Places: The Absentee

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1812

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*London

*London. Absentee, TheCapital of Great Britain and leading city of the British Isles, in which the Anglo-Irish absentee landlord Lord Clonbrony and his ruthless, social-climbing wife maintain an extravagant lifestyle. The Absentee is set in a historical period when the Irish social order was split over the question of union with Britain. Although the class of people known as “Anglo-Irish”–wealthy Protestant landowners–had dominated Ireland for generations, many of them, like Edgeworth’s fictional Clonbronys, spend their lives in England and on the European continent, living in luxury, while reaping profits from their Irish agricultural properties. Many of them never even set foot in Ireland, leaving management of their lands in the hands of exploitative overseers.

Ireland’s absentee landlord system, coupled with the emerging greedy Irish middle-class, oppressed the disenfranchised, indigent Irish peasants. In London, the Clonbrony family, especially Lady Clonbrony, attempts to buy its way into high society. Going to great lengths to deny her Irish roots, Lady Clonbrony denigrates her former country and attempts to marry off her son, Lord Colambre, to a local heiress. London here represents decay, and because of the absentee landlord system, the Clonbrony family sinks into decline.


*Ireland. Roman Catholic country ruled by Britain. The hero of Edgeworth’s novel, Lord Colambre, finds hope and salvation for the Clonbrony family in Ireland. Young and intelligent, he travels incognito to Ireland to investigate his family’s Irish estates and learn whether his mother’s negative ideas about Ireland are justified. Traveling anonymously to each of his father’s estates, he comes to know the truth. Known as Evans, on the first of his father’s estates, he finds that his father has just fired the likable and honest estate agent Burke for not extorting sufficient income from the estate’s tenants. The Brothers Garraghty manage the second estate, which Lord Colambre finds in complete disorder: Its church is falling down, its roads are almost impassable, and its tenants are terribly abused. Although the brothers almost openly embezzle estate funds, Lord Clonbrony fails to take action against them because they still send him enough money to support his sumptuous lifestyle in London. Again, Edgeworth emphasizes the decay of the Anglo-Irish social order.

Lord Colambre also finds a more peaceful existence in Ireland, where he comes to realize the true quality of the people his mother so severely criticizes. Eventually, he begins to view Ireland as a haven. Upon his return to London, he promises to pay off the family debts himself on the conditions that the Garraghty brothers are let go and his family ceases being absentee landowners. They must, he declares, return to Ireland and take up their ancestral responsibility of caring for their estates. Eventually, his family finds salvation by returning to Ireland–precisely what Edgeworth urges as the political solution to the decaying Anglo-Irish social order.

BibliographyButler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. Despite its title, this work contains an important chapter on Edgeworth. The overall context of the Napoleonic Era is taken into consideration. The obvious contrast between Edgeworth and Austen, and its consequences for the development of English fiction, results in a stimulating critique of Edgeworth’s oeuvre.Butler, Marilyn. Maria Edgeworth: A LiteraryBiography. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1972. The standard biography, providing comprehensive information on all aspects of Maria Edgeworth’s life, work, and family. The sources, intentions, and reception of all of Edgeworth’s writings are discussed. Contains a thorough account of The Absentee’s social, artistic, and political contexts.Davie, Donald. The Heyday of Sir Walter Scott.London: Routledge, 1961. A pioneering study of Scott’s influence on English and European literature. The distinctive place of Edgeworth’s fiction in this overview is clearly established. The Absentee receives concise and pertinent treatment.Dunne, Tom. Maria Edgeworth and the ColonialMind. Dublin: National University of Ireland, 1985. An influential study of Edgeworth’s work, to which subsequent considerations of Edgeworth’s politics and culture colonialism are indebted. Dunne’s discussion is directly relevant to the concerns addressed in TheAbsentee.Edgeworth, Maria. The Absentee. Edited by W. J. McCormack and Kim Walker. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988. Contains a scholarly introduction, bibliography, and explanatory notes. Also reprints material on the connotations ofthe name Grace Nugent and Edgeworth’s notes for an essay on Edmund Burke.Harden, Elizabeth. Maria Edgeworth. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Harden chooses the theme of education around which to organize her survey of Edgeworth’s life and works. This approach reveals in broad outline the range of Edgeworth’s sympathies and activities. Contains a full bibliography.McCormack, W. J. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History from 1789 to 1939. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1985. Contains a section on The Absentee, which is appraised in the light of Edgeworth’s reading of the writings of Edmund Burke. A path-breaking contribution to Irish cultural history.
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