NOTES ON 'THE ABSENTEE'
In August 1811, we are told, she wrote a little play about landlords and tenants for the children of her sister, Mrs. Beddoes. Mr. Edgeworth tried to get the play produced on the London boards. Writing to her aunt, Mrs. Ruxton, Maria says, 'Sheridan has answered as I foresaw he must, that in the present state of this country the Lord Chamberlain would not license THE ABSENTEE; besides there would be a difficulty in finding actors for so many Irish characters.' The little drama was then turned into a story, by Mr. Edgeworth's advice. Patronage was laid aside for the moment, and THE ABSENTEE appeared in its place in the second part of TALES OF FASHIONABLE LIFE. We all know Lord Macaulay's verdict upon this favourite story of his, the last scene of which he specially admired and compared to the ODYSSEY. Mrs. Edgeworth tells us that much of it was written while Maria was suffering a misery of toothache.
Miss Edgeworth's own letters all about this time are much more concerned with sociabilities than with literature. We read of a pleasant dance at Mrs. Burke's; of philosophers at sport in Connemara; of cribbage, and company, and country houses, and Lord Longford's merry anecdotes during her visit to him. Miss Edgeworth, who scarcely mentions her own works, seems much interested at this time in a book called MARY AND HER CAT, which she is reading with some of the children.
Little scraps of news (I cannot resist quoting one or two of them) come in oddly mixed with these personal records of work and family talk. 'There is news of the Empress (Marie Louise), who is liked not at all by the Parisians; she is too haughty, and sits back in her carriage when she goes through the streets. 'Of Josephine, who is living very happily, amusing herself with her gardens and her shrubberies.' This ci-devant Empress and Kennedy and Co., the seedsmen, are in partnership, says Miss Edgeworth. And then among the lists of all the grand people Maria meets in London in 1813 (Madame de Stael is mentioned as expected), she gives an interesting account of an actual visitor, Peggy Langan, who was grand-daughter to Thady in CASTLE RACKRENT. Peggy went to England with Mrs. Beddoes, and was for thirty years in the service of Mrs. Haldimand we are told, and was own sister to Simple Susan.
The story of THE ABSENTEE is a very simple one, and concerns Irish landlords living in England, who ignore their natural duties and station in life, and whose chief ambition is to take their place in the English fashionable world. The grand English ladies are talking of Lady Clonbrony.
'"If you knew all she endures to look, speak, move, breathe like an Englishwoman, you would pity her,"' said Lady Langdale.
'"Yes, and you CAWNT conceive the PEENS she TEEKES to talk of the TEEBLES and CHEERS, and to thank Q, and, with so much TEESTE, to speak pure English,"' said Mrs. Dareville.
'"Pure cockney, you mean," said Lady Langdale.'
Lord Colambre, the son of the lady in question, here walks across the room, not wishing to listen to any more strictures upon his mother. He is the very most charming of walking gentlemen, and when stung by conscience he goes off to Ireland, disguised in a big cloak, to visit his father's tenantry and to judge for himself of the state of affairs, all our sympathies go with him. On his way he stops at Tusculum, scarcely less well known than its classical namesake. He is entertained by Mrs. Raffarty, that esthetical lady who is determined to have a little 'taste' of everything at Tusculum. She leads the way into a little conservatory, and a little pinery, and a little grapery, and a little aviary, and a little pheasantry, and a little dairy for show, and a little cottage for ditto, with a grotto full of shells, and a little hermitage full of earwigs, and a little ruin full of looking-glass, to enlarge and multiply the effect of the Gothic.... But you could only put your head in, because it was just fresh painted, and though there had been a fire ordered in the ruin all night, it had only smoked.
'As they proceeded and walked through the grounds, from which Mrs. Raffarty, though she had done her best, could not take that which nature had given, she pointed out to my lord "a happy moving termination," consisting of a Chinese bridge, with a fisherman leaning over the rails. On a sudden, the fisherman was seen to tumble over the bridge into the water. The gentlemen ran to extricate the poor fellow, while they heard Mrs. Raffarty bawling to his lordship to beg he would never mind, and not trouble himself.
'When they arrived at the bridge, they saw the man hanging from part of the bridge, and apparently struggling in the water; but when they attempted to pull him up, they found it was only a stuffed figure which had been pulled into the stream by a real fish, which had seized hold of the bait.'
The dinner-party is too long to quote, but it is written in Miss Edgeworth's most racy and delightful vein of fun.
One more little fact should not be omitted in any mention of THE ABSENTEE. One of the heroines is Miss Broadhurst, the heiress. The Edgeworth family were much interested, soon after the book appeared, to hear that a real living Miss Broadhurst, an heiress, had appeared upon the scenes, and was, moreover, engaged to be married to Sneyd Edgeworth, one of the eldest sons of the family. In the story, says Mrs. Edgeworth, Miss Broadhurst selects from her lovers one who 'unites worth and wit,' and then she goes on to quote an old epigram of Mr. Edgeworth's on himself, which concluded with,'There's an Edge to his wit and there's worth in his heart.'
Mr. Edgeworth, who was as usual busy building church spires for himself and other people, abandoned his engineering for a time to criticise his daughter's story, and he advised that the conclusion of THE ABSENTEE should be a letter from Larry the postilion. 'He wrote one, she wrote another,' says Mrs. Edgeworth. 'He much preferred hers, which is the admirable finale of THE ABSENTEE.' And just about this time Lord Ross is applied to, to frank the Edgeworth manuscripts.
'I cannot by any form of words express how delighted I am that you are none of you angry with me,' writes modest Maria to her cousin, Miss Ruxton, 'and that my uncle and aunt are pleased with what they have read of THE ABSENTEE. I long to hear whether their favour continues to the end, and extends to the catastrophe, that dangerous rock upon which poor authors are wrecked.'
- Lord Macaulay was not the only notable admirer of THE ABSENTEE. The present writer remembers hearing Professor Ruskin on one occasion break out in praise and admiration of the book. 'You can learn more by reading it of Irish politics,' he said, 'than from a thousand columns out of blue-books.'