I recently picked up William Trevor’s The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories and stumbled upon a short story by Maria Edgeworth. Once again, I was amazed at not only the quality of the story but why no one has ever heard of her. In Trevor’s collection, Edgeworth’s “The Limerick Gloves,” appears between Oliver Goldsmith’s “Adventures of a Strolling Player” and William Carleton’s “Death of a Devotee,” All three stories are amazing literary mirrors of a broken society.
I first came across Maria Edgeworth (pronounced Mariah) in an Irish Studies class offered through the National University of Ireland, Galway. We were required to read her Castle Rackrent, an amazingly humorous indictment of the English absentee landlord economic system under which her fellow countrymen lived. It was a system that perpetuated entitlement, abuse of tenancy; and created a generation of idle and entitled young men. As I read the Castle Rackrent, I realized how far ahead Maria was of both the historian and social scientist in detailing the sociological, economic and historical dis-membership of an English class system, and how she is a match for any of the sardonic humor of today’s satirists. The impact of Castle Rackrent could be compared to one of our admired, established writers single-handedly dismembering our own economic fallacies, such as “trickle down” economics, or income inequality as sound policy.
In “The Limerick Gloves” (the story from Trevor’s collection), a young woman is being courted by Brian O’Neill, an Irish glove maker living in Hereford, England. O’Neill is wealthy, kind, and generous but he’s Irish, and here in lies the crux of the story. Not only will Phoebe’s father not allow her to see the man or attend the ball to be held at his house, he accuses O’Neill of conspiring to blow up the local cathedral, “having come to settle at Hereford nobody knew why, and who seemed to have money at command nobody knew how.” The father’s prejudice evolves to where, the “over-wise politicians” decide that the best thing that could be done for Hereford, “and the only means of preventing the immediate destruction of the cathedral, would be to take Mr. O’Neill into custody.” The climax of the story is a brilliant jab at the father’s prejudice.
In a few short pages, Maria Edgeworth succeeds in not only showing how subtle prejudice can grow into hateful rage, but how such prejudice can rile the entire community against one man, all over a pair of gloves. Reading the story is like sailing through what you think are calm waters only to be shocked, upon landing, at what you just experienced. Maria’s contemporary, Jane Austen, was great at ridiculing people’s peccadilloes; Maria was brilliant at seizing upon those peccadilloes and using them to have us look at ourselves through a cracked mirror.
Maria Edgeworth wrote novels that dealt with English and Irish social conditions, economic concerns, political patronage, female independence and education, and family conflicts. She was the first to portray an economic connection between an individual and his/her wider social context, and the first to develop literary character in terms of class. She wrote the first family saga, the first Big House novel, the first realist novel, the first regional novel, and the first social/historical novel. Thady Quirk, her Irish manservant of Castle Rackrent, is the first (and wildly) unreliable narrator in modern literature. Maria was also the first to attempt an inter-racial relationship and marriage in her novel, Belinda, (1st edition).
There can be endless literary speculation as to why Maria Edgeworth is stuck in the third-string lists of 19th century women writers. Perhaps, between the end of the nineteenth century and World War I, perhaps the male characters developed by Jane Austen and the Brontes better fit a growing trend for dark Byronic hero-types such as Darcy and Heathcliffe. These male characters act impulsively within a limited and limiting community, whereas the moral development of an Ormond in Maria Edgeworth’s Ormond or a Colambre in The Absentee, or O’Neill in “The Limerick Gloves” exist within the context of a whole economic and social setting. Maria’s female characters struggle in intellectual, educational, economic and moral conflict as they face a growingly modern society.
Though Maria Edgeworth was popular for her marriage-market, Big House-type novels, by the 1820s, she had become best known for four Irish novels: Castle Rackrent, The Absentee, Ormond and Ennui, all of which were published and became popular during Great Britain’s Act of Union and Ireland’s “era of emancipation.” As I learned this, and as I put her writing within the social and political context of her time, I realized that Maria’s HH loss of popularity may not be a literary phenomenon at all. Maria Edgeworth’s Irish writings (and therefore all of her writings) became out of sync with the England’s dominant political messaging at the time—the Irish as lawless and backwards; Ireland as a sister nation that could not and would not accept the “civilizing” effects of a Great Britain. This is really the lesson of Maria Edgeworth and her lack of popularity to the modern reader; she was tucked away by the London publishers who preferred to cater to Parliament’s prejudices and need for policy conformity.
