Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Absentee – Maria Edgeworth

I had high hopes for ‘The Absentee’; my previous experience with Edgeworth was more than encouraging and the first fifty pages were very encouraging. From there on in though it went a bit downhill for me, the reason for this is that ‘The Absentee’ was originally intended as a play and it still reads like one. The dialogue wants to be declaimed and everyone is forever striding off or popping in all of which I find very unsettling.

It’s sort of a shame because it would have been a pretty decent play and could with a much more thorough overhaul have been a much better novel, which 200 years after the fact is all fairly moot and perhaps if I’d not spent such a long time anticipating I wouldn’t have felt so underwhelmed by the end.

On the plus side the story is good. Young Lord Colombre has recently graduated from Cambridge and come up to town where he finds all is not as it should be. His mother is intent on breaking into the highest circles of society despite her own and others prejudice over Irishness, the more she tries to hide it the more ridiculous she becomes and the further she falls short of her society ambitions. Colombre is both shocked and distressed to hear his mother being openly mocked by guests that the family are bankrupting themselves to entertain.

Lord Clonbrony – Colombre’s father – has fallen into low company and the hands of the money lenders (a fairly stereotypical and unpleasant portrait of a Jewish money lender features which is an ironic point of interest in a book that’s so concerned about anti Irish sentiment). He misses the status he had back in Ireland so has sought out Irish company and in doing so has taken a step down amongst the hangers on at race courses and the like.

There is also an attractive but poor young lady who’s a sort of cousin – Grace Nugent, Colombre is in love with Grace but realises that his family won’t approve and so decides the best thing he can do is take himself off to Ireland to see what the situation actually is between his happy memories and his mothers absolute hatred of the country. First impressions of his native country are good but then Colombre falls in with Lady Dashfort and her daughter who are on a man hunt. He’s temporarily diverted from his purpose as they bear him off into the country and show him all the worst they can of the place, they also break the news that Grace is most likely illegitimate.

Grace’s parentage was an unexpected plot twist, she’s a clever, attractive, and virtuous young woman extremely loyal to her family, a loyalty that the Clonbrony’s share – they are aware of her supposed parentage but value her on her own merits. Colombre seems unable to do the same, the stigma of illegitimacy is too much for him despite his love so he proposes going off to the army. All the while there is also a dissertation on the virtues of a well run estate with an honest agent against the vices of a badly run estate and a dishonest agent.

Eventually Colombre returns to London and offers to sign away a portion of his inheritance to balance the family books if and only if everyone returns to Ireland. At first lady Clonbrony resists but eventually agrees with the promise of new furniture. The question of Grace still remains and through a series of unlikely coincidences she’s found to be a legitimate heiress after which everything is set to end happily.

I couldn’t help but compare this plot with Anthony Trollope’s ‘Dr Thorne’ (written some fifty years later) there are so many similarities that Trollope could have lifted the plot straight from Edgeworth (and who knows maybe he did) but his treatment of illegitimacy is entirely different. His Mary isn’t half the woman that Grace is but she’s deemed worthy of being loved for her own merits despite her parentage which is possibly the first evidence I’ve found of the Victorians being more open minded than there Georgian predecessors.

In conclusion it’s a better book to think about than it was to read at the time, but even here I really do like Edgeworth and I’ve still got ‘Helena’ waiting.

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