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Public affections and familial politics: Burke, Edgeworth, and the "common naturalization" of Great Britain.

Recent critics of the novel generally accept that the marriage plot of nineteenth-century fiction, in Tony Tanner's words, represents "a means by which society attempts to bring into harmonious alignment patterns of passion and patterns of property," as in, say, the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre.(1) Viewed in such terms, the imperial use that Maria Edgeworth makes of marriage as an instrument of narrative closure in The Absentee (1812) figures yet another socially desirable pattern: the reconciliation of England and Ireland is "troped . . . as the marriage of the Anglo-Irish [hero] with the Irish [heroine]," and "the happy bourgeois family thus becomes the model for colonizer-colonized relationships."(2) But no less ideologically, in this novel as in many others, the closure enforced by the marriage plot "glosses over the contradictions, the inequities, concealed in the institution of marriage itself," occluding the fundamental disparity of power between partners to the union and "[disguising] the asymmetries encompassed within the trope of 'balanced' order."(3) The marriage plot in The Absentee thus functions as an imperial plot as well, constructing Ireland as a complementary but ever unequal partner in the family of Great Britain. And this imperial marriage works hegemonically to produce the domestic stability considered so crucial to national and colonial stability.

My focus here, however, will be less the marriage plot, which The Absentee undeniably employs, than what we might call the familial plot, because it is there that the specifically "anomalous" elements of Irish experience are centered.(4) For in order to achieve narratively and ideologically the "harmonious alignment" between unequal partners with which the novel concludes, Edgeworth must also reform the families from which these would-be rulers of Ireland spring: she must establish modes of legitimate and normative behavior for women and men. The construction of proper familial relations on which she draws is provided by Edmund Burke. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) promotes the gendered ideals underpinning social and imperial order threatened, in his thinking as in Edgeworth's, by feminine sociosexual impropriety: the "consistent policing of female sexuality" that David Lloyd attributes to Irish nationalists in the later nineteenth century may well find an earlier precedent here among thinkers of a different stripe, in the representation of women as always potentially adulterous and thus subversive of the foundations of social, political, and imperial order.(5) In the second half of the essay, I hope to show more specifically how familial reform is for both Burke and Edgeworth, at different moments and with different Irish constituencies in view, contingent on the restoration of masculine authority and privilege; for each, the replotting of Irish and Anglo-Irish families on the model of an English ideal becomes a critical tool in figuring a properly imperial plot.


Burke's primary metaphors for political society are heavily dependent on the aristocratic idiom of the landed estate and patrilineal succession, with both terms signifying an ostensibly natural link between property and paternity. Over the course of the Reflections, in James T. Boulton's reading, "the dominant ideas linked with 'nature' and 'order' . . . become involved with the family symbol," so that natural order is represented as familial just as the family comes to appear naturally ordained.(6) In this way, Burke justifies existing arrangements for the transmission of property and for the continuance of the extant form of government by a single principle, through what he calls "an entailed inheritance":

We wished at the period of the [1688] Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers. Upon that body and stock of inheritance we have taken care not to inoculate any cyon alien to the nature of the original plant.(7)

Against innovation, revolution, and the hybridity they breed, Burke proposes inheritance, both economic and political, as the only natural and just means of insuring continuity and reproducing it over time, thus projecting the metaphorical family/property/civil society nexus as indissoluble.(8)

Burke's concern here is to furnish "a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement" (R, 29); while he does not rule out political change and economic expansion, Burke yet hopes to control the momentum of both by restraining them within the firmly established bounds of what he calls a "family settlement" (R, 29). He draws explicitly on the affective relations of the familial realm for his model of how to contain the anarchic energies he associates with both the revolutionary French and the rising bourgeois English:

We have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood, binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties, adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections, keeping inseparable and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars" (R, 30).

Within this framework, to rise against the polity would be equivalent to parricide; far better, then, to treat both head of family and head of state with a respectful affection that proceeds from one and the same source. The naturalization of ties to patriarch and monarch, invested with the power of "family affections," makes any assault on those ties an unnatural and alien act.

Burke's intertwining of familial with political relations in a patriarchal mode can be read from a feminist perspective as part of a wider cultural shift in relations among men and women. As the work of Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall establishes, a characteristically middle-class ethos came to depend on the articulation of a nexus between gender and class that redefined the family as a political, economic, and psychological unit. In their words, "The forms of property organization . . . framed gender relations through marriage, the division of labour and inheritance practices," so that "the structure of property can be regarded as a powerful 'relational idiom' in the creation of both gender and class."(9) Illuminating the interrelation of the affective with the economic and providing a critical tool for reevaluating concepts of property and inheritance, this feminist lens brings into view their gendered elements. For example, in Burke's case, we see that the idea of inheritance entails both economic and political transmission, operations that ostensibly involve and concern only men; Davidoff and Hall's analysis enables us to recognize, however, that the "relational idiom" functions both as a norm for the lived experience of men and women and as a powerful warrant for the gendered character of that experience.

