Maria Edgeworth – “The Irish Incognito” (the end)

The Irish gentleman says he would identify O’Mooney as an Irishman if not by his bull, then by his good humour. O’Mooney agrees and tells him about the bet he’s in danger of losing. But it’s only a few hours left until midnight of the fourth day and so what he’s going to do is to go to his hotel, lock the door and sit mum. He does as he said and for a few hours he is successful. But then his silence is interrupted by the great noise and huzzas in the street. He learns that it’s occasioned by signing the peace treaty between Britain and France (the preliminary agreement was signed on September 30, 1801, published on October 1, and finalized with the Treaty of Amiens in 1802). He forgets about his resolution and goes out to watch the houses being illuminated. (How did the early 19th c. Londoners manage to prepare these illuminations so quickly?) One particularly lavishly illuminated house belongs, he learns, to a contractor who’s made a ton of money from the army contracts. He observes that in this case, his joy may not be quite sincere and maybe he should illuminate his house with dark lanterns. This is a rather witty observation, but again it is interpreted by the people around him as an Irish bull.

Disheartened, O’Mooney decides to go to bed where he has uneasy sleep, dreaming about the biblical bull of Basan pursuing him. He is woken by his servant Terence, pounding at the door and urgently demanding to be let in. Terence explains that he went to a merchant with his master’s draft (i.e. a check) signed with his real name, O’Mooney, but in conversation kept on insisting, as he was told, that his master’s name was John Bull. The merchant started to suspect forgery and Terence bolted out of the shop to warn his master. O’Mooney decides that he’d rather go to gaol than lose his bet, so he decides to pretend he’s dumb and tells Terence not to betray him. He is accordingly taken to the magistrate and put in jail, still not uttering a word. At midnight, he starts to talk to himself and even sing. On the morning of the next day Terence, no longer bound by the oath of silence, goes to the merchant and explains the whole misunderstanding. But here comes the unexpectedly didactic message: O’Mooney returns to Ireland, where his brother happily pays him his one hundred guineas, considering it money well spent for recovering his brother. What is more, O’Mooney, chastened by his experience, actually does what he promised to do in case of losing the bet and joins his brother’s company. This moral is tacked on a bit awkwardly; also, when I was starting the story, I was hoping O’Mooney’s inability to pass was going to have a variety of causes, not just “the Irish say stupid things”. I do have to read Edgeworth’s novels some day, but this story was a bit disappointing.

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Maria Edgeworth – “The Irish Incognito” (ctd.)

O’Mooney thinks that Captain Murray starts to suspect something, and when they are on their own, he admits everything to him and asks him not to spread the secret because he doesn’t want to lose his bet. Murray shakes his hand and says he appreciates his honesty. The next day they go to Maidenhead to see the fight of two (real-life) bare-knuckle pugilists (the forerunners of today’s boxers), Belcher and Bourke. (Edgeworth spells his name thus, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet you can easily check the magazine she’s quoting from, and it spells his name “Burk”). O’Mooney makes sure not to show that he’s secretly rooting for Bourke, an Irishman. After Bourke loses the fight, instead of being transported immediately to the doctor, he’s put in the chaise and made to wait while another fight is going on. O’Mooney presses through the crowd and asks him earnestly “Can you see at all with the eye that’s knocked out?” The people around him again laugh at the “Irish bull” he’s made, but a fellow Irishman, Terence McDermod, who in the past used to go hunting with him as a kind of servant, recognizes his voice, embraces him and swears he’s going to be his loyal servant until the end of his life. O’Mooney can’t get rid of him and finally decides to take him on, only making him promise to keep his secret.

The next detection takes place when by mistake they get on the wrong coach, not the one travelling to London but the one travelling from London. Terence notices it after a mile and a half, but his yelling to his master in his Irish accent makes the coachman observe that his master must be Irish, just like him. He hires a chaise to get back to London and when he’s there, he goes to a tavern to have dinner. He asks a gentleman sitting there to read a newspaper to him. The gentleman turns out to be an Irishman. When he reads to O’Mooney the story of a woman who left everything in her will to her cats, O’Mooney exclaims, “I hate cats almost as much as old women; and if I had been the English minister, I would have laid the dog-tax upon cats.” Dog tax was one of the many new taxes imposed by William Pitt in 1796 to finance the war in France, but the Irish gentleman again identifies O’Mooney’s malapropism as an “Irish bull”.

Maria Edgeworth – “The Irish Incognito” (ctd.)

