-sources the best-known episode in Castle Rackrent, indeed the best-known episode in Edgeworth, that of the "Madwoman in the Attic." In the process he uncovers an original for the one Rackrent who was not an Edgeworth. In the novel, the third of the dynasty, Sir Kit, incarcerates his Jewish wife for years because she would not give up her jewels. The real story referred to was public knowledge in the late eighteenth century, thanks to an obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine for Lady Cathcart, once wife of an Irish gentleman, Colonel Hugh Maguire. But the obituary wrongly located their household in County Fermanagh and for two centuries that location, relatively remote from Edgeworthstown, was assumed to be correct.

Maguire shows that the episode occurred in the 1760s in a Catholic household four miles north of Edgeworthstown called Castle Nugent. The owner was indeed Colonel Hugh Maguire, who was the nephew on his mother's side of the celebrated Grace Nugent—the subject of an Irish song by the poet and harpist Carolan and the name of the heroine of The Absentee (1812), after Rackrent the best-known of Edgeworth's Irish tales. The curious intricacy of plotting and the localism uncovered by this discovery has consequences for Edgeworth's readers. She can incorporate the history of neighboring families; in doing so she merges the real-life experience of Catholic and Protestant Longford gentry. A very high proportion of Thady's narration and many of the yarns that flesh out the glossary notes select archival material from the Black Book—not realism, so much as "the real."

Quite separately from these local and family contributions, through the device of allegory the story of Castle Rackrent refers to national history of the same era. Edgeworth left in a family copy of Castle Rackrent a pencilled note of a footnote she intended to add, but never did add, that applies to a line in Thady's narrative, "as I have lived so will I die, true and loyal to the family" (10). Edgeworth's jotting merely says "Loyal High Constable." That ironic allusion to a real title (Lord High Constable) would have brought in James Butler, second Duke of Ormond. By virtue of his office, he carried the crown at the coronation of the Protestant William and Mary, and afterwards at the coronation of Queen Anne. The second Duke inherited the office, though an altered title, from his grandfather, the first Duke, also James Butler (1610-88), who was elevated both to the Dukedom and to the title of Lord High Steward by Charles II at the Restoration—to reward him, gratefully but almost costlessly, for his stalwart support of the Stuart monarchs as their greatest servant in Ireland. As Steward, the first Duke carried the crown at Charles's coronation in 1661 and at the Catholic James II's coronation in 1685, thus beginning the family's tradition of truth and loyalty to four monarchs of the family.

Even before the accession of the Protestant Elector of Hanover as George I, however, the second Duke was no longer in favor and may have been planning a secret coup to bring James Edward, the Old Pretender, back to London before the arrival of the Elector of Hanover. Early in 1715, anticipating his impeachment and the sequestration of his vast Munster estates, he fled to the Continent to join James Edward's court in exile and to lead a Spanish fleet that in 1719 attempted to assist the Jacobite rising of 1715 against George I. It was indeed loyalty from the Jacobite perspective: equivocation, followed by treason, for Hanoverians.

Thady's resonant allusion to the second Duke in the novel's first paragraph need not make Thady a Jacobite; Edgeworth's codes tend to be more equivocal than that. Though it can be characterization, it reads better as allegory: Thady's service of the four Rackrents, who are so close to four Edgeworths, is analogous with the two Dukes' service of the last four Stuarts. Castle Rackrent reads as the requiem for an unlamented century, that of Europe-wide civil wars driven by religion and devious statecraft. A failed line of English-Irish landlords, disinherited by 1709, replicates the feckless, reckless, amorous Stuart dynasty, whose reign over the Three Kingdoms (England, Scotland and Ireland) ended in 1714.

It is sour and failing family history and national history that graphically merges in Castle Rackrent. But even more is perhaps at stake: what the Great House generally signified in feudal times. As it plainly tilts at the irresponsible Stuarts, Castle Rackrent also challenges the system—traditional landownership or the aristocratic system of proprietorship, sustained by male primogeniture on the one hand, profitable marriages and the strategic extension of kinship on the other. Great-House stateliness is debunked when Castle Rackrent's annals are handed over to an illiterate Irish chronicler to relate. The entire social system, based on kinship and alliances, is shown crumbling away as, in each generation, wealth-bearing brides make off with what they can salvage in money and durables. Even Thady's granddaughter Judy manages to rescue something from the wreck of Condy's affairs, and to frustrate the schemes of the men of her family, Thady and Jason. Perhaps the social changes posited here would need a timespan longer than 82 years, which may be why Edgeworth in her subtitle gives herself to 1782. Read this way, the glossary note on "the raking pot of tea," served after midnight in the bedrooms where women rule, is a key to Rackrent 's radicalism and a useful signpost to the nineteenth-century realist novel that is on its way (33, 65n). Old aristocratic stories of male dominance and legitimacy are being challenged by democratized women-centered plots of family life in which servants, including female servants, wield power, and almost anything is negotiable.

Castle Rackrent began in 1793-94 as an impromptu act of mimicry, delivered to a family audience that knew the family past, and made vivacious by being retold in the Hibernian vernacular of an ancient steward. The annals of the last landlord were added after a break of two years, and were in place by 1798. At this time, a plan for an Essay on Irish Bulls, to be jointly authored by Maria Edgeworth and her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth (hereafter RLE), had been in place since the summer of 1797, but little or no writing on the book-length Essay could have been done.6 In short, there is a clear break between Castle Rackrent and Edgeworth's other Irish writing, beginning with the Essay. True to its title, the latter serves as a trial run for Edgeworth's later fictional constructions of Ireland.

Rackrent is already a carefully considered work, as is apparent from the last-minute framing paratext, consisting of preface, glossary, and probably the first footnote to the text. Despite the spoken idiom in which it is delivered, Thady's narrative has real claims to be taken seriously as history, both for its detail based on fact and for its coolly detached commentary on seventeenth-century Longford and its landlordism. But Castle Rackent avoids contemporary political allusions, except for a sly joke in the closing paragraph at the expense of the Warwickshire Militia, for (presumably) being drunk and disorderly and reported as such in the press. In that respect it differs from the overtly and boldly political Essay on Irish Bulls (May 1802), and from the semi-hidden politics of Edgeworth's elegant later Irish tales.