For while women may not be considered political actors, and are thus excluded from Burke's "we," being by no means among "our forefathers," they are profoundly implicated in the familial paradigm he employs, both as the primary creators and maintainers of "family affections" and as the embodied and embodying agents of inheritance. Even so, women's crucial role in the metaphorical and literal reproduction of the family is largely written out of Burke's account of transmission and inheritance. That absence should alert us to the gender politics of Burkean thought and its latent assumptions about the nature and character of women and men, assumptions well documented in the work of Isaac Kramnick and Ronald Paulson; they agree on the centrality of the gender binary to Burke's politics as well as, in psychobiographieal terms, to his own personality.(10) From his earliest work, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1756), Burke associated masculinity with energy and terror, femininity with quiescence and delight.(11) Rhetorically, Burke registered his outrage at the French Revolution in terms drawn from the available vocabulary of gender and class polarity: in the celebrated section of the Reflections concerning the French royal family, as Paulson argues, "we see Burke opposing a vigorous ('active'), unprincipled, rootless masculine sexuality, unleashed and irrepressible, against a gentle aristocratic family, patriarchal and based on bonds of love.''(12) But Burke's gender politics go deeper than this, predicated as they are on effacing the relation of women to property and, more generally, to the public sphere.

For example, inheritance, as I have noted, is central to Burke's thinking about the reproduction of political and economic forms; he represents it as sure and certain, while revolutionary change is dangerous and unpredictable in its outcomes. Yet inheritance can never be as sure as patriarchal thinkers might like insofar as its proper functioning may be subverted by the uncertainties of determining paternity or the misrepresentations of impending maternity.(13) Burke's confidence in the security of hereditary transmission depends, in other words, on the tacit assumption of marital chastity among women, who act as the unacknowledged ground for familial, economic, and political legitimacy. In this light, his concerns about "counterfeit wares" (R, 22) and alien cyons betray a specifically gendered, culturally pervasive anxiety: that no principle of transmission can be fully secure if feminine fidelity is not maintained.

Not surprisingly, then, Burke figures the worst excesses of the revolutionaries as a threat of female sexuality that, uncontained, would undermine all traditional ties. In the Reflections, he connects the laxity of French morals with the overthrow of paternal right:

All other people have laid the foundations of civil freedom in severer manners and a system of a more austere and masculine morality. France, when she let loose the reins of regal authority, doubled the license of a ferocious dissoluteness in manners ... and has extended through all ranks of life, as if she were communicating some privilege or laying open some secluded benefit, all the unhappy corruptions that usually were the disease of wealth and power (R, 33).

As the "austere and masculine" give way to "a ferocious dissoluteness," the "disease" of aristocratic manners spreads throughout the body politic, infecting all ranks. If not explicitly stated, it is yet suggested that the carriers of this plague are effeminate or feminine.

More overtly, in a later work, "A Letter to a Noble Lord" (1796), Burke specifies the nature of the threat he perceives:

The Revolution harpies of France, sprung from Night and Hell, or from that chaotic Anarchy which generates equivocally "all monstrous, all prodigious things," cuckoo-like, adulterously lay their eggs, and brood over, and hatch them in the nest of every neighboring state. These obscene harpies ... who in reality are foul and ravenous birds of prey, (both mothers and daughters,) flutter over our heads, and souse down upon our tables, and leave nothing unrent, unrifled, unravaged, or unpolluted with the slime of their filthy offal.(14)

Unchecked by masculine morality, this monstrous femininity commits all kinds of outrage, including laying its eggs in others' nests, and so undermines the security of hereditary transmission. Burke's images portray the pollution and desecration incumbent on feminine freedom as an affront to civilized domestic life, which he sees as central to the reproduction of masculine hegemony, while simultaneously representing feminine promiscuity as a threat to political order.

Burke's insistence on the importance of the family, then, has a double valence: not only is it necessary, along with the state, for the restraint of masculine "avarice, ambition, and sexuality," but it also provides a check on what would otherwise be the untrammeled forces of feminine sexuality, prone, if uncontained, to adulterous excess.(15) From this perspective, Burke's celebrated passage in the Reflections on Marie Antoinette is no mere defense of an anachronistic chivalry, but a very contemporary plea for a requisite discipline in sexual and familial relations, conceived as central to the maintenance of the sociopolitical order.(16) For part of what Burke fears in the Jacobin revolt is the unfixing of the proper bounds of feminine and masculine sexual restraint just at the moment when those bounds are more crucial than ever to consolidating the new gendered middle-class ethos: if "that generous loyalty to rank and sex"--"the unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise" (R, 66-67)--should disappear in England as it has in France, all distinctions would be lost. Here Burke avows the crucial role of masculine sexual discipline in maintaining social, political, and national order. Thus his emphasis on securing a "family settlement" of property and government also involves settling the affective, libidinal forces at work among women and men in and on particular individuals.

Centering his affections on his family, a father-husband simultaneously finds an effective channel for desire and supports the necessarily hierarchical and fixed system of benefits and privileges that structures the social order; just as "no Prince appears settled unless he puts himself into the situation of the Father of a Family," no lesser man can be truly loyal to his sovereign unless he acquires the same curb on his appetites.(17) A proper mother-wife, who lays no eggs in any nest but her own, similarly requires near kin to accommodate her libidinal investments; moreover, she comes to represent in her own person the principle of femininity worthy of a glorious respect, while insuring the reproduction of familial life at a number of different levels. The ideal Burkean family, in short, stands as the embodiment of "public affections," which "create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment," "required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law" (R, 68). On the sanctity of this private entity rests public, national, and imperial security.


