Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Never Getting Home: The Unfulfilled Promise of Maria Edgeworth's the Absentee

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Never Getting Home: The Unfulfilled Promise of Maria Edgeworth's the Absentee

Article excerpt

IN HER FOUR EARLY NINETEENTH-CENTURY IRISH TALES, MARIA EDGEWORTH appears to show the rational and ethical necessity of England and Ireland forming a cosmopolitan union in accordance with the Enlightenment values of tolerance and rational self-interest. (1) Published eleven years after the Union of 1801, The Absentee seems to envision the redemption of the Irish peasantry and the English colonial project through the restoration of the Clonbrony family to their proper home or place among their Irish tenants. Yet the culmination of The Absentee, like Edgeworth's other Irish tales, ultimately exemplifies the logic of the uncanny, which Freud articulates in his seminal essay "The 'Uncanny,'" in that the final, seemingly most reassuring moment of the novel, harbors a dangerous secret behind its homely or heimlich appearance. (2) Through the failed culmination of The Absentee's redemptive promise, Edgeworth not only demonstrates the impossibility of the cosmopolitan ideal, bur a]so the hidden nationalism that grounds Immanuel Kant's original vision of the cosmopolitan end of history. By locating the fulfillment of Ireland's tumultuous past within a final cosmopolitan union, Edgeworth seeks to exorcise the ghostly presence of rebellion within early nineteenth-century Irish society. To conduct this exorcism, Edgeworth employs the strategy of conjuration that, as Derrida has noted in Specters of Marx, always fails since it invokes or conjures up the very specter that it seeks to conjure away. (3) The subtle references to rebellion and cultural difference that fracture the culminating moment of The Absentee mark the impossibility of the West's secular crusade to reach the end of history by transforming the global multitude into obedient citizens of a single, permanent state. This vision of a perpetual present safe from the conflicts of the past as well as the future is at the heart of Edgeworth's national tale; it is, however, a heart that is haunted by everything it claims to have overcome.

Despite her more explicit engagement with intellectual figures closer to home, such as Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, Edgeworth's vision of a mutually beneficial union of Ireland and England reflects the political and moral tenets of Kant, with whose work she was at least familiar. (4) As Marilyn Butler emphasizes in her literary biography, Edgeworth bears the "intellectual stamp of a generation, or half a generation, earlier than that of her own early adulthood" and "belongs, intellectually as well as aesthetically, with the generation which matured before the French Revolution." (5) Since there is evidence that Edgeworth's younger step-brother Francis Beaufort knew Kant's work well, it is probable that the Edgeworth family library included some of his major works, beginning with A Critique of Pure Reason (1781). (6) While Edgeworth's relationship to the work of Kant may still appear distant, her more overt engagement with the work of Adam Smith points to the correspondence between his concepts of sympathy and the free market and Kant's ideas of the moral imperative and the cosmopolitan end of history. The protagonists in both of Edgeworth's Irish tales Ennui and Ormond must learn to sympathize not upon the basis of "good feeling," but rather upon "principle," since it only can guarantee any "security for the future." (7) Edgeworth's lesson in rational sympathy draws upon both Smith's reformulation of sympathy as an intellectual exercise in which the spectator imagines himself within the position of the person principally concerned and Kant's demand for the individual to envision the universal application of the moral laws he develops for himself through the free exercise of his capacity for reason. (8) Within both of these formulations, an intellectual abstraction mediates an individual's interaction with his environment in order to ensure that his actions stem not from involuntary corporeal sensations but rather from rational judgments. …

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