As a family the Edgeworths lived in Clifton, Bristol, for most of 1792-93, and resumed life in a fast-politicizing Ireland in 1794. By this time the United Irishmen were fully operative in both Belfast and Dublin. Their press had become an excellent tool for disseminating reformist, indeed revolutionary ideas by a combination of satire of the rulers and generalized consensual objectives, attractive to liberals whether Catholic or Protestant. More to the point from the perspective of Edgeworthstown, two of the United Irish leaders, Archibald Hamilton Rowan and William Drennan, were in the dock for their part in these seditious publications. RLE was acquainted with both men since his days as a reformist Volunteer in 1782-83; he had corresponded subsequently with Drennan and took Belfast newspapers at Edgeworthstown. As he followed the trial of Hamilton Rowan, RLE would have noted the line adopted by John Philpot Curran, the impressive counsel for the defense, that freedom of speech was the issue. The Irish people were being denied what the English boasted of having, and by extension the Irish liberal press might also be subjected to official censorship or closed down. As Curran put it when summing up in Rowan's case:

England is marked by a natural avarice of freedom, which she is studious to engross and accumulate, but most unwilling to impart … the policy of England has ever been, to govern her connexions more as colonies than as allies.


Hamilton Rowan was found guilty but escaped to France; Drennan was acquitted; and so, too, in 1795, was the editor of a United-Irish newspaper, the Northern Star.

Also in 1795, RLE intervened in national affairs by offering the Dublin government a device of obvious strategic importance, a telegraph (which he spelt tellograph) of his own invention. Maria Edgeworth wrote the paper RLE gave to the Royal Irish Academy on 27 June 1795, "A Secret and Swift Messenger." 7 It gave advance notice of the feat he achieved on 24 August, a message successfully conveyed by telegraph from Scotland to Ireland. RLE explained to his fellow academicians that he was less concerned with the simple mechanics of his invention than with the utility and symbolic significance of a universal sign-language, a project worked on by seventeenth-century predecessors such as the English mathematician and inventor John Wilkins and, on the Continent, Fontenelle and Leibnitz ("Secret" 122-23). Their aim was to improve worldwide communications by inventing a device for instantaneous translation. Once the codebook was established and disseminated, a telegraph could serve as such a device. But the military interest in a telegraph was likely to be different: to ensure that the transmission of military information was not readable by an enemy. Neither RLE's codebook nor his tello-graph was adopted by Dublin. This may have been because in both County Longford and Dublin RLE himself was considered a security risk.

RLE was aware of the military need for a secure form of coding and decoding. It may already have occurred to him that books and a freely circulating press, such as that achieved by the United Irishmen, provided opportunities for passing secret messages as well as information. In an ambiguous aside to the academicians he hinted at this: "The press is an engine which every person can make use of to convey his ideas to the public" ("Secret" 124). From then on he revived cryptography as a favorite pursuit. And, in the form of riddles, obscure hints, and allusions to underground networking, hidden and double messages became a feature of his daughter's Irish writing.

Security and the removal of an inflammatory circulating press meanwhile continued to preoccupy the most powerful figure in Ireland, the chief law officer John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare. By April 1797 he succeeded in shutting down the last of the United Irish newspapers, The Press. His comment in the previous month on the United Irish movement succinctly identifies its constituent parts: "a deluded peasantry aided by more intelligent treason" (Whelan, Tree of Liberty 73). The Essay on Irish Bulls was adopted as a project that summer. The press, and Fitzgibbon, were salient elements in the eventual work. From the outset, the author's own security (against a minister looking for treason) was a real issue, so that the Essay was probably conceived as a kind of maze, a puzzling family game. It opens by giving readers a variety of clues about where it is coming from. In the first chapter of the 1802 edition we learn that the basic idea was a joke Jonathan Swift sent to a friend in London, Lord Bathurst, in 1730—he proposed to write a book on the so-called "Irish bull," as a verbal blunder, supposedly characteristic of the Irish, that proved their stupidity. Swift's book, he promised, would put this calumny against his nation into reverse: the English had themselves invented the bull; if it conveyed anyone's stupidity, it was theirs.

This theme is indeed faithfully followed, rather too much so, by the Edgeworths. There is, however, another hint on the title page, in a Latin epigraph from Juvenal which refers to Democritus, the ancient Greek scientist, philosopher, and doctor. It is not Democritus himself who becomes a direct source for Irish Bulls, but the seventeenth-century philosopher, doctor, and utopian Robert Burton, who signs himself "Democritus Junior" in the 100-page Introductory Address to his massive medical work The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).

With Swift as the work's inspiration, the book's considerable resources open up the books of others, most comprehensively from the ancient world and Ireland's, Britain's, and Europe's seventeenth century. Though the anthology consists of prose rather than poetry, it is eclectic in its forms, for these are often oral and informal: bulls, other jokes, testimony in court, vernacular wit, vernacular oratory, libels, travesty, misinformation, and coded meanings. In a more formal philosophical dialogue, however, the "Bath Coach Conversation" between representatives of the Three Kingdoms, an Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman, and in contributions from Scottish-Enlightenment cultural critics, literary critics, linguists, and rhetoricians, discussion ranges across the many genres encompassed by Comedy, the topic of "the low" as a legitimate literary concern, and the status of dialect speech as opposed to written and literary language. In the history of genre-study or formalism, the Essay deserves a mention, particularly for its inclusiveness: prose, dialect, vulgarisms, and the low are all in.

If on the other hand Burton is taken for the presiding genius of Irish Bulls, the Essay reads as an engagingly unorthodox cultural history of early modern Europe, especially the turbulent dystopic history of seventeenth-century religious war, as coolly surveyed by Democritus Junior, or Voltaire, or Charles II's best propagandist, Roger L'Estrange. Burton writes eloquently of a Europe preoccupied with war, want, poverty, and crime, and more compactly of the "dream of a better world," or utopianism, the literary genre that is a blueprint for an ideal commonwealth. The representation of England is conveyed in the Essay disproportionately by figures who could come from Burton's dystopic panorama and by quotations from English lawyers and administrators, newspaper-men and pamphleteers, partisans and libelers of the mid-to-late seventeenth century. Even more bitterly a war of words breaks out in the Essay each time Edgeworth touches on the Anglo-Irish government's part in the 1798 Rebellion and its aftermath. This indeed is a covert strand in the Essay, visible as a strand only by those who experienced the events described or sympathized with its main victims, the ordinary people.8

The Essay provides the first and the most elaborate of Edgeworth's imagined Irelands. Where Castle Rackrent was the chronicle of a family or at most a locality, what she achieves in Irish Bulls is clearly a much richer, more complex national community, by using differentiated voices and accents, groups of people, styles of discourse to evoke the Irish lower orders in their topographical milieus, urban and rural, and their past, as print culture or overheard voices record them. Each of the subsequent Tales picks up the multi-stranded format, each makes use of some aspect of ephemeral popular culture, each contests a metropolitan or Anglicized view by way of an undercover subtext, either invisible or unintelligible to non-Irish eyes. The Tales borrow the technique developed in the Essay for presenting an energized group portrait. Yet even the Essay has limits. It is not quite a cultural portrait of the Irish as a whole, still less of the three Kingdoms. Instead it gives an uncritical and likeable impression of the Catholic masses, offset on one side by a liberal, inclusive anthology of scholars of the Scottish Enlightenment on culture, literature, language, and society, and on another side by a less favorable impression of the English (and Anglo-Irish) as not altogether creditable lawyers, judges, and administrators.