Like the Reflections, The Absentee promotes the family as the mainstay of the orderly society, affirming that "'the domestic peace of families, on which, at last, public as well as private virtue and happiness depend,'" provides the basis for sociopolitical order.(18) While the novel recounts multiple obstacles to the creation of "domestic peace," some more overtly "political" than others, I want to look first at representations of women in the novel, for like Burke, Edgeworth understands the regulation of sexuality--especially feminine sexuality--to be the linchpin of social order. But while Burke subordinates sexuality to politics, Edgeworth rewrites politics precisely as a familial plot: The Absentee represents the struggle for imperial hegemony within the discursive terms of family and romance.(19)

Briefly put, the novel tells the story of Lord Colambre, raised largely in England as the son of an English mother and an Irish father, who seeks both to restore the family fortunes, by returning his absentee parents to their Irish home, and to gain the hand of Grace Nugent, whose obscure birth creates an enigma resolved by novel's end. Considering The Absentee as a political novel, many critics have noted Burke's presence in the text--the novel's most idealized character, a good agent for the absentee landlord, actually bears his surname--but few have understood the specific import of Burkean thinking about the family's political function to its plot.(20) Marilyn Butler, for example, finds it difficult to reconcile the political message of the novel, its critique of absenteeism as an inefficient form of governing Ireland, with its love story, in which "the hero [must] clear away a shadow on the birth of ... the girl he loves": as she puts it, "No one who reads The Absentee can see any immediate connection between the two plots."(21) However, if read through the contemporary concern with the interrelation of public affections and familial politics, as exemplified here by Burke, the double plot of The Absentee begins to make more sense: because the maintenance of an ordered society, like the English one, or the reformation of a disorderly society, like the Irish one, depends in great part on restraining feminine sexuality, the moral character of women takes on specifically political and economic importance.

Although the problem of Grace's birth is not revealed until midway through the novel, Edgeworth's unflattering portraits of other female characters prepare us immediately to realize its significance: as Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace has established, throughout The Absentee, as in Edgeworth's other fictions, any and all irregularities in women's sexual and social identities present serious impediments both to the practice of domestic life and to male virtue.(22) For example, Edgeworth represents Lord Colambre's mother, Lady Clonbrony, as willful, extravagant, and socially ambitious; by insisting on remaining at the fashionable metropolitan center, she positions her irresolute husband as an erring absentee. (In an event that represents one potential but averted narrative end for the Clonbronys, the father of a friend of Colambre goes to an early grave because his wife's "passion for living in London and at watering places ... had made her husband an ABSENTEE" [A, 54], ruining both his financial and physical health.) But deleterious as her behavior is to her husband's economic and psychological well-being, Edgeworth assigns Lady Clonbrony no special role in inculcating her son with morality; removed early from his mother's care,

before he acquired any fixed habits of insolence or tyranny, he was carried far away from all that were bound or willing to submit to his commands, far away from all signs of hereditary grandeur--plunged into one of our great public schools.(6)(23)

Women who mother daughters, however, come in for a greater share of responsibility owing to the different circumstances of female education. Lady Dashfort, the first to cast the stain on Grace's mother's reputation in hopes of redirecting Colambre's desire to her daughter, is far more dangerous than his own mother to Colambre's adult future, because Isabel learns her viciousness at her mother's knee and reproduces it as an inevitable consequence of her upbringing; as Kowaleski-Wallace argues, Isabel "powerfully demonstrates the effects of corrupt maternal training" and so threatens the hero's progress.(24)

The Dashfort women, designing to ensnare Colambre's affections, represent in their own persons the untrammeled feminine appetite Burke also fears: the lady Isabel, widowed once already at a tender age, is clearly her mother's child in being false, duplicitous, and avaricious. In overhearing her private conversation, Colambre learns that Isabel is a sexual adventuress of a particularly degenerate type:

Lady Isabel came into the library with one of the young ladies of the house, talking very eagerly, without perceiving Lord Colambre, who was sitting in one of the recesses reading.

"My dear creature, you are quite mistaken," said lady Isabel, "he was never a favourite of mine; I always detested him; I only flirted with him to plague his wife. O that wife! my dear Elizabeth, I do hate," cried she, clasping her hands, and expressing hatred with all her soul, and with all her strength. (A, 126)

Colambre responds to Isabel's account by perceiving it instantly as sexual impropriety and thus experiencing unmitigated revulsion: "Instead of the soft, gentle, amiable female, all sweet charity and tender sympathy, formed to love and to be loved, he beheld one possessed and convulsed by an evil spirit--her beauty, if beauty it could be called, the beauty of a fiend" (A, 126). Isabel's offense--flirting with another woman's husband in order to irritate his wife, and perhaps to damage their marital bond--signifies both her own and her mother's moral bankruptcy; like Burke's "foul and ravenous birds of prey," this fiendish mother-daughter pair threatens the integrity of the heterosexual dyad, revealing their own sexual and moral incontinency. No man, Edgeworth implies, could be secure of his heirs with such women for wife and mother-in-law. And Colambre's response here reinforces the weight of the narrator's earlier comment regarding his anxiety about Grace's legitimacy: "Colambre had the greatest dread of marrying any woman whose mother had conducted herself ill" (A, 112), for in the world Edgeworth presents, the daughter's conduct will replicate the mother's.

