Romantic Masculinity in Edgeworth's Ennui and Scott's Marmion: In Itself a Border Story

By Beesemyer, Irene A. | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Romantic Masculinity in Edgeworth's Ennui and Scott's Marmion: In Itself a Border Story


Beesemyer, Irene A., Papers on Language & Literature


Ireland and Scotland seem curious backdrops for articulation of a new English masculinity in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries, with regional authors equally unlikely articulators of that masculinity. Yet the border countries of Maria Edgeworth's Ennui and Sir Walter Scott's Marmion are peculiarly apropos venues in which to fashion an idea that itself only bordered on the mainstream consciousness of its day. Out of the marginalized Irish and Scottish cultures, the equally marginalized issue of Romantic masculinity found a voice: marginalized, because a shape-shifting, polyphonic manliness emerged not as a primary vocalization but as an echo of more reverberating concerns. The urgent lobbying for female emancipation by Mary Wollstonecraft and others, for example, focused the gender spotlight squarely on the female.(1) The French Revolution pitted the newly enlightened ignorance of the workers against the traditional wisdom of the aristocracy. The Napoleonic wars contrasted the good old days of local upset with the frightening ones of global uncertainty. But these issues also quietly ruptured the self-satisfied seams of extant masculine identity and forced reevaluation of gender roles.(2) From out of this olio of republicanism, revolution, feminism, and empire (among other ingredients) emerged the early nineteenth century's "bourgeois aristocrat," a man potentiated no longer by birth, titles, lands, or God: Edgeworth's and Scott's man of the future.

In choosing Ennui and Marmion as the textual bases for this essay, I have deliberately opted for works which do not presently command high canonical currency. But in their own times, both enjoyed popularity. Marilyn Butler, however, suggests that "Edgeworth's favorable reception must owe a lot to the absence of another major novelist immediately before Austen and Scott [as a writer of the historical novel] came on the scene" (40), and 1812-18 saw the publication of Byron's Childe Harold and the tales that followed the success of Cantos I-II topple Scott from his unchallenged position of non-pareil master of the verse narrative. These intimations gesture towards a marginalization of both Ennui and Marmion in their contemporary context. Yet out of this off-beat mix of regional writers, border stories, and compromised texts, an inchoate masculinity could struggle into an identifiable form. Not that masculine identification was the overt thrust of Edgeworth's or Scott's agendas. Scott intended Marmion to immortalize the Scottish past, foster pride in nationhood, and provide reassurances of the propriety of the historical process, while Edgeworth's avowedly didactic Ennui, a part of her Tales of Fashionable Life, exposed the decadence of the aristocratic hegemony of blood and endorsed the rejuvenative qualities of education and self-betterment. Direct aims. Yet, lurking on the borders of these texts, the issue looms of what it meant to be a man in 1808 and 1809.

Some ideas were already swirling. Edmund Burke had plunged into the charged arenas of revolution and female emancipation, shoring up the gender barricades against "the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women" (76). Although his thunderous denunciations targeted the contemporary republican spirit, one could read "republican spirit" as "female insurrection." After all, the French revolution was not the only revolution in town. Since the male domain was largely predicated upon male control, liberated, ratiocinative women in revolt against tradition threatened masculinity. The existence of such women mirrored a widening rift in the solidarity of masculine self-construction by suggesting what current men were not. Burke perceived and attacked an emasculated masculinity shorn of nobility and fundamental principles which appeared "gross, stupid, ferocious ... destitute of religion, honour, or manly pride" (83-84). He urged a reinstitution of "manly sentiment," "heroic enterprize," and a right mixture of "opinion and sentiment," a return to codified chivalry when men were Men and women were Women and people knew their designated places in the social stratum (80). …

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