The Essay sees to it that the Irish come off best, the English worst. Hibernian speakers in their workplaces or when appearing before a magistrate are as eloquent, we are being urged, as the great writers and thinkers of the ancient world or of civilized early-modern Britain and Europe, from More's Utopia on. The Essay is politically highly partisan. It is cast as in part an answer to a polemical Protestant Unionist, Richard Musgrave, author of Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland, 1641, 1688, 1798 (1801), a work that insists that all three Irish Rebellions were incited and led by Catholic priests, fought by their flocks. Hence Edgeworth's deliberately humorous, diverse, and well-documented portrayal of an apparently peaceable Irish population. And equally, her trail of references throughout the Essay to an unpopular, demonized Unionist politician, John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare, whose repressive policies had first closed down the liberal press, then unleashed the troops and Yeomanry to bully, torture, and hang suspects in the rebel counties who came their way.

The uneven representation of the people of the Three Kingdoms has the effect of equalizing their status and losing the idea of English hegemony, since the metropolitan center remains an empty space; the State itself in London is notable as an absentee. What is not omitted is the recent debacle of the 1798 Rebellion, and its harsh suppression from Dublin by a powerful cabal of three—an intervention headed by Fitzgibbon in his capacity as chief law officer. Clare offended liberals and constitutionalists as well as radicals and activists by the orders he gave in 1797 and 1798 to arrest men of military age on suspicion and use torture in order to get them to talk. Village blacksmiths were suspect in the eyes of the authorities from the outset, as potential makers of pikes. Catholic priests were seen as the ringleaders once violence broke out: after the defeats inflicted on the rebel forces, the priests were the first to be hanged in Wexford and Wicklow without benefit of trial. At the end of chapter III, Maria Edgeworth quotes accounts in the Dublin press of Clare's provocative demeanor, his boast of carrying a pistol as he walked through the streets of Dublin, along with the cruelty of General Lake, an Englishman, who scoured the Wexford countryside in search of men to hang under Clare's orders. She keeps the scenes in readers' minds and manipulates their responses by contrasting the Lord Chancellor's behavior with the gallant war record overseas since the Rebellion of two Scottish officers, General Abercromby and his next-in-command, Colonel John Moore, in Holland and Egypt. These two soldiers were particular heroes for those opposed to the Irish Government in Ireland because they publicly criticized Lord Clare's orders and the consequent behavior of many military units, as in Sir Ralph Abercromby's remarkable statement recorded in the press on 26 February 1798 that the militia were more dangerous to their friends than their enemies.9

In an entirely different vein, the Edgeworths create an encyclopedic jestbook going back to Greece and Asia Minor, ancient Carthage and Phoenicia—the last two, possible Celtic homelands, though the historically-skeptical Edgeworths do not claim this. Herodotus's history of the ancient Greeks recurs, as an analogue for Irish experience in ancient times rather than as itself Irish. The talented but outnumbered Greeks, fighting their big bully and near neighbor, the Persian Empire, snatched some famous victories by brains and cheek, made the great emperor Xerxes look very silly, and managed to survive, even to flower—as the resilient Irish, confronting the English, generally do. Other Greek writers, Aristophanes, Democritus, Plato, and above all the Scythian Greek-speaking Lucian—outsider, fantasist and skeptic—all figure as founding fathers of critical High Comedy, the true intellectual ancestors of the modern Irish. An Irish bibliography on the last page names Swift, Sterne, the Sheridan family, and an impressive proportion of the best eighteenth-century comic dramatists on the London as well as the Dublin stage. Implicitly there is a fusion here, or several fusions, between High Comedy and liberalism, and between Dublin-based intellectuals and writers and the Irish people. But the method Edgeworth has adopted seems more neutral than this: partisan inferences must be made by individual readers.

As a composite picture of the Irish, the Essay anticipates the Tales, making tales in miniature, in the form of three inset stories, succinct epitomes of the strained relations of the Irish with their British neighbors. In "Little Dominick," a school story for children, a pedantic Welsh schoolmaster bullies his small Irish pupil and ridicules the boy's English. "The Hibernian Mendicant," a tragic ballad, has an Irishman and an English soldier quarreling over the Irishman's girl, so that between them they kill her. The longest of the three, "The Irish Incognito," retells Lucian's charming fantasy, "A True Story," ingeniously substituting a boxing match between the English and the Irish champions for Lucian's war in space between the Moonites and the Sunites. But Phelim O'Mooney of Cork, traveling as Sir John Bull, goes from Ireland to England, rather than in the other direction. His quest for a wealthy wife lands him in jail, and then with relief brings him home, in a manner more characteristic of modern stage comedy.

Small touches in each of these short stories illustrate Edgeworth's use of codes and riddling. Dominick in the schoolroom is being mocked for his Hibernian reversal of the normal English usage of "shall" and "will." A bigger Scottish boy in the same class hums a tune to support Dominick—"Will ye no come back again?"—a Jacobite song, as the unpleasant teacher suspiciously observes. Again, "The Hibernian Mendicant" could be an "aisling," a form of Irish ballad, but it is also a story of the type used by Swift in the posthumously published "The Unfortunate Lady" (1748). It is an allegory in which the Lady in question is Ireland, wronged and oppressed by one or both of her big neighbors.10 Phelim's quest-romance consistently interweaves genres in the comic range with popular pursuits (the boxing match) and State politics (the sale by the French revolutionary government of Philippe Egalité's china). Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the French King's cousin but also a supporter of Revolution, is one of Edgeworth's intermittent devices for bringing to mind the United Irishman Lord Edward Fitzgerald, through his wife Pamela, who was rumored to be Philippe Egalité's illegitimate daughter.11 Edgeworth in the Essay on Irish Bulls has taught herself to keep up to a dozen themes or strands separate and in play. Providing glimpses of sympathetic thinkers, writers, even heroes of 1798 by means of a name or association is one method. But the nagging theme of English injustice always somehow seems more visible than the rest, rather as Burke, evoking the crowd-scenes of the French Revolution, saw a gallows at the end of every vista.

