Friday, February 5, 2010

The Great Conservative Reformer

We read history to know the past. But to really know the past, to get a feel for what mattered to people and how they thought, read their fiction. This unoriginal thought occurred to me the other day when I was reading The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth. It's a novel (or tale as Miss Edgeworth would have it, since “novel” was a bit too sensational and down-market a term) of Anglo-Irish aristocrats and Anglo-Irish relations.

I'll just take a moment to point out that I, unlike smart people, tend to read with little plan or direction. I tend to choose books almost at random and apparently on a whim. I was thinking about the nineteenth century, stumbled across this work from 1812, and got interested. I suppose that's why my mind is a patchwork of curiosities, nonsense, and vast empty spaces.

One of the things that got me interested was the book's reputation as being one of the earliest novels of social reform. Might be fun, thought I. And so I learned that one of the greatest social ills of early nineteenth century Ireland was the problem of landlord absenteeism. That is, the Anglo-Irish gentry, who were masters of vast estates, often lived in far-off London, enjoying high society, and left others to look after their responsibilities and collect their rents. If you were Irish you had to pay your rent to the local lord's representative, who did little or nothing for the community.

Perhaps you are thinking some radical solution might be called for? Kick out the landlords and allow people who were not members of the “established churches” to own property? Tax those drones or force them to reinvest for the good of the people they were exploiting? Kick out the English? Silly twenty-first century person.

Maria Edgeworth is the most conservative reformer I've ever run across. The problem, as she seemed to see it, was that people weren't keeping to their places. The Anglo-Irish were in England, trying to deny their Irishness and move up in the social hierarchy. Very foolish. Instead they should return to their estates and take up their proper places as lords of their land and people. The simple Irish folk would be cheered to see that their beloved masters were back to care for them, and they, the nobility, would be on hand to see to the needs of their people and administer things for their greater benefit. They would be certain to do this, of course, because of their superior breeding. The masters would be in the big house, their happy servants surrounding them, and all would be right once again on that lovely island.

I'm not really being fair to the book. There was a lot more to it than that and it was actually quite good. Still, the underlying assumptions about society are, to my modern eye, risibly quaint and terribly interesting. Mixed into all this are descriptions of London society and the people who lived in that world, descriptions of the simple folk in Ireland and the funny way they talked, and a love story. All of this is tied up in the social conventions and assumptions of the time. To Edgeworth's English readers, her portrayal of life in Ireland would have been a window into another land. To me, the whole thing is a window into another time.

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