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  • Maria Edgeworth's "Little Platoons":The United Kingdom as Professional Society
  • Sara L. Maurer (bio)

This article focuses on Maria Edgeworth as a theorist of professional society—that meritocratic ideal of an elite defined not by birth and property, but by work ethic and the acquisition of specialized skills. Harold Perkin offers the fullest formulation of this British concept, whose rise from the 1880s onward, he argues, resulted in the modern welfare state. Yet the egalitarian impulses of the French Revolution and the infrastructure necessary to wage the Napoleonic War sparked significant Romantic-era explorations of professional society's potential. In both her educational texts and her fiction, Edge-worth writes about how bonds among professionals might transcend national boundaries and offer affiliations to structure an increasingly intercultural world—especially an intercultural United Kingdom. But unlike Perkin's tribe of doctors, lawyers, and statisticians minted in British schools, who focus on the problems of a preexisting entity known as Britain, Edgeworthian professionals cultivate affiliations and apply their expertise in improvised mobile communities. Such flexibility in Edgeworth's accounts depends heavily on intercultural encounters and identities, making any single culture poor soil for developing professionalism.

Edgeworth's investment in these ideals has a long history. From her earliest novella "The Contrast" (1804)—based on stories of the Freeman family originally concocted to entertain her siblings—she focused on those stages of middle- and upper-class life in which characters become defined by how they make their livings. Such interest undoubtedly led to her coauthoring of Essays on Professional Education (1809), advice to upper-class parents published under Richard Lovell Edgeworth's name. This essay considers Professional Education in relation to The Absentee (1812) and Patronage (1813), originally [End Page 234] conceived by Edgeworth as one novel and then divided into two.1 This division highlights the extent to which her vision of the professional depends on intercultural contexts. Whereas The Absentee's oscillation between England and Ireland allows that national tale to expand its community of professionals in response to the problems they encounter, Patronage's English-set narrative imagines a similar group as ultimately limited by a centralized state.

Because of Edgeworth's particular vision of the professional, The Absentee and Patronage accomplish what Claire Connolly argues all national tales do: convey a specific cultural and historical setting that offers readers "an enlarged sense of Britishness, which, in the face of the threat from Napoleonic Europe, draws energy, scale, and substance from the representation of regional and national difference" ("The National Tale" 228).2 But the two works also illustrate how the code of the professional operates differently in the national spaces of England and Ireland. Whereas in Ireland the professional devotes his energy to an improvised and expanding network of affiliations, Edgeworth's English version of that figure struggles to assert independence from a state whose centralizing forces threaten his status. In Patronage Edgeworth critiques English national identity as outdated because concentrated and centralized, positing as a solution the less national and more modern form of affiliation associated with the professional. [End Page 235]

The Professional United Kingdom

Exploring sites in which the professional was already being theorized during the Romantic period—Thomas Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes (1794) and the situation of the British navy during the Napoleonic War—reveals the innovation Edgeworth brings to her version of that figure. Gisborne's evangelically tinged conduct manual argues that men employed in the traditional learned professions such as law, medicine, and the military could act as nonpartisan watchdogs of the common good, embodying what Perkin characterizes as the professional's duty to be "the Platonic guardians of society" (118). Gisborne condemns revolutionary discourse about the abstract rights of man and views the British Constitution as granting at least some equivalence between men born into property and those who make their living by specialized skill sets. This equality resides in understanding their social responsibility to perform duties dictated by the Constitution. Gisborne begins by outlining the duties of sovereign, peers, and members of the House of Commons before explaining what is owed to society by...


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