Ennui has a prefatory section, understandably close to Robert Burton, since Edgeworth began to plan her next Irish tale late in 1803. The first five chapters explore the fashionable malaise "ennui," alternatively known in the eighteenth century as hypochondria, in the seventeenth century as melancholy, and nowadays idiomatically as depression. The title and theme is the fullest acknowledgment Edgeworth gives of her continuing interest in Burton. She hints at this by providing what looks like a preface—the first five chapters in England, which function as a full-dress historical review of the unhealthy lives of the European upper orders from the late Roman empire on. In the middle of the five chapters Edgeworth introduces the Irish nurse Ellinor O'Donoghoe, a character second only in importance in the novel to the Anglicized peer and "hero," Lord Glenthorn. Ellinor is established in a bravura passage in which Glenthorn, the tale's official narrator, inexactly recollects the tales Ellinor told him of Irish history and myth as he lay concussed on his sickbed. After this, in chapter IV Glenthorn experiences one of the trials of high life, discovery of his neglected young wife's adultery and their subsequent divorce.

For this episode, Edgeworth uses a real-life scandal still identifiable at the time of Ennui 's publication (1809). Glenthorn's cuckolding, his offer to forgive his wife, and later the court proceedings, are all based on the actual divorce case (1789-92) of Henry Cecil, briefly Lord Burghley, later Marquess of Exeter, who died in 1804. Edgeworth knew the story well, even very well, since the adulterer in the case was the Reverend Edward Sneyd, her father's brother-in-law, and at the height of the proceedings in 1789 Sneyd took refuge at Edgeworthstown. The aspect of the story Edgeworth used was the aristocratic husband's apathy and enervation: the Judge, Lord Kenyon, the jury, and the press thought Cecil's inertia so odd that they suspected him of colluding with the runaways. The introduction of this recent scandal has a subtle bearing on the standing in the novel of Anglo-Irish ruling families. Henry Cecil was a direct descendant of the English statesman, William Cecil, Lord Burghley. As Elizabeth's chief counsellor, William Cecil was patron to ambitious men who came to Ireland from the 1580s as soldiers, administrators, and planters—and often passed the name of Cecil on to their descendants, some of the leading figures of the Protestant Ascendancy.

It is an important feature of Ennui that it works on two levels, as both a story with strong characters and scenes, and a foray into magic realism and the hidden Ireland. It is in certain ways the most closely observed of Edgeworth's Irish tales: three very different examples of naturalistic episodes on a rising scale are Glenthorn's set-piece comic encounter on the road with an irrepressible coach-driver; his surreal account, echoing real-life press coverage and local Longford stories, of the heroic deeds and horrors of 1798; and his domestic and village encounters with his loving but now alienated mother, Ellinor O'Donoghoe. If Castle Rackrent is a linear masculinist family chronicle, endlessly subverted by the women with whom the Rackrents ally themselves, Ennui virtually reverses this pattern. Its estate and neighborhood are more multi-stranded and complex, the people dangerously divided into hostile camps. Glenthorn feels oppressed by their numbers, as they wait in crowds to speak to him, and is soon further pressured by the hawkish Protestant gentry, who both command the local Yeomanry and engross the magistracy. The people have independent energies, and together they are conspiring. Nevertheless, the estate's affairs and the novel's plot turn out to be in the hands of three powerful women, all authority-figures and, under different rules of legitimacy, together standing for a hybrid Ireland.

Glenthorn is, naturally, set up as the regular metropolitan male authority-figure and aristocrat, who could be expected to have significant encounters with wild Irish Womanhood. Neither of the other women is as violent as Ellinor, when she suddenly springs at the head of Glenthorn's horse so that the animal throws him against the stone pillars of his gate. Taken up for dead, he awakes to find her in the room beside him. In a blurred state, he listens to her stories. In retrospect, he pieces together, for himself and the reader, her manipulative campaign to "Irish" him. From his sickbed he first sees her simply, uncritically, even sentimentally as his nurse and even a mother-figure. After this he becomes more exact about the stories she told during his convalescence:

I listened or not, just as I liked; any way she was contint. She was inexhaustible in her anecdotes of my ancestors all tending to the honour and glory of the family; she had also an excellent memory for all the insults, or traditions of insults, which the Glenthorns had received for many ages back, even to the times of the old kings of Ireland; long and long before they stooped to be lorded; when their "names, which it was a pity and a murder, and moreover a burning shame, to change, was O'Shaughnessy."

Her own voice, her attitudes, her favorite hero, have entered their conversations:

She was well stored with histories of Irish and Scottish chiefs. The story of O'Neill, the Irish black-beard, I am sure I ought to remember, for Ellinor told it to me at least six times.


Despite her care, Ellinor has had only partial success in telling Glenthorn about Shane O'Neill, in English eyes Blackbeard, the fearsome rebel and barbarian of the early years of Elizabeth's reign. Forgetting the first name, Glenthorn's narration would permit a careless reader, that is a Glenthorn, to think instead of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, Elizabeth's much more courtly and less barbaric opponent. He makes even less of her still more Gaelic reminiscences:

Then she had a large assortment of fairies and shadowless witches, and banshees; and besides, she had legions of spirits and ghosts, and haunted castles without end, my own castle of Glenthorn not excepted.…Formanya long year, she said, it had been her nightly prayer, that she might live to see me in my own castle; and often and often she was coming over to England to tell me so, only her husband, as long as he lived, would not let her set out on what he called a fool's errand: but it pleased God to take him to himself last fair day, and then she resolved that nothing should hinder her to be with her own child against his birthday: and now, could she see me in my own Castle Glenthorn, she would die contint—and what a pity but I should be in it! I was only a lord, as she said, in England; but I could be all as one as a king in Ireland.


It is a piece of writing that resists abridgement: the inner free speech of an imperceptive narrator and sick man, a collage that dangerously assumes no harm in Ellinor's ramblings on Irish legend, Shane O'Neill, and sinister apparitions. "We resist efforts by those who … employ artifice to change our determinations," Glenthorn complacently comments in retrospect, still underestimating Ellinor (175). Coming back to the passage on a second reading, one finds that Ellinor's political commitments stand out, as does (perhaps) her knowingness as a secret agent in the cause of Ireland. While the last remains a possibility, in mythological terms Ellinor has an uncanny resemblance to the banshee (in Gaelic, bean si) who foretells and delivers the fall of a great house.

