A FEATURED REPORT by TREVOR CODE
This is my response to a Public Lecture hosted by Gillian Russell, Gerry Higgins Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne. I have allowed myself the liberty of giving something of an account of the event, but also of adding some further observations based on the issues raised.
On Thursday December 11 2014, Professor James Chandler of the University of Chicago gave a public lecture for the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies and Communication at the University of Melbourne. This was in most respects a repetition of his celebrated lecture, ‘Maria Edgeworth, Edmund Burke, and the First Irish Ulysses,’ previously delivered for RIA Dublin in 2012, and again in Sydney in 2013. A world authority on Romanticism, Professor Chandler was first drawn to this topic by his interest in Edmund Burke, and in Burke’s theory of literary allusion which is seen by Chandler as predating the unconscious element of intertextuality we find in the English Romantics. Maria Edgeworth comes of a generation later than Burke, but is a devotee of his political and literary theories, and an apologist for his role and personality. She is an exponent of Burke’s theory of allusion; for her it is a form of contextual play and reference which, when recognised, enriches the text, both the overall narrative and characters or incidents. The association of The Absentee with The Odyssey was noted when it was first published, particularly by Lord Macauley in relation to the discovery scene, and by a correspondent of Edgeworth’s, Sir Walter Scott, who also alluded to elements of The Odyssey in his novel, Ivanhoe.
We are indebted to Professor Chandler for placing Edgeworth’s fine novel before us. It is a multi-faceted work deserving of much study for its range of characters, comedy, satire, social commentary, philosophy and scholarship. The novel began as a play for family entertainment and it incorporated patterns of allusion which members of the family would have picked up. It was written with depth and insight, but also with lightness of touch. Unlike James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the title, and actual step by step chapter formation of the modernist work, is shaped by The Odyssey so that many discussions of this classic are based on working through the parallels, Edgeworth is subtle, often touching on issues without being weighed down by them. So Joyce’s powerful one day in Dublin is forged around Leopold Bloom’s meandering journey home, while Edgeworth’s Lord Colambre is also engaged in a journey homeward, not knowing whether it really is home, and towards a person who might become his ideal spouse, and yet testing himself in a series of assertions and attitudes.
As Chandler points out, Colambre’s adoption of a simple disguise in order to inspect the two Clonroney properties, is almost forced on him by the Circe-like plotting and deceit of Lady Dashworth and her daughter Isabel, with their design to turn him against Ireland, and in particular against Grace Nugent, so that he will remain forever vulnerable and an absentee. The Circe allusion is unmistakable, but Colambre had also been warned by Brooke against the Sirens, actually mentioned by name, and encapsulated in the epigram Edgeworth borrowed from her father Richard. I quote from the novel:
‘I owe it not to my own wit or wisdom,’ said Lord Colambre; ‘but much to love, and much to friendship,’ added he, turning to Sir James Brooke; ‘here was the friend who early warned me against the siren’s voice; who, before I knew Lady Isabel, told me what I have since found to be true, that,
‘Two passions alternately govern her fate—
Her business is love, but her pleasure is hate.’
‘That is dreadfully severe, Sir James,’ said Count O’Halloran; ‘but I am afraid it is just.’
The allusions may be witty and combined. Colambre had to block his ears; he had also to disguise himself as Evans, a Welshman, below his true station and nationality – a somewhat humble traveller, in order to discover two sides of the truth, through the worthy agent Burke, and the villainous agent Garraghty. He is placed to see and to experience contrasting attitudes to economy, agency, exploitation and hospitality. Colambre does not throw off his disguise in the discovery scene; he is recognised by Garraghty’s sister – the Mrs Raffarty whose comic poor taste we have already encountered. We do not witness here the lord coming into his domain, but a further challenge and test of loyalty, with a race to Dublin, the crossing by sea to Wales, and a further race to his father Lord Clonroney, only to discover no epic battle with bows or swords, but a dispute and revelation of finances, debts and bargaining. It is as if Edgeworth, through such allusion, teaches her readers how to read the classic Odyssey in her time with its relevance in her society and its conflicts. In this Burke’s theory of allusion, so important to Edgeworth, opens the way for the reader to pursue the extended analogy which opens up the whole quest and social systems as Edgeworth saw them in her society and time.
