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, CUNY).

"'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 classes.
    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 itself, value.
    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 Jewishness?
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 rights.
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.