Criticism 44.4 (2002) 363-388
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Disowning to Own:
Maria Edgeworth and the Illegitimacy of National Ownership
Sara L. Maurer
DURING THE LAST DAYS of his life, Walter Scott's thoughts turned confusedly toward Maria Edgeworth, the author to whom he was so consistently linked in his novel production. Both Scott, with his historical popularizations and fictionalizations of Scottish history, and Edgeworth, with her tales of Anglo-Irish landlords on their Irish estates, were seen as developing the distinct narrative style of the national tale, a popular Romantic genre of the novel set in the Celtic regions of the British Isles. 1 Yet in discussing the female authors of the day, Scott proves unable to remember the name of the writer whom he credited with first inspiring him to write novels of a specifically Celtic national character. Making no reference to his published declaration of a desire to "emulate the admirable Irish portraits drawn by Miss Edgeworth," 2 nor to the well known story that Edgeworth's The Absentee (1812) revived his flagging commitment to the manuscript of Waverley (1814), an older Scott instead recollects her early didactic sketches for children in The Parent's Assistant (1796). He dwells vaguely and condescendingly on her powers of sentimental expression: "Ay, Miss Edgeworth: she's very clever, and best in the little touches too. I'm sure, in that children's story, where the little girl parts with her lamb, and the little boy brings it back to her again, there's nothing for it but just to put down the book, and cry." 3
It would be difficult to make an argument about the conscious motivation behind such comments. Recorded as evidence of Scott's declining mental faculties (he was, after all, a personal friend of Edgeworth's), the anecdote nonetheless is suggestive of the gender dynamics behind Scott's position as canonical novelist. Marilyn Butler reads his comments as a distancing gesture, in which Scott pays his "last compliments to his women rivals for their beautifully done small work," while defining himself as an author working "on a bigger scale." 4 It certainly would not have been the first of Scott's attempts to distinguish his work from Edgeworth's; Katie Trumpener notes his tendency [End Page 363] to downplay in his own criticism those works by Edgeworth that most clearly influence his own. 5 Even in senility, Scott reduces Edgeworth's literary accomplishments to feminized "little touches" most relevant to home, hearth, and childhood. Yet if the force of the anecdote is in the estrangement wrought—either by the effects of old age or misogyny—between two of the national tale's most prominent authors, its yoking of the two, even through disavowal, highlights a tendency of the national tale beyond its careful recording of national "habits, manners, and feelings." 6 For what is at the center of the Edgeworth tale to which Scott refers—"Simple Susan"—is also what is central in every national tale: the pleasurably nostalgic mourning of what is lost, along with its simultaneous restoration. I use Scott's chance comment to illuminate Edgeworth's unique approach to the national tale. By examining "Simple Susan" alongside two of Edgeworth's Irish novels, I will outline Edgeworth's vision of an illegitimate ownership, one that keeps lost things lost, even after they are regained. I argue that the illegitimate owners who populate Edgeworth's novels experience Anglo-Irish Union as an arrangement they cannot defend, legitimate, or condemn. In writing of an Ireland illegitimately owned, Edgeworth creates a vision of an unauthorized and unauthorizable bond that leaves Britain helplessly unable to disentangle itself from Ireland.
Edgeworth's approach to the national tale differs from the historical sleights-of-hand that mark Scott's engagement with the form. Scott's literary reclamation of a lost Scotland has long been recognized as an act of consigning Scottish culture to the past. While critics such as Tom Nairn and Diane Elam emphasize the marginalizing power of obsolescence in his tales of Scottish days gone by, they also note...