Edgeworth's Irish country-house life is more populated and, within the conventions of satire, more plausible than Owenson's version in The Wild Irish Girl. In a style appropriate to stage comedy, simplified types, rather than characters, indicate that the main occupations of the Irish provincial gentry are husband-hunting and keeping boredom at bay. Young Irish women competing for scarce eligible men direct their jokes at Glenthorn and at an Englishman, Lord Craigle-thorpe, who is collecting materials for a book of travels. This figure was taken by reviewers and probably most readers for the modern traveller, John Carr, whose Stranger in Ireland (1805) became a subject for burlesque in England. Craiglethorpe is represented as supercilious and lazy, and it is plain that the company sees an amusing resemblance between him and Glenthorn. Since Glenthorn already has one discreditable English double in Henry Cecil, matters for our hero, can, it seems, only get worse, as indeed they do. He tries to propose to Lady Geraldine, a sprightly but dowerless Irish noblewoman, and she turns him down, despite title and wealth, for not being good enough.

Craiglethorpe meanwhile is being misled by the mischievous ladies, a confrontation that older Irish readers must have recognized. In 1776 an English traveler, Richard Twiss, toured Ireland notoriously borrowing "facts" and stories from (for example) the discredited and superseded Fynes Morrison and, with the help of Morrison and others, finding Irish ladies ugly, vulgar, and drunken (355).12 Dublin manufacturers retaliated by marketing a chamberpot that bore on the inside a caricature of Twiss's face. Edgeworth had several times reintroduced Twiss and his cleverest tormentor, a Dublin poet and satirist called William Preston, as one of her nice pairings of ill-informed English and ingenious Irish in the Essay on Irish Bulls. Presumably in order to reduce Glenthorn's standing still further, Edgeworth takes him to Killarney and has him do there what the hapless Twiss seems to have done in real life: he quotes his description of the scenery from another author's guidebook (Ennui 250-51, n226).

Ennui 's Anglo-Irish world is full of names that are historically suggestive. They provide an impressionistic chart of the layering of the Irish population by successive waves of British immigrants, from the twelfth-century barons on. Geraldine represents those barons as a member of the Norman Fitzgerald family, Earls of Kildare and Dukes of Leinster. Equally, the man she prefers to Glenthorn, Cecil Devereux, represents the next large wave of English immigrants, the Elizabethans. His first name, Cecil, evokes the Elizabethan statesman William Cecil; his surname, that of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Elizabeth's Irish Commander-in-Chief; the heiress-at-law to the Glenthorn estate, Cecilia Delamere, is yet another Elizabethan arriviste. Giving us three more Cecils can be no oversight; though Cecil and Cecilia are presented as virtuous, they are heavily outnumbered in the novel's pack of Englishmen, beginning with the aristocrats Henry Cecil and Glenthorn, if indeed we can think of them as two people rather than one. It looks as if the introduction of the scandalous Henry were designed to discredit the English aristocracy/Anglo-Irish gentry as a caste, in much the same way as digging up the Twiss story throws ridicule on English travelers as arbiters of Ireland. Such a reading of the satirical strand in Ennui conflicts, of course, with recent critical claims that Edgeworth's Irish tales are "Whiggish," or for Whelan "effete Whiggism," and that her underlying goal is to ensure "the hegemony of that landed class" (Whelan, Foreword ix, xiv).

Once the story moves to Ireland, Glenthorn's contact with the people is made more interesting than the upper-class scenes. It turns on his ongoing, flawed relationship with Ellinor, a mother and son irremediably divided by their upbringing and cultural experiences, whose half-understandings and frustrated feelings are depicted in a series of natural domestic meetings. It is also through Ellinor and her sons that Glenthorn builds up without knowing it a bystander's picture of the 1798 Rebellion, the familiar myths and legends of the Rebellion common to Wexford, Wicklow, and Longford, where in September the rising was finally crushed by the defeat of Humbert's French and Irish army at the Battle of Ballinamuck a few miles northwest of Edgeworthstown. The stories included the hiding of arms and use of ancient secret passageways, police and Yeoman brutality, the torturing of blacksmiths to find weapons, summary justice on suspects, and the "cute" servant planning to betray his master to the terrorists outside the walls.

Looking back, we find magic has been implied throughout Ennui. The hero's encounters in Ireland with three powerful women, each representing a different strand of the Irish people in history, capture him and transform him. Three times he changes, and three times he changes his name. The last change of name, part of it imposed by the modern Anglicized wife, Cecilia Delamere, who owns the title-deeds of the estate and now ruined castle, is the most striking because of its ancient suggestiveness. "The O'Donoghoe" is a name from the Gaelic-Irish history of County Kerry in the remote southwest—a folk hero who was an Irish counterpart of Arthur, the "once and future King." In old age, after a happy reign, the O'Donoghoe walked out on the surface of Lake Killarney, then under the water. He had told his people that when they needed him he would return, and legend says he was occasionally seen. It can't be more clumsy plotting, it has to be after authorial deliberation that at the very end of Ennui a man who now thinks of himself as by descent a Gaelic Irishman, named O'Donoghoe De-la-mere, comes back to his own land and people near the southwest coast of Ireland, and takes up the task of bettering their conditions. Cecilia's surname De-la-mere puns ingeniously: over the sea, but also over the mere or lake. For the English reader, her (or her mother's) snobbish requirement that he adopt her name is yet another sign of Glenthorn's enslavement to a female principle. For the Irish reader, the symbolic return of the Gaelic hero is much the stronger reading. The Irish plotlines knot in a finale that prophesizes the future restoration of the land—to an Irish population not solely Gaelic, for it is represented here by Ellinor's hybrid sons.

Is Ennui the most accomplished of the Romantic-era Irish national tales? Reasons for such a view include its weaving together of contested history and story, as well as its energized use of stereotyped figures of the native Irish. The best of these are bred out of colonial paranoia—best of all, as Edgeworth herself thought, Ellinor the nurse, but also Joe Kelly, the treacherous servant and, more topically and popularly, the blacksmith, seen as a figure of folkloric significance and heroism at this time. Myth is used here with special boldness in the finale. All three later Tales however exhibit an element of virtually postmodern skepticism about the possibility of a stable individual identity (a stability denied by the shape-shifting, namechanging characters), and by the democratizing, universalizing recruitment of old story that distinguishes the Edgeworth tale from clumsier rivals.

