Nicola Trott, review of works on Maria Edgeworth by Sharon Murphy and Clíona Ó Gallchoir (TLS, 6 Jan. 2005).

Details: Nicola Trott, ‘Henglishwoman from Hoxfordshire’, review of Sharon Murphy, Maria Edgeworth and Romance, and Clíona Ó Gallchoir, Maria Edgeworth: Women, Enlightenment and Nation, in Times Literary Supplement (6 Jan. 2005) [q.p.]

Filial piety and colonial property are unlikely to recommend themselves to the modern academics and each of the books reviewed here self-consciously undertakes to defend Edgeworth from charges that may be brought, feminist and post-colonial critiques in particular. Both Sharon Murphy and Clíona Ó Gallchoir see in Edgeworth a rebel against patriarchy, Murphy in the shape of her biological parent (and the familial line that descends from that relationship), [Clíona] Ó Gallchoir in the form of her English patrimony and the Irish nationalism which has tended to bar her from consideration. But this is where the resemblances end; for where Ó Gallchoir’s Edgeworth remains, in however qualified a sense, a figure of the Enlightenment, Murphy’s is newly revealed as a creature of “romance” and as such “subversive” of Enlightenment values conventionally defined (cool rationalism and so forth). This “romantic” author is an escape artist, whose imagination frees her fiction from its reputed obedience to parental mores.

Thus far, Sharon Murphy’s argument in Maria Edgeworth and Romance is telling and attractive; but it moves from empowering to oppressive uses of romance, a fictional mode which turns out to be as disabling for others colonial subjects - as it has been shown to be enabling for Edgeworth herself. Little attempt is made to account for this shift of perspective; and, in the absence of a fuller explanation, it is hard to see how romance can so readily double up as both a means to female liberation or the free play of the mind and an instrument of imperial or ideological control. Besides, Richard Lovell is hardly the unequivocal sponsor of didactic rationalism he needs to be for his daughter’s romancing to make its opposition felt: this spectre of nineteenthcentury criticism has been seen as a straw man ever since Marilyn Butler’s literary biography of Maria Edgeworth, and even the odd Victorian could recognize in him “a most rare and curious compound of utilitarianism and wild romance”.

The parent who once signed himself as his daughter’s “critic partner father friend” suggests a robustly rounded character, and something of the complex personal motivations by which the didactic imperative is driven. At any event, the singleness of purpose required of Maria Edgeworth’s writing to “ideas” - the “story called Forgive & Forget”, for instance, was founded “upon [the] idea” that “the Early Lessons for the poor should speak with detestation of the spirit of revenge” - somehow gives way to the multiple personae and impersonations of fiction. And this author, Clíona Ó Gallchoir remarks in her Maria Edgeworth, “is notorious for never addressing her audience directly, in her own voice”. Ó Gallchoir for her part addresses that indirectness as a matter of gender politics. Edgeworth would have been been surprised to find herself represented as the subaltern of Irish culture; but Ó Gallchoir means to contest the implicit chauvinism, national as well as sexual, of modern commentary which by-passes the “Henglishwoman from Hoxfordshire”.

In the process, the “prudently modified” and specifically English “Enlightenment taste” established in Butler’s account of Edgeworth has to be abandoned. In its stead, Clíona Ó Gallchoir offers an ingenious hybridity, of Ireland with pre- and post-Revolutionary France, and élite with popular cultural forms. If Edgeworth is an “Irish” writer, she is so in ways that favour the importation into her work of French fashion, femininity and language. The effect, it is claimed, is to challenge a nation-building based on the exclusion of women from the public sphere. There are many reasons for an author’s ceasing to be regarded, perhaps, but one such exclusion occurred when Coleridge, on hearing that “the Edgeworths were most miserable when Children”, noted wryly that “the Father, in his book, is ever vapourising about their Happiness!” Practical Education was in fact ajoint publication and, Maria’s name appearing first on the title page, the vapourizing, or the happiness, was manifestly hers.

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