The word “squeedged” used by Miss Flat gives “Sir John” a pause, but he comes to the conclusion that it must be a Scotch word. He asks around in several shops in the neighbourhood and everybody thinks Miss Sharperson is a rich Scottish heiress. He makes many nice plans about his future with the rich wife, but he decides that he’s going to act honourably and tell her the truth about himself after she accepts his proposal but before they get married. But these dreams are shattered when he overtakes the carriage and he notices Queasy “squeedged” besides Miss Flat. Miss Sharperson, when she notices him, hastily pulls down the blind. I’m not quite sure what the breach of the etiquette is supposed to be there – I guess it’s the gentleman sitting next to the lady instead of opposite her, with his back to the horses? – but it gives Sir John so many misgivings that he immediately goes to visit Captain Murray, the Scotchman who travelled with him to London and who said to be from the same region as Miss Sharperson claims to be. Captain Murray tells John Bull that he’s never heard of such a place as Rascally, and when Bull draws from memory a map he’s just seen, Murray tells him the alleged Rascally should be located right on the spot where his land adjoins that of his cousin. With his hopes dashed, Bull goes back to his hotel and waits for Queasy, who promised to visit him. Queasy is distraught when he hears the news because he lent the lady five hundred pounds and recommended her to various tradesmen. John Bull is convinced that Queasy was Miss Sharperson’s dupe, not an accomplice.

The next morning John Bull goes to Miss Sharperson’s house. She and her companion are gone, and the workmen carry out all the rich furniture and everything they can salvage. In talking to one of the porters, he makes the mistake of describing Miss Sharperson “in as gallant trim, as any ship upon the face of the earth.” The porter is all

“You mean upon the face of the water! You’re an Irishman!” O’Mooney is a bit irritated at being exposed by such a man who himself speaks slang. Moreover, as Edgeworth points out, this expression was used by no lesser an authority on the matters of style than Earl of Chesterfield. But he finds comfort in the thought that it is only the second detection in three days.

He dines with Captain Murray and during dinner he compliments a fine portrait of his host by an eminent painter George Romney. He gets carried away and says “it’s more like than the original” (a real remark, Edgeworth adds in a footnote). A lady dining with them says “If my relative here didn’t tell me you were an Englishman, I’d think you’re an Irish”. John Bull colours and says “Yes, it’s an excellent Irish bull, but during my travels I’ve heard as many English bulls as Irish ones.” Captain Murray politely agrees and even gives some examples, changing the subject of the conversation.

Maria Edgeworth – “The Irish Incognito” (ctd.)

Queasy shows John Bull around the house, rubbing his hands and pointing out various expensive details. O’Mooney as John Bull walks nonchalantly and pretends not to be too amazed with anything. Finally they meet Miss Sharperson and her companion Miss Felicia Flatt: Miss Sharperson reclining on a sofa and Miss Flat busy tuning her harp. Miss Sharperson thanks Bull for helping Queasy with transporting the china and they have a conversation in which John Bull acquits himself rather well. When he rises to take his leave, he gets invited the next morning. The next day he is again shown around by Queasy, who takes particular pride in the steel grates on the hearths, made by the blacksmith he recommended, and, as he emphasizes, very costly. Bull also has a chance to have a look at the map of Rascally, Miss Sharperson’s estate and notices the number of calling cards left by lords and ladies. Miss Flat appears and has another conversation with Bull, which he supposes is the means through which Miss Sharperson tries to check him out. Miss Sharperson finally shows up and when talking to Bull, she definitely gives him the eye. Finally the ladies are leaving and as Bull is handing them to their coach, Miss Flat says they are going in a few days to the fashionable spa of Tunbridge, so maybe they could meet there. But then she lets something drop: in talking how she likes their commodious carriage because she hates to be squeezed, she uses the word “squeedged” and it gives John Bull a pause because he hasn’t heard it before and it sounds vulgar to him.

Maria Edgeworth – “The Irish Incognito” (ctd.)

O’Mooney is unnecessarily anxious about the initials on his trunk, because the Scottish officer didn’t really pay attention to them, but was only wondering whether to ask him for a lift to London. Now hearing that the heavy luggage is going to go in a separate wagon, he feels more confident to ask and is readily obliged. Another accident happens in a tavern they stop in on their way, when O’Mooney leaves his beaver hat (rather expensive, I guess) on the table, and when he returns, somebody picked it up, noticed the tag with the name of a Dublin hatmaker and asked aloud if the Irish owner of the hat is here. O’Mooney again is unnecessarily afraid that the founder noticed his own name on the tag inside the hat, which in fact he didn’t, and manages to get out of this difficult situation by asking Mr Queasy, who is going out at the moment as well “Could you carry these packages for me, I’ll carry your hat and gloves”. He then makes his way out of the inn, holding Queasy’s hat and gloves (notice how unthinkable it would be for a gentleman to walk out of the room without them) and buys a new hat in the first town they stop in.