The plot of The Absentee, non-magical and less historical, has a coded subtext turning on Edgeworth's use of the song "Gracey Nugent," written in Irish by the harper Carolan, who died in 1739. Again, it is a woman, this time the heroine, who represents Ireland, and whose story the sympathetic reader must attend to. The heroine shares her name with an Irish popular song: it is the song-title that is the key, for it brings in many other songs, in fact whole traditions of popular and patriotic Irish song. First it represents, rather loosely, the tradition of the "aisling."13 The historical Grace Nugent must have been considered a lady, for her uncle was the Duke of Tyrconnell, James II's Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, who himself features (as a dog) in the satirical Protestant song, Lilliburlero. Grace's own song is not an interesting example, for it reads like any conventional lyric paying tribute to a beauty. Early in the eighteenth century these poems, routinely featuring a woman, could show her forlorn, perhaps homeless and wandering, perhaps abandoned by her lover. She appears to figure Ireland; her absent husband or lover alludes to the Stuart King or Pretender over the water or perhaps to his sympathizers and followers, the exiled Catholic gentlemen known as the "Wild Geese." Later in the eighteenth century the Jacobite associations of these songs began to fade, and the heroines acquired common village names, such as (in English) Maureen, Sheila, or Eileen (Ellinor). Such women now represented the rural Catholic masses; Grace's village god-daughter and namesake in the novel may be Edgeworth's acknowledgement of the more popular nature of Irish song.

In still earlier songs of the aisling type, the woman's virtue is called in question, much as Catholic and Stuart legitimacy was denied in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ireland. This story-line also enters the novel, and the virtue of Grace's Catholic mother, a Miss St. Omer, and thereby Grace's own legitimacy, are both suspected. Edgeworth had encountered Carolan's poem to Grace Nugent in Charlotte Brooke's edition, with accompanying English translation, of Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789). The real Grace Nugent had been a near neighbor, living at Castle Nugent four miles north of Edgeworthstown, a member of a family less or more friendly with the Edgeworths for generations (Maguire 146-59). Brooke, who became a celebrated author after her book was published, also lived before her death in 1793 near the town of Longford and corresponded with Edgeworth. Edgeworth apparently worked a special, Gaelic set of variations that lightly evokes the changing nature of the ballad heroine over time, and uses the history traced by the genre to tell a story about the trials of Grace's forlorn mother. A group of real-life literary women, and of fictitious village women, this time stand in for an Ireland where the Gaelic strand still seems powerful, even dominant.

The edition of The Absentee (1989) by W. J. McCormack and Kim Walker lays out the political significance of the name Nugent as referring to real-life leading Catholics, Jacobites, and "Wild Geese." Our edition suggests that the text refers to other real-life Nugents who played a political role in Irish and pro-Catholic campaigns. The first of these was an Irish-born MP in the Westminster Parliament, Earl Nugent, who proposed both religious and financial reforms on Ireland's behalf in 1778. The second, still more significant for the novel's denouement, was a minor political song-writer of the 1790s.

Towards the end, Grace does turn out to be legitimate, but, puzzlingly, she also acquires an English-sounding grandfather called Reynolds, so that her name, awkwardly, becomes Grace Nugent Reynolds or just "Miss Reynolds." Her identity has strangely begun to merge, but for three letters, with that of a real-life Irishman, George Nugent Reynolds, author of songs such as "The Catholic's Lamentation," also known as "Green were the fields where my forefathers dwellt-O," and "Kathleen O'More." These songs appeared in Dublin journals regarded as politically suspect by the government because of their links with the United Irishmen. The journals were the Sentimental and Masonic Magazine, Carey's Evening Star, and Watty Cox's Irish Magazine, which typically signed the songs with the poet's initials, "G-e R-s" and "G-e R-n-lds." George Nugent Reynolds, a Protestant gentleman from South Leitrim, was then a well-known contributor to general magazines supportive of the United Irishmen in the very years, 1794 to 1797, when the government was shutting other parts of this press down.

In 1799, during the tense round-up following the Rebellion, George became a notable public figure. His celebrity was enhanced thanks to the severity shown him by the unpopular John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare, who deprived him of his office as a Justice of the Peace on the grounds that his loyalty was in doubt. George retaliated by addressing Fitzgibbon with a defiant open letter, immediately published in Watty Cox's suspect magazine. Referring to Fitzgibbon's Catholic antecedents, Nugent Reynolds said he would have behaved more like a gentleman if he had been educated, as his father intended, in the Jesuit college at St. Omer. In times of crisis and press censorship, resistance movements relied on songs or fiction with double meanings or cryptic press items to circulate rebel messages. The use of such songs and such messages by a writer would have constituted an expression of sympathy with the Catholic side. In this particular quarrel, the author's tactic of distancing herself from the harsh policies of the Dublin Government seems unmistakable.

The finale of The Absentee celebrates in the novel's closing rituals the homecoming of Grace as the legitimate heiress of a remote divided Irish estate, in some sense that Lord and Lady Clonbrony and their son Lord Colambre are not. For local Irish readers, the real-life estate referred to would have been identifiable as Colambre, three miles south of Granard near the Westmeath border. But Colambre in real life was not yoked to Clonbrony, as it is in the novel. It is linked to Castle Nugent, the home of a Longford branch of the Catholic Nugent family. The real-life Clonbrony, some two miles west, was close to Kilshruly, at the end of the seventeenth century the family seat of the Catholic younger branch of the Edgeworth family, whose owner, the intriguing Robert Edgeworth, tried and for a while succeeded in unseating the Protestant senior branch of the family at Edgeworthstown.14 In short, the historical placenames have Catholic associations, as does Grace's own name. Where a novel adopts the traditions of stage comedy, it arrives at closure in a marriage, but often at something deeper, a restitution. This is the case in The Absentee as in Ennui. Grace's homecoming has an equivalent or greater historical depth than that of Ellinor O'Donoghoe's son, for it is celebrated in a mighty bonfire that, according to the villager who describes it, could be "seen … from all parts of the three counties" (Absentee 200), a fiery echo of ancient-world sunworship.