While certain women in The Absentee thus embody sexual impropriety as a function of degraded feminine character, men in the novel have the role of policing women's sexuality. Setting and maintaining the standards of feminine conduct, a man must choose carefully the wife who will by her own behavior insure marital fidelity, thus proving herself a reliable means of fulfilling the sociopolitical functions of inheritance and transmission. When Colambre's friend, Captain Brooke, chooses for his bride one of the worthy Oranmores, a family favorably contrasted throughout with the Dashforts, another friend, Count O'Halloran, pronounces a blessing on the marriage that reiterates the link between maternal character and daughterly virtue:

"Happy man! I give him joy," said lord Colambre; "happy man! going to be married to such a woman--daughter of such a mother."

"Daughter of such a mother! That is indeed a great addition and a great security to his happiness," said the count. "Such a family to marry into; good from generation to generation; illustrious by character as well as by genealogy; all the sons brave, and all the daughters chaste." (A, 221)

Despite the distinction he draws, O'Halloran here perceives the "character" of Brooke's bride precisely as a function of the "security" provided by a proper "genealogy": if she may inherit no property in her own right, she yet inherits the qualities that make her a fit medium for inheritance, a quintessentially "worthy vessel" for the reproduction of male heirs and masculine power. "'A prudent man,'" O'Halloran continues, "'when he begins to think of the daughter, would look sharp at the mother; ay, and back to the grandmother too, and along the whole female line of ancestry"' (A, 222), for the "female line" contains the suppressed history of feminine character.

As it turns out, Grace is a legitimate daughter, thus "[eliminating] the anxiety put into play by the question of the mother's influence over the daughter"; she meets O'Halloran's genealogical standard, and so stands to inherit not only the fortune bequeathed her by her newly revealed paternal grandfather, but also the all-important reputation for chastity and sexual discipline--which can be passed down to her only by a virtuous mother who synechdochally represents "the whole female line of ancestry."(25) It is this double inheritance that makes her fit to be Colambre's wife and the mother of his legitimate heirs, and so the now assuredly pure Grace enables a very Burkean resolution to this strand of the double plot: the union of the happy and virtuous couple embodies the stable fixation of sexual and affective desires across generations so crucial to the sociopolitical ends that both Burke and Edgeworth sought to promote.

Just as important for my purposes here, however, is the narrative fact that although the novel ends before the marriage actually occurs, the wedding of Grace and Colambre is scheduled to take place in Ireland, not England. By the conclusion of the narrative, that is, not only has Colambre's investigation into Grace's lineage succeeded in bringing the marriage plot to a safe conclusion, but he has also achieved the narrative's other goal: the entire Clonbrony family is transported to Ireland at novel's end, with Colambre's mother and father also taking up their proper place back on the family estate. This intergenerational restoration of rightful rulers, and particularly the resident Anglo-Irish patriarch, is perfectly Burkean insofar as it establishes a legitimating masculine presence as part of the cure for a disordered society. The English-based vision of "public affections" that Burke and Edgeworth share is thus conceived as no alien cyon or counterfeit ware imported to a fundamentally hostile medium, but the appropriate and indeed necessary means of refiguring and reconstituting Irish political and domestic life. Why Ireland in particular should require this renovating masculine presence will occupy us in what remains.


When some members of the Irish parliament proposed in 1773 to tax Irish landholders living in England, Burke--himself an absentee, if only in a very small way--helped to marshal the influence and power to defeat the bill, with his argument against it based on his understanding of Great Britain as a unifying imperial entity.(26) Writing to an Irish peer in "A Letter to Sir Charles Bingham," Burke speaks of "the happy communion" that should obtain between England and Ireland, and the proposed levy as an affront to it:

What is taxing the resort to and residence in any place, but declaring that your connection with that place is a grievance? Is not such an Irish Tax as is now proposed, a virtual declaration, that England is a foreign country, and a renunciation on your part of the principle of common naturalization, which runs throughout this whole empire? (W, 9:489-90).

For the Irish to tax English absentees, by Burke's logic, would mean treating them as aliens rather than as fellow subjects under the united imperial crown; his disdain for such thinking stems from his wish to stress the identity of interests between the two, as in the analogous rhetoric of family and marriage that masks unequal power by stressing the commonality of union. The "common naturalization" of which he writes is, I suggest, an appropriate figure for the political and cultural relationship between England and Ireland that the proposed absentee tax, in his view, firmly rejected.

Burke's related objections to the absentee tax are based on its pragmatic consequences, "because it does, in effect, discountenance mutual intermarriage and inheritance, things that bind countries more closely together than any laws or constitutions whatsoever":

Is it right that a woman who marries into Ireland, and perhaps well purchases her jointure or her dower there, should not after her husband's death have it in her choice to return to her country and her friends without being taxed for it? If an Irish heiress should marry into an English family, and that great property in both countries should thereby come to be united in this common issue, shall the descendant of that marriage abandon his natural connection, his family interests, his public and his private duties, and be compelled to take up his residence in Ireland? Is there any sense or any justice in it, unless you affirm that there should be no such intermarriage and no such mutual inheritance between the natives? (W, 9:491)

Emphasizing the political function of marriage as a means of making "the principle of common naturalization" a concrete fact embodied in male issue, Burke here again conceives of the family, with its links to the orderly transmission of property, as a central tool in achieving that end. Discouraging any mixing between the natives of the two countries would work against the establishment of family connections between them, imperiling the political, economic, and imperial ties Burke wishes to naturalize. Marriage and family, then, figure as agents in holding together an always potentially divided kingdom.

