The Classics Club/1001 Books Review: The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth

Summary: Lord and Lady Clonbrony are more concerned with fashionable London society than with their responsibilities to those who live and work on their Irish estates. Concerned by this negligence, their son Lord Colambre goes incognito to Ireland to observe the situation and to discover the truth about the origins of his beloved cousin Grace. Can he find a solution that will bring prosperity and contentment to every level of society, including his own family? Rich in atmosphere and local character, The Absentee (1812) helped establish the ‘regional’ novel form, which influenced such varied writers as Scott, Thackeray and Turgenev. In this sparkling satire on Anglo-Irish relations, Maria Edgeworth created a landmark work of morality and social realism.

Maria Edgeworth was a popular author in the early 19th century that has almost been forgotten today. I never heard of her before I saw this Penguin edition at the used book store. Intrigued by a story focusing on the Anglo/Irish aspect of Regency life and bought it. Plus, I liked the cover.

As much as I love Jane Austen, she herself described her writing as a “fine brush on ivory,” meaning that she dealt with a very small aspect of English life in the early 19th century.  Edgeworth, like Austen, keeps her tale to a small sliver of British society, but it is one that I have not read about before now and, as such, it was a unique and engaging experience.

Edgeworth did not like novels, she thought they were frivolous, and instead called her stories “moral tales.” While she does deal more directly with the lower class than Austen did, The Abesntee shares many characteristics of Austen’s best novels: honorable children with weak, fault filled parents, a personal journey of growth through learning for the main character, a romance, characters with extreme prejudices. Edgeworth main theme of The Absentee, that Anglo-Irish landowners should be resident stewards of their estates and not leave the managing to agents while the owners live in London, is admirable but she never delves into the Anglo/Irish question or the religious differences that permeated Ireland. So, while there is a “moral” to the novel, it is a very one-sided ideal and as such, weakens the point. Especially when seen 200 years on. I think Edgeworth’s “moral tales” were very much on par with Austen’s novels and were more superior only in the author’s mind.

Edgeworth was a skilled writer that created some of the most uncomfortable scenes and situations I’ve read in a long time. She skewered not only the vacuous attempts of an Anglo-Irish gentlewoman to be admitted into London society, a society that would never accept her no matter what she did, but she also lambasted the haughty, condescending, cruel and pettiness of those same society ladies. Only a few characters are safe from Edgeworth’s wrath and those characters border on being a little too perfect. There were a few too many coincidences to be believable but, unlike real life, plots hinge on coincidental acquaintances. Part romance and part adventure, The Absentee would be an enjoyable read for any fan of Regency literature.

  • The Absentee (★★★★) by Maria Edgeworth
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (May 3, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140436456

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