December 2, 2005
Seminar: Irish Studies, 535
Meeting Date: December 2, 2005
Chair: Mary McGlynn
Speaker: Natasha Tessone
Ph.D. Candidate in English, Princeton University
Title: "'An Irish Blunder': Edgeworth’s Ireland."
Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons
Attendees: Barry McCrea (Yale University); Alexandra Neel (Princeton
University); Dermot Ryan (Columbia University); Frank Naughton (Kean
University); Alice Naughton; Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers
Association); Peter Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Bob St-Cyr
(Blackwater Valley Museum); Michael O. Shannon (Lehman College, CUNY);
Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Barbara Young (Molloy
College); Patrick McNierney (Columbia University); Gertrude Hamilton
(Marymount College of Fordham University); Thomas Ihde (Lehman College,
"'An Irish Blunder': Edgeworth’s Ireland"
This is a synopsis of the paper that was given by Ms. Tessone. A
copy of the paper has been deposited with University Seminars.
In Maria Edgeworth's 1802 Essay on Irish Bulls, she
vindicated the Irish blunder as a rhetorical anomaly exhibiting
"superfluity of wit, metaphor, and ingenuity." Ms. Tessone’s
paper illustrated how one such blunder, in Edgeworth’s 1817 novel
Harrington, served to obviate the urgent question of the political
illegitimacy of Edgeworth’s class. The novel was born of a
complaint of anti-Semitism levelled against Edgeworth by Rachel
Mordecai, a Jewish-American admirer of hers. The title of
Edgeworth’s novel alludes to one James Harrington, who in 1656, after
Cromwell proposed readmitting Jews into Britain, wrote a
counter-proposal that advocated consigning Jews to Ireland.
Harrington deals with a similar situation in 1753, when the so-called
"Jew Bill" sought to improve the position of foreign-born Jews in
Britain, and was violently opposed by the mercantile and landowning
Yet the novel was only marginally successful as a
recantation of anti-Semitism, for the character of Harrington falls in
love with, struggles to keep, and eventually marries the daughter of a
Jewish friend of his, but she turns out actually to be an English
Protestant. Edgeworth later expresses an embarrassment with the
novel's ending, calling it an "Irish blunder." However, the
question of its being a blunder can only be properly approached by
pursuing what it meant for a member of the Anglo-Irish classes to
sympathetically identify with Jews, and what would constitute a failure
of that endeavour.
The novel is rife with hysterias, including the
violent outburst of the 1780 anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, which in the
novel collapse Jewish and Catholic minority groups together, with the
rioters agitating against both at once. This depiction of the
shifting concerns and irrational behaviour of mobs may have come from
Edgeworth’s own experiences of her father being an object of attack
from both rebel and loyal forces in the 1798 rebellion, which she
blamed on party prejudice, an inversion of the more common "party
spirit." This term, "party spirit," opens the section on the
Gordon Riots in the novel. Edmund Burke, who wrote about the
Gordon Riots in his Reflections, drew a causal link between Gordon’s
conversion to Judaism and his anti-Catholic sentiment, a link that
Edgeworth seems to reject. For Burke, always concerned with
inheritance rights, the "Jew Bill" of 1753 would have disrupted the
national inheritance, as recent events in France had done.
Harrington's father exhibits the same paranoia of foreign-born Jews,
and of the volatilisation of property by converting it to money, which
is precisely what Montenero, the wealthy Jew, and indeed the novel
Irish property was always already volatilised,
thanks to its having come into hands of the Anglo-Irish class through
conquest and confiscation. This was a concern of Edgeworth’s and
one of the central issues of her novel Castle Rackrent.
Edgeworth's sympathy with Jewish figures is conditioned on imagining
Jews—and, by association, the Anglo-Irish—as cosmopolitan citizens of
the world rather than privileged possessors of the fiercely contested
Irish territories. Underlying this assumption of property as an
inherently volatile category is Edgeworth's even more expansive
understanding of the category of identity, perhaps best illustrated by
the character of Widow Levi, an Irish orange-seller with a Jewish name
who identifies with and defends Montenero.
Harrington is not simply a failed attempt to provide
a more sympathetic account of Jews; it also exposes Edgeworth’s
struggle to come to terms with the political illegitimacy of her class
in a country that she sought to claim as her home, but whose political
reality served a constant reminder of the invalidity of such a claim.
Q. Richard Lovell Edgeworth was thought of as a radical and pro-French,
but didn’t he also support the Union?
A. His radical stance was qualified one, like that of most of this
class; he did not apply republican ideals to Ireland. Parliament
was opposed to the Union, and R.L. Edgeworth was an enthusiastic
supporter of the parliament, but his position and that of parliament
changed. It is tricky to equate R.L. Edgeworth and Maria.
Q. The Jewish Bill controversy was in 1753, 27 years before the Gordon
riots. Gordon, though a popular Scottish and Irish name, is a
Jewish name also.
A. Edgeworth’s thinking is very associative; she admires Lockean
associative thinking tremendously. Regarding the Gordon riots, no
one else ever mentions them in the context of Judaism, except Burke.
Q. There is a touch of anti-Semitism in Thady’s character.
A. Yes; critics often read Rackrent as an anti-Semitic novel, but I
think the anti-Semitism is restricted to Thady’s character. It is
very hard to see Edgeworth associating herself with him.
Q. Is there any association between the matrilineal inheritance and
A. That’s an interesting question. I imagine that matrilineal
inheritance would have been part of the appeal for Edgeworth.
However, it is not clear just how far she really was advocating Jewish
Q. It may be that she is critiquing the Burkean notion of inheritance
from a female perspective. Burke had to grasp the nettle of
inheritance in Ireland, and he does come to terms with it. As a
man interested in positive law, the conquest of Ireland was not an
issue for him.
A. For Molyneaux the conquest was just and consensual, and for that
reason it could not be viewed as a conquest.
Q. I am thinking about the analogy of inheritance and property.
Montenero is held up as an emblem of the modern notion of property—he
can dispense with the paintings—but he ends up dispensing with the
paintings in order to uphold inheritance. Not having read the
novel, it seems very Irish indeed.
A. Yes! Critics usually think only about the failure of the novel
to be generous to the Jews, but it is about so much more than that.