Much of Burke's anxiety to promote "intermarriage ... between the natives" of the landed protestant classes of England and Ireland arises from the absence of an Irish Catholic landed class. This absence had precluded the growth of stabilizing relations of property and inheritance among the Catholic majority, a state of affairs historically produced by the imposition of the penal laws.(27) Passed during the reigns of William and Anne to prevent the spread of popery, the penal laws not only entailed restrictions on religious training and worship, but also constrained economic opportunities for members of the Catholic faith. Debarred from the franchise, magistracies, army and navy commissions, some branches of the legal profession, the university, and most other forms of education at home and abroad, Catholic men were thus essentially excluded from all the institutions that helped to produce and shape the masculine ideal of the landed gentleman.(28) Burke's opposition to this restrictive legislation, which took written form as early as 1765 in his unpublished "Tract on the Popery Laws," centers not so much on its inherent injustice to an oppressed class as on his sense that Ireland could not be reformed or improved unless the English system of familial inheritance and domestic affection, so crucial to the Reflections as to The Absentee, were equally available to Catholics.(29)

Burke argues against the penal laws on the grounds that they undermine a father's authority over his children and his estate. Instead of primogeniture, by which an eldest son inherited his father's land and other property, the penal legislation mandated gavelkind (repealed in 1778), whereby an estate was divided equally among all male children, thus obstructing consolidation of assets in one son's hands. For the seventeenth-century English, this was a necessary move in securing the subjection of conquered Catholics, preventing them from rebuilding their economic and political power. But in their economic and political effects, the laws also determined familial relations in ways Burke found highly suspect. For example, a further penal stipulation (also repealed in 1778) enabled an eldest son, upon conforming to the established church, to reduce his Catholic father "to an estate for his life only" (W, 9:438), with the permanent, heritable rights to the property given over immediately to the son. "By this part of the Law, the tenure and value of a Roman Catholic, in his real property, is not only rendered extremely limited, and altogether precarious"--which to Burke's way of thinking would be bad enough--"but the paternal power in all such families is so very much enervated, that it may well be considered as entirely taken away" (W, 9:438). Since, for Burke, paternal power within the family forms the foundation for social order, the penal laws are not merely out of step with the needs of empire, but directly subversive of them. The new conditions of hegemonic control in the late eighteenth-century empire require that discipline begin at home; the rebellion of sons against fathers, which the penal statutes seem explicitly to encourage, is counter to the interests of patriarchal authority, at home and in the state.

Unsurprisingly, Burke is also concerned about keeping unruly wives in check, and indicts the penal laws for breaching patriarchal control in this particular as well. A newly conforming wife and mother, by act of law, could gain greater authority over her dependent children, who might be taken from their father's custody for education in their new faith. Catholic fathers would, however, remain responsible for financially maintaining those children until they came of age. While Burke acknowledges that "the Case is exactly similar" (W, 9:441) if the father conforms, since the nonconforming mother would then lose her children to him, he spends his rhetorical ire only on the abrogation of paternal rights and the concomitant rise in feminine power:

If the Wife should chuse to embrace the protestant religion, from that moment she deprives her husband, (whether she will or no) not only of all management of all his Children, but even of that satisfaction in their society, which is, perhaps, the only indemnification, a parent can receive for the many heavy cares and sollicitudes [sic], which attend that anxious relation.... [If] she may, whenever she pleases, subtract the Children from his obedience and protection she must, by that hold, acquire one of the strongest sources of power and superiority over her husband (W, 9:440-41).

The penal laws thus err again in granting power to those who should be legally as well as morally, politically, and socially subordinate; in seeking to encourage conformity to one arm of the state, the established church, these laws undermine the power of another, the patriarchal family. To reduce or limit a husband's "coercive power" (W, 9:441) over his wife and children, or his property, prevents the establishment of proper masculine authority.

By eliminating religion as a disability, Burke hoped to reinvest power in the hands of Catholic men, not as Catholics but as men, who would thereby become full sharers in political power and full enforcers of imperial security. Burke's argument for repeal once again rests, as in the Reflections, on his appeal to the domestic affections, with "domestic" bearing in this case both a familial and a national valence:

To transfer humanity from its natural basis, our legitimate and home-bred connections; to lose all feeling for those who have grown up by our sides, in our eyes, the benefit of whose cares and labours we have partaken from our birth; and meretriciously to hunt abroad after foreign affections; is such a disarrangement of the whole system of our duties, that I do not know ... what effect bigotry could have produced that is more fatal to society (W, 9:461).

By the removal of Catholic disabilities, all Irishmen would recognize what they held in common rather than what differentiated them from one another: "legitimate and home-bred connections"--growing up together, sharing a common national identity, being both Irish and British--should take natural precedence over "foreign affections." By recasting the relationship between Irish Catholics and Protestants in these terms, Burke encourages the growth of domestic alliances and familial affections as one solution to political problems on the national and imperial front.