In Ormond (1817), Edgeworth returns to the manner of her most theoretical construction of Ireland and most ambitiously composite book, the Essay on Irish Bulls. Ormond 's plot is a maze of classic quest-plots ancient and modern: Harry Ormond relives the experiences of Telemachus, wandering son of the wandering Ulysses; Tom Jones, who is also in quest of a father; Shakespeare's Prince Hal; Spenser's Red Cross Knight; and Sidney's prince Musidorus in Arcadia.15 More elaborately than anywhere else, Edgeworth weaves together quests, poetic fantasies, and idealistic projects from the later Elizabethan period of about 1580 to about 1700 and locates them in the southwest and middle of Ireland, in County Long-ford and Munster. The novel is her most sustained and artful literary collage, a composite portrait of Irish (meaning Irish-resident) men and women over the two centuries that began with the arrival of the first Elizabethan planters. One remarkable character, the eccentric self-styled "King" Corny, incorporates the scientific and technological projects, the old and new learning, above all the social idealism, egalitarianism, and republicanism that (in addition to land-hunger and greed) sustained the century's fervor to re-make paradise on either side of the Atlantic. Edgeworth often uses fairy-tale and classical and early-modern fantasy, all long-established literary languages, but in Ormond she comes closer to attempting a utopia, a more philosophical and complex mode. The world the politician Sir Ulick makes for himself in provincial Ireland is a dystopia full of the quarrels and hatreds familiar enough in seventeenth-century religious wars, and revived in the post-Union Irish countryside, Edgeworth suggests, in the sectarian squabbles fought by educationalists setting up an Irish school system. The utopia to be built on the remote Black Islands that Edgeworth comes near to imagining in Ormond is a changing and imperfect one—a mixture of Corny's superseded paternalism with the idealism of a group of friends.

Corny is an important figure in Ormond, and his place in the historical allegory needs consideration. His home is an island in Lough Ree, largest of the Shannon lakes, the natural boundary between Annaly and Connaught in the west; its southern tip, where Munster begins. The Shannon system is the dominant geographical feature of central Ireland, which is Edgeworth's Ireland. The islands that dot its many lakes are often associated with the long history of Ireland as a dark-age "land of saints," and the medieval era of abbeys, churches, hermitages, and defensive towers, buildings in stone that survived only as ruins. Their name, "the Black Islands," comes however from the Arabian Nights: this is also a kind of Arcadia. Traditionally, utopias too are found on islands, sometimes on magical islands that appear and disappear so that they cannot be found again. The key is that Corny's home is an ideal place, where we see many ideas tried out and dreams of the future conceived. Corny, whose closest confidant is the local priest, embodies Catholic Ireland. His lifestyle and attitudes are old-fashioned and seem to belong to the early-to-mid seventeenth century, when Ireland and especially Munster was also the homeland of projectors, inventors, plantationmakers—at their most eminent for the English, Robert Boyle, later of the Royal Society, and Sir William Petty—but also many other scholars, including Ireland's early-modern Gaelic-language historians, such as Geoffrey Keating and the Anglican scholar Archbishop Ussher, who had friendly relations with Celtic scholars.

In Ormond, however, one Elizabethan Munster planter William Herbert (died 1593) stands for the rest; and this real-life story, sketched into the plot, is the Protestant and English modernizing counterpart of Corny's benign traditional patriarchy. William Herbert of Castleisland, near Tralee in west Munster, was in real life a man of literature and learning. He wrote a poem to Sir Philip Sidney, a treatise in Latin on Ireland, and he subscribed to the mystical Platonism of the sixteenth-century Florentine school. On the Welsh borders other gentlemen shared the same enthusiasms: William Herbert married Florence, the daughter of William Morgan of Llantarnan, Monmouthshire, a Neo-Platonist, if his daughter's first name is any indication. William Herbert has given his name to the novel's idealized landlord, Herbert Annaly; his wife Florence Herbert gives her name to Herbert Annaly's sister, whom Ormond eventually marries. In real life William Herbert quarreled with a neighbor, Sir Edward Denny of Tralee, whom Herbert accused of encouraging pirates on the coast. That episode figures in the novel, when Herbert Annaly becomes involved in a fracas with smugglers on the seashore that causes his death. In one respect, however, William Herbert is an insufficient model for Herbert Annaly. It was his son-in-law, Edward Herbert of Cherbury, Lord Castleisland in the Irish peerage, who was the ecumenical thinker, a conscientious objector to England's sectarian Civil War of the 1640s, and a man who wrote his own autobiography as a chivalric, dream-like Arcadian romance: a book that had a cult following among RLE's friends of the Lunar Society of Birmingham after its publication by Horace Walpole in 1764. In style, Herbert's Life is a model for RLE's own first volume of his Memoirs, which in 1817, as Maria wrote Ormond, he made her promise to complete.16

Corny in his youth had been the contemporary of the father of "White" and "Black" Connal; this fact confirms his place among the Gaelic Old Irish landowners of Annaly, or County Longford. It suggests he lived between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the dominant O'Farrells divided themselves into two factions, White and Yellow, one group to lead largely provincial lives, based on farming, in backward, boggy North Longford, before the line of male heirs failed them. Meanwhile the more sophisticated Yellow O'Farrells communicated with the English and French Court at both Westminster and Versailles. After her father has pressed Dora to marry White Connal, he suddenly dies. Dora throws in her lot with the soldier Black Connal, whom she accompanies to Versailles, as a Catholic gentleman's daughter in the late seventeenth century might well have done. Dora's separate adventure, a subtly unhappy story, complements the book's many male quest-romances, while its glamour puts London's attractions in the shade. It stands as a reminder that the Irish Catholic gentry had stood for civility in history in ways beyond the reach of English squires. Because Dora in Sidney's Arcadia was actually Pamela, the tale also offers a wry suggestion of the many historical occasions when Irish and French united against the English.

To return to the question with which I began this investigation of Edgeworth's diverse cultural materials: in what sense does Edgeworth write "national novels"? All Edgeworth's writing on Ireland, even the relatively local Castle Rackrent, is concerned with its nationhood. Work on the densely literary Essay on Irish Bulls sophisticated Edgeworth's approach, by requiring her to reflect on what a nation is when it is less than an autonomous state. To judge from the materials she includes in the Essay as in some way Irish (such as the High Comedy of the ancient Greeks), Edgeworth considers that a nation's group identity rests on its shared experiences, as these have been passed down in history and story over time: in sharing land, particularly a land with well-defined borders such as an island, and in sharing a language, with all that that implies of popular literature in its many genres, written and oral. Language is problematic, however, for the Irish have two languages, one of which, the Gaelic Irish tongue, is used almost entirely by the Old Irish part of the population, while the other, Hibernian English, is treated by the English as an inferior dialect. Religion, for other nations a cohesive factor, has been and is divisive in Ireland's case. Edgeworth restricts her references to religion, before Ormond at least, to what is for her the straight-forward issue of Catholic Emancipation. Together, these Irish elements—historical, topographical, linguistic, and literary—determine the language used in Edgeworth's Irish fiction, both in narration and dialogue, and introduce an unusual variety of alternative plots, often based on fairy and folk tale, myth, and still more informal forms, such as scandal and practical jokes. Finally, the linguistic elements include secret codes and are problematic because they are exclusive and divisive. But since Edgeworth's apprenticeship as an Irish writer took place in the 1790s, swift and secret communication was essential to her inclusive uncensorious non-doctrinaire account of the Irish in time, as a complex, hybrid people.