It is significant, as Chandler points out, that Burke appears, not merely as an inspiration and a source of theory, but as a model for two of the characters, one of which is actually given the name Burke, and whose career has to be rescued eventually by the hero of the novel. The allusive reference to Burke opens up essential themes of the novel, the nature of Irish society, including the problem of absentee landlords. Edgeworth has been criticised for the supposed didactic nature of her fiction, as if she were writing a tract, when the relevant political question was being widely argued at the time, including by Burke. This Anglo-Irish novel lives within a social context. The Sheridan-like nature of her original play, is rich in satire as in School for Scandal, but the relevance of the Ulysses theme, helps extend it into the political foray. In a sense, Edmund Burke dominates the thinking behind this lecture. But we may note that the publication of The Absentee in 1812 comes only about a generation before the catastrophic famine (1845-1849), which Edgeworth lived to see, and where the role of absentee landlords is crucial.
Unlike the other venues where this lecture had been given, when we entered the McMahon Ball Theatre in the Old Arts building, James Barry’s portrait of Edmund Burke as Odysseus with a self-portrait of a worried and listening Barry, and with the Cyclops giant Polyphemus in the background, was already projected onto all four walls. We are, of course, accustomed to the tradition in classical paintings where a model, often a friend of the painter, is presented in the costume of an ancient tale. But here we perceive a narrative painting, which clearly presents a message through its allusion. Burke and Barry are shown, with two other figures, and with sheep, as escaping from Polyphemus. In the lecture Chandler posed the question of the range of interpretations we may make for this painting, particularly that raised finger. The Crawford Gallery in Cork, has suggested that Burke is giving a signal to Barry to keep silent; the giant represents Britain, and Barry’s own career is endangered by his outspokenness. In fact, Barry’s anti-British views led to his expulsion from the Royal Academy into which, through Burke’s intercession with Reynolds, he had been become a member. It was his writing rather than his paintings which led to the expulsion from the Royal Academy. Perhaps this might remind us of Sheridan’s rejection of The Absentee as a play with the concern that it was too political, and even the controversial reception of the novel itself on publication. Chandler notes that there is no evidence Edgeworth ever saw this painter or was even aware of its existence, but given the context, this painting seems to be almost poster-like or cartoon-like in its manifest relevance to the Anglo-Irish dilemma. She was much travelled and aware, so she may have known of it.
So, inspired by Edmund Burke, we have two allusions or portraits. One is the “hero” of Edgeworth’s early Anglo-Irish novel, who is never actually proclaimed to be Ulysses, but where the references are complex and intriguing – while the other is the direct portrait of Burke as Ulysses by James Barry, in a painting which has direct political significance. Considering some of the earlier responses to the novel as controversial – too “didactic,” and likely to offend, one might also suggest: another finger before the mouth! Had Edgeworth seen the Barry painting of himself and Burke, I am sure she would have had no difficulty in interpreting it.
As James Chandler pointed out, there are many allusions in the novel which may not relate to The Odyssey. Milton, Pope and Shakespeare are frequently quoted, and we know that Edgeworth and her father had a witty and extensive knowledge of the Classics and Mythology. Would she have known, for example, that Tusculum, after which Mrs Raffarty’s somewhat ludicrous house is named, and in reality a popular village in Italy, is supposed in some myths to have been founded by Theogonos, the (illegitimate) son of Circe and Ulysses, who eventually invades Ithaca, kills his father, and carries off Penelope? Shades of Oedipus and Freud? We know that Grace Nugent is a name borrowed from an O’Carolan melody, chosen to assert her Irish identity one would think, but that her name ‘St Omer’ is taken from the Jesuit school in France which was used in a scandalous political attack on Burke, in an attempt to name him as Catholic at a time when this would have made him ineligible as a parliamentarian, and when he had made public declarations that he had never been there. Surely Edgeworth would have known this. The author’s selection of names is familial and capricious, such as Grace being in reality and legitimately Miss Reynolds. The other “heroine” of the novel, the heiress Miss Broadhurst, eventually married into the Edgeworth family.
So, we have been challenged and inspired. Maria Edgeworth and her novels, particularly The Absentee, should be on our shelves and on our courses. Edmund Burke will continue to inform and inspire us, and not just for his range of pithy political and philosophical sayings. How do we judge him? An Anglo-Irish person who proclaimed himself an Englishman and yet was devoted to representing Ireland in so many ways. And then there is James Barry, the paradoxical and controversial painter. Next time I am in Cork I will set out on my own ‘odyssey”to view that discursive painting.
We owe great thanks to Professor James Chandler for the range of texts and insights. Of course the festival of Bloomsday will remain what it is: Joyce’s Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus will continue their itineraries in Dublin, and of course in Melbourne. The first Irish Ulysses? A broader and most stimulating tapestry of Ulysses has been unfolded or extended for us, and we have been rewarded and gratified at this erudite and witty address.
Trevor Code (Codd)