Finally they reach Miss Sharperson’s house, and O’Mooney notices nonchalantly, as he helps Queasy out of the carriage that it’s a pretty house and he’d like to see it one day when the family are out. (It may seem strange, but remember Elizabeth’s Bennet visit to Pemberley.) Queasy of course says he can see it right now, O’Mooney-as-John Bull demurs, saying it’s too late and he wouldn’t do it without the lady’s invitation, Queasy says he’s going to get invited right now and he runs to Miss Sharperson to inform her what a wonderful guest she is going to have. He in fact thinks the two are made for each other: he’s been telling O’Mooney during their journey about Miss Sharperson’s wealth, and now he tells her not only about Bull’s politeness, but also about his ancient family and vast connections as well, which leads me to think that Queasy is rather naive and too ready to take people upon their word. So Miss Sharperson may be as much of a con-person as O’Mooney, especially since her alleged estate in Scotland is called Rascally.

Maria Edgeworth – “The Irish Incognito” (ctd.)

O’Mooney, posing as Sir John Bull, an English baronet, strikes up a conversation with the three ladies who are having breakfast at the same inn, but when he realizes they are middle-class, he loses interest in them and decides to hire a post-chaise rather than to travel by stagecoach with them. Pretending to be an Englishman involves also him looking carelessly at the bill and not haggling about it.

He goes to the custom-house to get his luggage and there he has a chance to present himself as a quiet Englishman, in contrast to an Irishman who first swears on everything that he has no contraband, and when the customs officer finds a piece of Irish poplin in his trunk, he complains bitterly about the Union of 1801 which deprived the Irish of their parliament but apparently didn’t abolish the customs tax. O’Mooney has a chance to present himself in contrast to the Irishman as an English gentleman who gently says “Don’t hurry, please finish dealing with this gentleman first, I can wait” while all the time playing with half-a-guinea so that the customs officer can see it. He also commiserates with the Irishman and says that even he as an Englishman can see the unfairness of the unification.

They have a nice chat about politics until Phelim betrays himself when he refers to Sir John Foster, the last Speaker of the Irish Parliament as “the Speaker”. The customs office echoes it questioningly (because from his viewpoint there is only one Speaker – the one in the House of Commons) and Phelim explains “our Speaker”, thus revealing his identity. “Gotcha”, says the customs officer. Phelim laughs and asks the customs officer not to reveal his secret, telling him about his wager. “Anything to help you”, says the customs officer, and at this very moment another Englishman walks into the customs house.

Hearing these words, he thinks that O’Mooney is friends with the customs officer and asks him for help in getting a valuable chest of Sevres china out of the customs office because he has to take it to a lady. Hearing about a lady who can afford such expensive things, O’Mooney pricks up his ears and helps the man, whose name is Queasy. He also learns even more interesting things: the lady is rich, unmarried, of age, and lives just with one female companion in London. He immediately offers to give Mr Queasy and his china (a beautiful set with a clock, which used to belong to Phillipe Egalite) a lift in his chaise, where his china is going to be much safer than in the stagecoach. As they are getting ready, O’Mooney notices a Scottish officer staring at his real initials on the cover of one of his trunks, and he hastens to say in a very loud voice that this is not his trunk but his friend’s, so he asks the servants to untie it and send it by a later coach, care of John Bull.

Maria Edgeworth – “The Irish Incognito”

This short story is by the doyenne of Anglo-Irish writing, and probably the most respected woman writer before Austen. Edgeworth herself occupied the uneasy no-man’s zone between Irishness and Englishness (her father was a descendant of English colonizers who moved his family back to Ireland when Edgeworth was a teenager) and the short story is very much about identity. The main character is the man with an ultra-Irish name Phelim O’Mooney, who “was by profession a stocah, or walking
gentleman; that is, a person who is too proud to earn his bread, and too poor to have bread without earning it.” He hangs on various richer friends and relatives, and when they finally get tired of him, his nice older brother, who is a merchant (and on whom Phelim looks down for that reason) helps to set him up in business as a wine merchant. He promptly gets married, loses all his money, his business, and his wife, who dies in a driving accident. He decides to start from scratch, go to England and marry a rich lady there. His brother warns that too many Irish have already tried this plan and are rather mistrusted. Phelim says that he’s going to go incognito, so nobody can identify him as an Irishman. Certainly his accent won’t betray him, since he had an English mother and was spending a lot of time with English officers in his native city of Cork. His brother admits he doesn’t have Irish accent, but still he insists he won’t last four days before being identified as an Irishman. Finally they have a wager: his brother will pay him one hundred guineas if he can survive in England four days without being identified no fewer than eight times as an Irishman; if Phelim loses, all he has to do is to go back home and settle down as a staff member in his brother’s company. Phelim agrees, being pretty certain of himself, and sails off to England. He arrives in the port of Deal, where Julius Caesar was reputed to have landed, with similarly grand ideas about conquest. He was sea-sick on the ship and now he’s quite hungry, but he remembers to refuse when in a tavern the waiter offers the clients some eggs, because apparently it’s one of the national stereotypes that the Irish always eat eggs for breakfast (I didn’t know that!) He even laughs when a lady tells a joke about an Irishman who said that “no English hen ever laid a fresh egg”.