While the penal laws concern only Catholics, and Edgeworth's milieu in The Absentee is almost wholly concerned with Protestant protagonists, both the problem she faces and the solution she imagines are analogous to Burke's. Like him, she understands "common naturalization" as a potential political formula for healing intercultural fragmentation that could be enacted at the level of familial and domestic relations; yet, forty years after Burke had successfully opposed the absentee tax, Edgeworth still considers absenteeism itself problematic, with the projected union at novel's end between Grace Nugent and Lord Colambre, as I have already argued, alone insufficient to achieve the goal of "common naturalization." Just as crucial to the resolution of this fiction is the mediation of his parents' affairs that Colambre undertakes. Born in Ireland but raised in England by an English mother and an Irish father, Colambre figures as a hybrid subject who embodies in his own person a familial relationship between the two countries as the product of their literal union; his narrative task is precisely to naturalize that union.

Unlike the "common issue" of the "Irish heiress" and the "English family," however, whom Burke imagines suffering from the unjust penalties of the proposed absentee tax, the male heir Colambre finds "his natural connection, his family interests, his public and his private duties" are Irish, not English; after the 1800 Act of Union, Edgeworth aims not to justify absenteeism, as Burke does, but to abolish it. Within The Absentee, the mixed marriage that produces Colambre initially serves not as a means of "common naturalization," but as a metaphor for the profound alienation between his mother and father, exacerbated by the father's weakness and the mother's unruly appetites, an alienation that echoes the very split between England and Ireland that absenteeism engenders. In his role as "common issue" in The Absentee, Colambre must institute a new law, Burkean in spirit if not in letter, which will require his father and mother finally to return to their Irish home, reformed of their decadent cosmopolitan habits and newly committed to middle-class gender ideals. In short, Edgeworth's political goal of "improving" Ireland, like Burke's, calls for the restraint of feminine desire (conceived here largely as a desire for social success) and the restoration of a fallen patriarch.

Our first glimpse of Lord Colambre comes through the eyes of some Englishwomen evaluating him as a marriage prospect: one describes him as "'a very gentlemanlike looking young man,'" while the other remarks that he is "'Not an Irishman, I am sure, by his manner'" (A, 3), thus introducing the idea that Irishness and (English) gentility are incompatible elements. While the narrator attempts to reconcile the mixture in an appreciative mode, she relies on a similar polarization of English and Irish qualities to make her point:

The sobriety of English good sense mixed most advantageously with Irish vivacity. English prudence governed, but did not extinguish, his Irish enthusiasm. But, in fact, English and Irish had not been invidiously contrasted in his mind ... he was not obvious to any of the commonplace ridicule thrown upon Hibernians; and he had lived with men who were too well informed and liberal to misjudge or depreciate a sister country.... He had formed friendships in England; he was fully sensible of the superior comforts, refinement, and information, of English society; but his own country was endeared to him by early association, and a sense of duty and patriotism attached him to Ireland. (A, 67)

In this passage, the narrator supports the idea of national differences, but critiques the unequal value they have been assigned by the uninformed and illiberal: while relying, for example, on a dichotomous view of the Irish as "vivacious" and the English as "rational," she dismisses the notion that the two could be "invidiously contrasted" by the true gentlemen with whom Colambre has associated. Nonetheless, the narrator presents Ireland as culturally inferior, lacking the "comforts, refinement, and information" of the English world Colambre has known as a young adult. As the bearer of both an English and an Irish identity, one the mature fruit of a refined education, the other a product of "early association," Colambre is charged with the narrative task of making his own individual situation, as one who combines the best of both cultures, into a new cultural norm for the Ireland to which "duty and patriotism" attach him.

His parents, however, bear the worst traits of their native cultures, with their faults exacerbated by the decadent circles in which they move; out of their proper places, the Clonbronys become extravagant, wasteful, and dissolute. "Lady Clonbrony, in consequence of her residence in London, had become more of a fine lady ... [and] by giving splendid entertainments, at an enormous expence, made her way into a certain set of fashionable company" (A, 22): but becoming "a fine lady" makes her vain and self-seeking, hoping to impress the right people by throwing elaborate parties that she refuses to realize she cannot afford. Although her desire for social advancement does not take the specifically sexual form displayed by Isabel and Lady Dashfort, it shares a common foundation with their sexual aggressiveness in that both kinds of behavior represent feminine desire unbound, with Lady Clonbrony's particular acquisitive appetite hungering for material success and consumer gratification rather than new male conquests.

The narrator is equally pointed in diagnosing Lord Clonbrony's affliction: "Since he left Ireland, [he] had become less of a gentleman.... lord Clonbrony, who was somebody in Ireland, found himself nobody in England, a mere cipher in London" (A, 22). Becoming "less of a gentleman," because removed to a world in which he has no duties or responsibilities, makes Lord Clonbrony "a mere cipher" who passively condones his wife's expensive tastes and actively squanders their joint fortune through unspecified bad habits. In short, the Clonbronys precipitate their own ruin, both morally and financially, by their absenteeism, which induces them to try to be what they are not and to forget what they are. The rehabilitation of both parents, as executed by Colambre, will be closely linked to their conforming to gender ideals of much the same kind as Burke sought to enforce.

