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The Formation of Social Class and the Reformation of Ireland: Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 1-19 | 10.1353/sdn.2013.0001

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The Formation of Social Class and the Reformation of Ireland:
Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui

Mamma wants me to catch somebody, and to be caught by somebody; but that will not be; for, do you know, I think somebody is nobody.

Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui, a fictional memoir by the Anglo-Irish Earl “Lord Glenthorn,” was published in 1809, shortly after Ireland’s union with Britain, and is set in the years surrounding the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Marilyn Butler notes in her introduction to Castle Rackrent and Ennui that Edgeworth was writing this novel “in the immediate context of the traumatic events of 1798, when she and her family witnessed atrocities, and were themselves threatened, as a Rebellion of Protestants as well as Catholics was bloodily put down” (35). In her contribution to her late father’s Memoirs, Edgeworth describes the danger to the family at Edgeworthstown as the French advanced on Longford, and she narrates with great detail her father’s efforts to maintain the peace—efforts that put him into considerable danger from Protestant militia leaders (chapters X and XI). Although the novel makes no direct reference to the union, and while it appears to give only slight attention to the rebellion itself, most critics are in agreement that Ennui should be read, to use Butler’s dramatic description, as a “fictional allegory on a sweeping scale” (introduction 2).

Composed during this time of turmoil, Ennui is Edgeworth’s first effort to represent in fictional form the conflict in Ireland and the subsequent political absorption of the nation into the United Kingdom. As an Anglo-Irish writer, Edgeworth clearly had divided loyalties. She was born in England, spent a [End Page 1] great deal of time there, and, with her father, was closely connected to Anglo-Scottish intellectual life. At the same time, the Edgeworth family was at pains to bring enlightened, modern, nonrepressive forms of management to their Irish estate, and they generally resisted recognizing and fostering factional and religious differences. In her continuation of her father’s Memoirs Edgeworth notes that even during the rebellion, Richard Lovell Edgeworth refused to acknowledge differences of religion or faction when considering local legal cases (207). Edgeworth has, however, in the fairly recent past, been represented by some critics as a colonialist writer and an apologist for the Anglo-Irish Ascendency (Deane, Dunne, Hollingworth); but vigorous defenses against this charge have been mounted by Butler and Mitzi Myers, both of whom make compelling cases for a much more complex understanding of Edgeworth’s ideological allegiances (Butler, “Irish Culture and Scottish Enlightenment”; Myers, “‘Like the Pictures in a Magic Lantern’” and “Completing the Union”). The complexity of Edgeworth’s position on Ireland is best understood if we, like Butler, Myers, and a number of other scholars, consider her as an author with a broad, cosmopolitan, and, importantly, an Enlightenment-based outlook on economic and social issues (Brundan, Easton, Ó Gallchoir, Wohlegemut).

At a time of widespread turmoil—a time of terror, repression, and rebellion—Edgeworth turns to Enlightenment concepts of economics and education for both diagnosis and cure. Rather than hold English colonial practices, religious sectarianism, or native Irish intransigence responsible for the unrest, Edgeworth clearly blames the semi-feudal socioeconomic system in which the aristocracy and peasantry have been educated, and in which the character of the classes has been formed. The violent and terrifying rebellion is shown in the narrative to be a conflict stemming from the environmental conditioning of the two antagonistic groups. In her understanding of human development and the cultural formation of classes, Edgeworth is both a Lockean and a Smithian. The coauthor of Practical Education—an empirically based instructional manual for parents—Edgeworth believed, as did most educated Britons of her day, that individual character was formed through experience, through education writ large. Considerably influenced by Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Edgeworth also believed that the “character” of whole classes was subject to the economic system in which individuals lived. To use Butler’s words, Smith allowed Edgeworth to conceive of character “as both a question of individual personality and a question of social class” (introduction 38). In...