Most libraries carry Castle Rackrent and Belinda, both of which are good introductions to Maria Edgeworth. I love The Absentee, Ormond, Patronage and Helen, available online, through any library's Interlibrary Loan and on Amazon.
Surprisingly, there will be the first Maria Edgeworth Literary Festival in Edgeworthtown, Co. Longford, Ireland on May 9th. Surprisingly because we were just in Edgeworthtown last winter and had to inquire at three pubs and ask two nuns where her house was, only to be steered to a beat-up and faded corner street map (but then we were there in the middle of winter). Hopefully, the literary festival will grow her reputation.
This is why I support Fort Collins Chamber Music Society and their Community Funded project: 1) FCCMS takes classical music seriously. They take it so seriously that they cart their instruments and music to places where we hang out—bars, coffee houses, breweries; 2) They believe that chamber music performance doesn’t have to be the sole source of dead guys—it can be experimental, contemporary AND dead guy; and 3) They really, really like what they do.
Chamber music in America hasn’t always been performed in concert halls. You need to keep that in mind when you interact with members of the Fort Collins Chamber Music Society. For example, between 1766 and 1820, the St. Cecilia Society, a chamber music society in Charleston, South Carolina, gave performances in places such as Dillon's Tavern, the Carolina Coffee House and the City Tavern. By the late 19th century, public concert halls, galleries, homes, even the Library of Congress were popular venues for chamber music. The whole atmosphere was far more intimate and casual than what we experience today in large concert halls, with organized seating, high-price tickets, strict rules of behavior. In the 19th century, chamber music performances were almost chamber music parties.
Fort Collins Chamber Music Society is at the forefront of bringing back this experience. They’re not alone. Think Yellow Lounge in Berlin, Amsterdam, New York and other big cities, or (Le) Poisson Rouge, in New York, City Winery in Chicago, Opera on Tap and Classical Revolution. The beginning of the 21st century has seen a rise of bar, club and café performance spaces as popular alternative venues for chamber music. These alternative venues have a different set of rules and expectations—you can actually have fun AND get to know classical music.
Audience attendance has been a significant problem for the classical music industry in the last 30 years. By the early 1970s, a Ford Foundation survey found that among the general population, 96% had seen movie in the last year, 25% had seen a professional jazz, rock or folk performance but only 10% had seen an orchestra concert. Demand for classical concerts decreased further in the 1980s and 1990s. National Endowment for the Arts data from its 2008 study showed that the percentage of adults attending classical music performances in 1982 was 13%, in 1992 was 12.5%, in 2002 was 11.6% and in 2008 was 9.3%.
This is not good. Greg Sandow, an author, former music critic, Juilliard professor and keen observer of the classical music industry, has researched the rise in audience age over the past 30 years. He discovered that the average age of the audience in 1937 was around 30, in 1955 was younger than 35, and in the 1960s was 38. However, in the 1980s it appears that the audience started to age and was not replaced by younger classical music fans. The National Endowment for the Arts study also showed the largest age group for classical audiences in 1992 was between 35 and 44. However by 2002, the largest age group was between 45 and 54. The performers are now the youngest people in the concert hall!
Most Americans have access to a wide variety of music and we listen to an eclectic, personalized mixture. Our present lifestyle is simply not conducive to attending an art event that requires arrival at a set time, and constraints on the audience for silent, passive postures until the performance ends. We tend toward forms of performance that are more interactive, flexible with regard to arrival and departure times, and less constraining on one's behavior and dress during the course of the event. In fact, we are more likely to sit at our computer look up an old Emerson, Lake and Palmer which might lead to listening to a Deep Purple to Zappa to Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky to Paganini and you end up in a thread of Baroque composers, with the question, “how did I get here?”
In a 2002 study, the Knight Foundation found that "more people dislike going to classical concerts than like going," and about a quarter of those who attended classical concerts during the study period "expressed a feeling of ambivalence or worse about the activity.” This study almost demands that to broaden its appeal, chamber music must allow for a less formal atmosphere, eliminate the formalities and provide a more welcoming social atmosphere. In other words, move chamber concerts to new alternative venues like Fort Collins Chamber Music Society’s musicians playing at Odell’s, Crankenstein’s, Equinox (coming this summer) and Everyday Joe’s among others.
We’ve got three days left, guys…support the new Fort Collins Chamber Music Society. Go to http://communityfunded.com/projects/liztellinghotmail-com/foco440-beer-bikes-and-bach/. Make a donation…get a reward.