This self-conscious, intellectual, and very detailed method of indeed constructing a people out of a large body of written materials, past and present, as well as the spoken words of contemporaries, is highly unusual, and to conventional novel-readers often strange, obscure, and politically hard to interpret. With hindsight, Edgeworth emerges as both a theorist of cultural history and natural identity, a true if unsung pioneer of the historical novel and a novelist with a powerful vision of what the nineteenth-century novel is there to do.


  1. See Dunne, "A Gentleman's Estate" 96-101 and "Haunted by History" 68-91; Deane 30-40; Eagleton 161-77; and Whelan, Foreword ix-xxiv.
  2. See Leonora (1806), Edgeworth's epistolary novel of international espionage and seduction, which features the letters of Mme de P—, a former Countess and (in a plot located in Britain and Paris during the Peace of Amiens, 1802-03) an active politician. Most of P—'s literary allusions are to old-régime and seventeenth-century writings, e.g., by Rochefoucault, Voltaire, and Sévigné. Emilie de Coulanges, in Tales of Fashionable Life, is a dialogic novella about a triangle of three French and English upper-class women: the external cultural reference-points include the Renaissance paintings the English hostess Mrs. Somers collects.
  3. See also the wide intellectual range but imperfect comprehension betrayed by the Whig peer Lord Glistonbury in Vivian (146-47) and the dialogues between Lord Oldborough and Commissioner Falconer in Patronage (VI.21-26, VII.66-67).
  4. Some of Edgeworth's early reviewers and readers complained that she was a critic of the aristocratic system, e.g., of nepotism and patronage in the professions (Patronage) and bought votes in Parliament (Vivian). But Bentham published a two-part anonymous letter in consecutive issues of Leigh Hunt's Examiner (February 1814) extolling her criticisms. In private he urged her not to retract the least point. The identity of Bentham as the author of the Examiner letter was established by Dinwiddy.
  5. "We gained the day by this piece of honesty" (Castle Rackrent 34). See glossary note to text (66n).
  6. Letter from Frances Beaufort [from 1798, the fourth Mrs. RLE] to her brother William Beaufort, 2 July 1797. Her predecessor, Mrs. Elizabeth (Sneyd) Edgeworth was already at work designing the vignettes (of two bulls) which eventually preceded and followed the text.
  7. The full title used on publication was "An Essay on the Art of Conveying Secret and Swift Intelligence."
  8. See the discussion below of the 1798 Rebellion and, for Maria's use of utopianism from the Essay on Irish Bulls on, much of it via Robert Burton and Sir John Davies, see Butler "Edgeworth, the United Irishmen and 'More Intelligent Treason.'"
  9. See Butler and Desmarais, ed., Essay on Irish Bulls (85, 99, and notes 53, 54, 108, 210).
  10. There are suggestive parallels to "The Hibernian Mendicant" in two anonymous stories, "Ierne" [Ireland] and "A True Story," which both appeared in a short-lived Irish satirical newspaper, The Anti-Union (1798-99).
  11. See Essay on Irish Bulls, "Little Dominick" (The Novels I.89-95); "The Hibernian Mendicant" (The Novels I.112-16); "The Irish Incognito" (The Novels I.134-51).
  12. See Leerssen 355.
  13. My discussion of the aisling is indebted to Eoin.
  14. For the use made of Robert Edgeworth in Castle Rackrent, see The Black Book of Edgeworthstown.
  15. See also, Fénelon, Archbishop of Cambrai, Télémaque (1699), classic work of a moralist and educator widely admired for his enlightened spiritual Catholicism; Fielding, Tom Jones (1748-49); Henry IV, Pts I and II; The Faerie Queene, Bk I. In Arcadia (1598) prince Musidorus glimpses the king's daughter Pamela, falls in love with her, and dresses as a shepherd, Dorus, in order to woo her—a model for Ormond's private courtship of "King" Corny's daughter Dora, whose name confirms the allusion to Sidney. Pamela was the name of Lord Edward Fitzgerald's wife.
  16. Edward Herbert's Autobiography (in later editions, Life) was discovered in ms by one of his descendants, and first published by Horace Walpole (Strawberry Hill, 1764) with a frontispiece of Isaac Oliver's portrait (1616) of Herbert, dressed in black, covered by a shield, and lying by a woodland stream. The shield bears the inscription "Magia Naturalis"; behind Herbert is a caparisoned knight's horse, evidence of a battle. The scene depicts one of many quarrels or duels (allegorized as knightly encounters) in Herbert's then unpublished Autobiography. Herbert's most contentious works, those relating to religion, were not available in English, though on the Continent the Latin De Veritate (1624) was soon translated into French. Charles Blount's Religione Laici (1683) is substantially taken from Herbert. Herbert's version (1663), The Religion of the Gentiles, was translated into English by W. Lewis (1705). The Lunar Society's interests in alchemy and the scientific thought of the Renaissance are captured by the painter, Joseph Wright of Derby, who uses Oliver's portrait of Herbert, without attribution or explanation, as the model for his painting (1780) of the friend of Darwin and Wedgwood and English admirer and patron of Rousseau, Sir Brooke Boothby.

Works Cited

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Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Oxford: John Lichfield and James Short, for Henry Cripps, 1621.

Butler, Harriet Jessie [Edgeworth] and Harold Edgeworth Butler, ed. The Black Book of Edgeworthstown and other Edgeworth Memories, 1585-1817. London: Faber & Gwyer, 1927. 46-52.

Butler, Marilyn. "Edgeworth, the United Irishmen and 'More Intelligent Treason.'" Ed. Chris Fauske and Heidi Kaufman. An Uncomfortable Authority: Maria Edgeworth and Her Contexts. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2003.

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