- Maria Edgeworth’s Déjà-Voodoo: Interior Decoration, Retroactivity, and Colonial Allegory in The Absentee
It came from déjà-voodoo.—Fridge magnet, New York Public Library gift shop, 2000
This essay explores the fictional representation of interior decoration as an allegory of internal colonialism in Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee (1812). My title and epigraph quote a souvenir fridge magnet, a popular item of interior decoration, found in the gift shop of the New York Public Library. I quote it for its suggestion of déjà-voodoo as a site or place, and for its spatialization of temporality and temporalization of space. Edgeworth’s fiction satirically exposes the fashionable interior space and temporalization of regional space that are the out dating and anachronizing of Ireland by imperial England. In examining how this occurs, my essay adapts the syncretic religious cult of voodoo to an Irish colonial context.1 Where voodoo involves [End Page 385] magic and witchcraft, especially the use of charms and spells, and combines political, cultural, and religious uses, I use the term “déjà-voodoo” to describe Edgeworth’s alle gorical practice, which meets the act of imperial anachronizing with the spell of Irish cultural memory, reclaiming outdated, unfashionable, or defunct forms of Irish culture, making them present, and resignifying them with new meaning. The term déjà-voodoo refers then to an oppositional form of Irish memory work.
As a novel of fashionable life (collected in Tales of Fashionable Life second series, 1812) that paradigmatically integrates the Irish national tale and regional tale, The Absentee marks a significant event in the first decades immediately following the eighteenth century: the coinage of the term “interior decoration” in 1807 by the architect, antiquarian, and Orientalist Thomas Hope in Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807). As I argue here, Edgeworth’s novel marks this coinage and joins fashion to history in an exuberant satire of fashionable Regency sociability, using interior decoration as the ground upon which a narrative of colonial mimicry and exile is staged. The Absentee is Edgeworth’s most allegorical Irish tale, the most dense and alive and charged with allusion. This is no coincidence, for the experience of the post-Union Irish absentee that Edgeworth represents in The Absentee is a rich chapter of the accidents of history, and allegory is the genre most suited to meaningfully render such accidents of history. Edgeworth’s déjà-voodoo “renders facticity into culture,” as James Buzard puts it, and involves a poetry of local and historical detail and facts, a romance of the real.2 Indeed, the collection of historical detail is an exercise Edgeworth explicitly associated with magic, for in a letter to Daniel Beaufort, one of her principal authorities on Irish culture, she thanks him for assistance with historical detail that she terms “magical activity.”3 [End Page 386]
As I will argue, the powerful allegorical sensibility of Edgeworth’s tale functions to elaborate the colonial subjectivity of the absentee, who is “a person not present” (OED). This subjectivity is inherently allegorical, “speaking otherwise” (OED), registering dislocations, and is always absent, or always somewhere else. Allegory, like absenteeism, is about the production of meaning that is spatially and temporally “not present,” or present in a way that is not clearly divided from the past and future. This interiority of the colonial subject, the Irish absentee, Lady Clonbrony, and her son, Lord Colambre, is the other category of interior space I engage here together with that of interior decoration. The novel allegorizes this colonial absentee subjectivity through its representation of interior decoration, and I intend to examine the ways in which interior decoration is linked to colonial subjectivity in the novel, and to illuminate relations between interior decoration and political and colonial allegory. I will do this by using interior decoration both in the material, domestic sense, and in the metaphorical sense of the interior as a spatial and geopolitical metaphor, in order to map relations of internal or domestic colonialism between Ireland and England as they are played out in the wake of the Act of Union of 1800.
The Act of Union dissolved the independent Irish parliament of 1782 and integrated...