Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Leaving Utopia Behind: Maria Edgeworth's Views of America

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Leaving Utopia Behind: Maria Edgeworth's Views of America

Article excerpt

1. Introduction.

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), a leading figure of Anglo-Irish literature, tried to promote industry, practicality and responsibility by following the utilitarian creed and the ideas inculcated by her enlightened father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth. As her diverse pedagogic tales (The Parent's Assistant [1796]), novels of manners (Belinda [1802], Helen [1834]) and regionalist writings (Castle Rackrent [1800], Ennui [1809], The Absentee [1812] or Ormond [1817]) show, she had no doubt about the determining influence of reason and the imperatives of self-help, and of personal and social progress.

If there is one place in the world where reformist concepts could be applied at their best, it is America, a utopia of the European imagination and suggestive of adventure. Nevertheless, Edgeworth has not hitherto been considered in relation to America, understood here as the United States. It is the English connection that has received all the attention, especially with how Edgeworth articulated a critique of the British Empire. Many postcolonial studies on Edgeworth emphasise how territories such as the West Indies come to represent alterity and resemble the Irish case. Some of them support the idea that Edgeworth used otherness to justify a protest against the Empire (this approach has been the favoured one since Gallagher 1994. See also Boulukos 1999; McLoughlin 2002 and Corbett 2002). In recent years, compilations have included works on Edgeworth's educational writings, colonialism, regionalism and gender studies (Heidi Kauffman and Chris Fauske 2004, Julie Nash 2006), but America is scarcely mentioned, and the same thing happens in the admirable profile penned by Susan Manly in The Female Spectator (2006)--despite the inaccuracy in Edgeworth's date of death.

The lacuna regarding America, which might be appropriately called the Great Forgetting, seems surprising for two reasons. First of all, Edgeworth was a cultivated woman and a privileged chronicler of the age of capitalism who witnessed social upheaval in convulsive nineteenth-century Europe. She considered society more in global than in regionalist terms, upholding the same tenets which inspired the American Founding Fathers. For Arthur Mann, these people were:

   learned men and drew on arguments from varied sources-biblical,
   classical, legal, Whiggish. Above all, they expressed themselves in
   the language of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, proclaiming
   that the American people had been born free and meant to stay free
   through institutions of their own making (1998: 92-3).

As for immigrants, who are frequently portrayed in Edgeworth's stories, David Mauk and John Oakland explain that they "strengthened the nation's commitment to 'the dream' and to its ideal of being a refuge for the poor and the oppressed, a nation of nations" (2005: 48). However, America never meant a comfortable existence for the inhabitants of the Emerald Isle, Edgeworth's adopted country, who celebrated American wakes before their long journey and travelled to America in coffin ships. One example of their attitude towards the new land is found in The Absentee, where Widow O'Neill sells her gown to prevent Brian's journey to America: "'it's only talk-I won't let him, he's dutiful'" (Edgeworth 1994: 185).

On the other hand, Edgeworth was well-known and cherished in the USA. Her works were repeatedly edited there, and, though her influence on American authors, such as Mark Twain, has not been properly assessed so far, she left an imprint on American women writers: "Edgeworth's moral tales were the childhood reading of the first generation of American women authors, the generation active in the twenties, thirties and forties, who led the way for the first of woman's fiction in the fifties and sixties" (Baym 1978: 29). Her fame reached the point that, in the 1820s, Joseph

   A new path is thus open for female exertion . … 
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