A copy of Maria Edgeworth's 1801 novel Belinda has been sitting on my TBR stacks for years. Only recently did I realize that I have had her confused with Frances Burney, who wrote several novels with single-word titles (including Evelina, which I've read). I still haven't read Belinda, but when I came across this at Half Price Books, I was intrigued by the back-cover summary:
The Absentee centres around Lord and Lady Clonbury, a couple more concerned with London society than their duties and responsibilities to those who live and work on their Irish estates. Recognizing this negligence, their son Lord Colambre goes incognito to Ireland to observe the situation and trace the origins of his beloved cousin Grace. To put matters straight he finds a solution that will bring prosperity and contentment to every level of society, including his own family.Published in 1812, this is a fairly short book (256 pages in my Penguin edition), but it packs in a lot of story. It opens in London, where Lady Clonbury is desperately trying to gain a foothold in Society. Though she is oblivious, her son recognizes that she is failing, in part because she is trying too hard, with entertainments so ostentatious that people question her taste. Even more damning in Society's eyes, Lady Clonbury goes to extremes to deny her Irish roots, speaking with an artificial accent that makes her sound more like a Cockney than a member of the Ton. At the same time her lavish parties, with their expensive London way of life, have driven her husband Lord Clonbury to the moneylenders. These include an unfortunately stereotypical Mr Mordicai. According to the introduction, an American woman named Rachel Mordecai wrote politely but firmly to Marie Edgeworth to protest (in the editor's words) her "vicious portrayal of Jews in general and Mordicai the coachmaker in particular."
Lady Clonbury has high hopes that her son will make a match with the heiress Miss Broadhurst, but he has fallen in love with his cousin Grace, whom his mother took in after she was orphaned. Lady Clonbury disapproves of cousins marrying, "because they form no new connexions to strengthen the family's interest, or raise its consequence." Her son will not marry against her wishes, but neither will he marry just to please her. In part to escape those expectations, and in part to find a way out of the family's financial quagmire, he decides to travel over to Ireland. It will be his first visit since he left as a child, to be educated in England.
In Ireland, Lord Colambre rediscovers his native country, meeting both the best and the worst of Irish society. Through his experiences the reader is also introduced to Ireland and its people. The editor notes that Maria Edgeworth is considered a pioneer in the "regional" novel and in the new realistic mode of fiction. Her books, which she preferred to call "tales" because "novels" were morally suspect, also "portray[ed] the Irish differently than the traditional, comic Irish stage persona." In Dublin, Lord Colambre meets people of education and culture, whose society is much more congenial than he found in London. He also meets social-climbers, and a rapacious mother on the hunt for a new son-in-law. Irish titles count for less than English, but they are still titles, and Colambre is a viscount.
The real heart of Edgeworth's story, though, lies in the countryside, on the Clonbury estates. There Lord Colambre finds waste and ruin, under agents who are cheating both the tenants and their employer. The lands at Colambre, under an honest and enlightened agent, are prospering. In fact, they are a kind of Eden, where the Catholic and Protestant children attend school together, the Catholic priest and Protestant minister work together. The wicked Clonbury agents are scheming to take over this district and run it like their own. Lord Clonbury over in England is oblivious to all of this, concerned only that regular payments arrive. His son comes to see that it is the family's moral duty to return to Ireland and take their place as the landlords. This will also allow them to live within their means, freeing them from crippling debt and the possible loss of their estates. In Edgeworth's view, the absence of the hereditary ruling class across Ireland threatens the stability of the entire country.
I knew that Jane Austen was a fan of Maria Edgeworth's books. She famously wrote to her niece Anna, "I have made up my mind to like no Novels really, but Miss Edgeworth's, Yours & my own." I was reminded of Austen as I read this book. Its scope is of course larger, moving from England to Ireland and back again, and including different levels of Irish society. Unlike Austen, Maria Edgeworth felt comfortable writing scenes between men, with no women present, and with the lower social classes. She also wrote about a higher level of society than Austen's country families, but with the same sharp eye for pretension and snobbery, as well as the quiet cruelties masked by politeness. Edgeworth's story felt a little contrived, in part I think because it is a book with a message. It is probably not fair to judge just by one book, but Edgeworth's characters also felt a little contrived. I think Austen's speak more naturally, even if their language sounds stilted to our ears today. Lord Colambre in particular tends to moralize a bit, and occasionally breaks into a minor soliloquy, though that may also be due to this story's origins as a play.
As I mentioned in the previous post, reading E.O. Somerville's Irish Memories finally nudged me to pick this up, and I'm glad it did. I'm looking forward to reading more of Maria Edgeworth's books.