Colambre returns to Ireland because of the crisis in his father's financial affairs brought on by his parents' mutual irresponsibility, "determined that he would see and judge of that country for himself, and decide whether his mother's dislike to residing there was founded on caprice or on reasonable causes" (A, 79). Disguising himself "that he might see and hear more than he could as heir apparent to the estate" (A, 129), he first visits the town that bears his name, which is run by a good agent. Here he finds a model estate in Colambre, "improved, and fostered, and made" (A, 131) by the worthy Burke, who is praised in glowing terms for his just treatment of the tenants and for improving conditions despite its owner's indifference. Lord Clonbrony "'might as well be a West India planter, and we negroes, for any thing he knows to the contrary'" (A, 130), claims one townsman, and a tenant on the Clonbrony estate, ruled over by the bad agent Carraghty, argues much the same thing: he blames Clonbrony "'because he is absent ... it would not be so was he prisint'" (A, 145). After visiting both estates, Colambre comes to a similar conclusion:

"What I have just seen is the picture only of that to which an Irish estate and Irish tenantry may be degraded in the absence of those whose duty and interest it is to reside in Ireland, to uphold justice by example and authority; but who, neglecting this duty, commit power to bad hands and bad hearts--abandon their tenantry to oppression, and their property to ruin." (A, 162)

In Edgeworth's view, the rehabilitation of Ireland depends on the presence of its rehabilitated patriarch and his earnest son, who would jointly recognize that their "duty and interest" coincide with the proper supervision and regulation of their tenants; their own subsistence and their tenants'--as well as their mutual security--rest on the father being restored to his proper place.

Such a conclusion is made difficult by Lady Clonbrony's "Londonomania"--"I'll never hear of leaving Lon'on--there's no living out of Lon'on--I can't, I won't live out of Lon'on, I say'" (A, 199)--yet Colambre's appeal to "her natural feelings, which though smothered, he could not believe were wholly extinguished" (A, 199), does the trick. And his argument rests on the perceived need for both his father and mother to adopt positions more appropriate to their public and private duties:

"O mother!" cried lord Colambre, throwing himself at lady Clonbrony's feet, "restore my father to himself! Should such feelings be wasted?--No; give them again to expand in benevolent, in kind, useful actions; give him again to his tenantry, his duties, his country, his home; return to that home yourself, dear mother! leave all the nonsense of high life--scorn the impertinence of these dictators of fashion." (A, 201)

The ultimate power to "restore" Lord Clonbrony "to himself" lies in his wife's hands, and her consenting to return to Ireland (secured once she is assured that she may redecorate the drawing-room) makes possible his and his dependents' restoration: realigning power within the family, as in the Burkean model, requires the curtailing of feminine desire and its redirection from public ambition to private virtue. Thus the novel's comic resolution signals that familial and public affections have been reconciled, with a gendered ethos of patriarchal responsibility and feminine submission installed as their mainspring.

Gender constructions, then, are crucial to a stable familial order, just as familial order underwrites the imperial project in Ireland as elsewhere within the emergent empire. In naturalizing the participation of the Irish within it, as good fathers and worthy mothers, Burke and Edgeworth seek to naturalize empire itself, to make the important transition from coercion to consent a matter of substituting proper norms for improper ones.(30) The new dispensation both sought inscribes the domestic as the central site for that transition, with the concept of "home"--"'home' being a word," as Edward Said observes, "with extremely potent resonances"--bearing the dual weight of family and nation; in that double valence lies the enduring legacy of the ideological work they carried out.(31)

Miami University


Thanks to Fran Dolan for a careful reading of this essay in draft.

1 Tony Tanner, Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979), 15.

2 Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender (New York: Routledge, 1993), 80.

3 Joseph Allen Boone, Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 9, 7.

4 I borrow the word from David Lloyd, Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1993); see especially the chapter on "Violence and the Constitution of the Novel," for an important rethinking of the Irish novel against the grain of conventions and ideological positions derived from readings of the English and continental novel.

5 Lloyd (note 4), 109.

6 James T. Boulton, The Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), 113.

7 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. J. G. A. Pocock (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 27-28; all further references to this edition will be included in the text and abbreviated R.

8 J. G. A. Pocock glosses this move as a means of "[making] the state not only a family but a trust ... an undying persona ficta, which secures our liberties by vesting the possession of them in an immortal continuity" and so "identifying the principles of political liberty with the principles of our law of landed property" ("Burke and the Ancient Constitution: A Problem in the History of Ideas," in Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History [New York: Atheneum, 1971], 212).

9 Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 32.

10 Isaac Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative (New York: Basic Books, 1977), and Ronald Paulson, Representations of Revolution, 1789-1820 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1983). As helpful as these commentators are in identifying the conventional class and gender associations of Burke's rhetoric, however, they do not employ gender as an analytic category in their readings; by contrast, my concern is not so much with how femininity figures in the Reflections, but in what ways and for what purposes it is written out or written in as a force in maintaining or disturbing the familial and social status quo Burke so treasures.

11 See Paulson (note 10), especially chapter 3.

12 Paulson, 62.

13 For a thorough and provocative discussion of the gendered aspect of liberal political theory, see Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1988).

14 Edmund Burke, "A Letter to a Noble Lord," in The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, 10 vols., ed. R. B. McDowell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 9:156. Further references to Burke's writings, with the exception of the Reflections and some correspondence, will be to this edition, and will be included in the text and abbreviated W.

15 Paulson (note 10), 64.

16 As Boulton (note 6) suggests, "The apostrophe is not a sudden eruption; it is prepared for with immense care. As Burke approaches it he stresses increasingly the brutality and moral depravity which are eventually to be contrasted with the beauty, civilised grace, taste, and courtesy epitomised by the Queen" (127). Yet as Steven Blakemore argues, Burke's "latently sexual language," especially as used to describe the violation of her bedchamber, "linguistically 'exposes' her to both revolutionary rage and rape in a chivalric text that supposedly defends her honor" ("Revolution in Language: Burke's Representation of Linguistic Terror," in Representing the French Revolution: Literature, Historiography, Art, ed. James A. W. Heffernan [Hanover, N.H.: Univ. Press of New England for Dartmouth College, 1092], 7).

17 The Correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. Thomas W. Copeland, 12 vols. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1965), 5:444-45.

18 Maria Edgeworth, The Absentee, ed. W. J. McCormack and Kim Walker (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 248; all further references to this edition of the novel will be included in the text and abbreviated A.

19 Here I am revising Nancy Armstrong's thesis about the eighteenth-century novel, where class difference is displaced by the gender politics of heterosexual romance, to suggest that the imperial difference between England and Ireland is similarly displaced and rewritten in terms of gendered and familial relations. See Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), esp. chapters 2 and 3.

20 W. J. McCormack comes closest to positing the kind of connection between Burke and Edgeworth that I am making here. While he argues that "it could not be said ... that [The Absentee] presents a Burkean world in the manner of Castle Rackren.... there are, however, implicit Burkean longings--the rectification of past offence, the combination of rival goods to oppose drastic change, the identity of place and personality" (Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985], 165). See also 139-46, and McCormack's introduction to The Absentee (note 18) for a valuable reading of the significance of Grace Nugent in historical context to which my argument is much indebted.

21 Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 332. Butler goes on briefly to trace the novel's connection to Professional Education (1809), which posited the importance of early environment to the moral character of children: "If it is true that [her] mother was unchaste, the dominant influence on Grace's early education was a corrupt one" (332-33), which would unfit her to be Colambre's wife. While my argument arrives at a similar end, my contention is that Grace's perceived illegitimacy has a broader implication than Butler allows it: the blot on Grace's birth has a political as well as a domestic valence, and what holds the two plots together is this ideological linkage.

22 For a more comprehensive treatment of this point in relation to other works in Edgeworth's oeuvre, see Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Their Fathers' Daughters: Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Patriarchal Complicity (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), especially chapters 4 and 6. My argument here resembles hers, but I am more concerned than she is with linking the problem of Grace's maternal inheritance to the sociopolitical dimension of the novel, and particularly to the question of English-Irish relations.

23 See Regenia Gagnier, Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832-1920 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), 171-94, for an analysis of how boys' public schools contributed to the making of masculine identities.

24 Kowaleski-Wallace (note 22), 177.

25 Kowaleski-Wallace, 179.

26 The most immediate cause for Burke's opposition to the proposed absentee tax, as Conor Cruise O'Brien suggests, was Rockingham's holding of large estates in Ireland, which would be heavily taxed under the legislation. See The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), 70-71.

27 Brief but lucid discussions of the penal laws appear in R. B. McDowell, Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution 1760-1801 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 173-79, and R. F. Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London: Penguin Press, 1988), 153-63. Foster in particular argues persuasively that penal legislation was largely aimed at limited Catholic landholding. According to his work, gavelkind had originally been an indigenous Gaelic landowning practice of "corporate and redivisible proprietorship" (10) first outlawed by the English in 1606, but in the eighteenth century it signifies very differently than it did in Old Irish culture, as part of the penal legislation meant to constrain Catholic landed power.

28 Unevenly enforced throughout the eighteenth century, most penal laws were repealed during Burke's lifetime: in 1778, Catholics were enabled to inherit and sell land on the same basis as Protestants; in 1792, Catholics were admitted to the bar as barristers and solicitors, while intermarriage and education were also allowed; in 1793, a limited franchise was granted, and Catholics were admitted to army and navy commissions and to the universities. They were still, however, excluded from Parliament and from certain high offices within the government, as well as from the franchise.

29 As O'Brien argues throughout The Great Melody (note 26), another important reason for Burke's support for Catholic relief from penal disabilities lay in his fear that "their not being treated as full and equal citizens" left the Irish "most open to the seductions of Jacobin ideology" (472), thus posing an internal threat to the security of Great Britain. For more on this subject, also see Seamus Deane, "Edmund Burke and the Ideology of Irish Liberalism," in The Irish Mind: Exploring Intellectual Traditions, ed. Richard Kearney (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1985), 141-56.

30 My thinking on this point is indebted to Abdul R. JanMohamed, "The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature," Critical Inquiry 12 (Autumn 1985), 59-87.

31 Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993), 57-58.
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Date:Dec 22, 1994
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