The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

'The Secret Springs of Action': The Anatomy of Prejudice in Maria Edgeworth's Harrington

Inna Volkova



January 1818 issue of North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal commended Maria Edgeworth's talent on the occasion of the newly published Harrington:

She does not idly amuse herself and her readers with the forms and exterior show of life, but penetrates to the secret springs of action, and discloses the sources of the passions and the innumerable circumstances that contribute to their accumulating depth and swell—she scientifically demonstrates the almost imperceptible tendencies of opinions and maxims of conduct—and describes with philosophical accuracy the gradual stealing on of habits, of which we are apt to be unconscious till we find them indelibly fixed and wrought into our most intimate composition.1

While Edgeworth's penetrating insight into the secret origins of prejudice are justly remarked on, what escapes the reviewer's critique is precisely her engagement with the 'show of life', the circulating and passing appearances and fictions in the masquerade of life. Her preoccupation with representations, which range from the theatrical, the literary, and the artistic to the psychological (i.e., inside the mind) is manifest throughout the novel. Waging an attack on false representations that take root in the mind's imagination and make it hostage to anti-Semitic stereotypes, Edgeworth writes the anatomy of prejudice in an attempt to demystify its secret power. Her penetrating look into the 'show of life' is of a piece with her attention to Harrington's mind filled with haunting representations of the Jews as well as her interest in the theater where the image of Shylock claims all the power of the show-effect.

What the reviewers called 'philosophical accuracy' and her 'scientific' approach do indeed allow Edgeworth to strip away the appearances, 'natural' sympathies and antipathies, and deconstruct the multilayered composition of prejudice. As the history of Harrington shows, she had first to perform such philosophical analysis on herself. In 1815, a Jewish-American woman Rachel Mordecai Lazarus wrote a letter to Maria Edgeworth 'complaining of the illiberality with which the Jewish nation had been treated in some of Miss Edgeworth's works.'2Accused of prejudiced opinions, Edgeworth composed Harrington as an apology for her own previous pedagogical works in which she authored a range of stereotypical Jewish characters. Lazarus's letter that triggered an impulse for self-reflection transferred into the novel's protagonist. Thus the protagonist William Harrington in his self-analysis takes on the role of a 'philosopher.'3 Besides Edgeworth's apologetic gesture, however, Harrington represents a larger scale of literary politics, namely the Jewish question in relationship to the English nation.4 As Michael Ragussis explains, 'it was the profound investment that the English had in their reputation for religious tolerance and political liberty that made the issue of intolerance toward the Jews so vital a concern to conceptions of English national identity.5 At any rate, Edgeworth profusely employs her philosophical assets in creating two central “philosophers”—Harrington and Mr. Montenero—in her version of rewriting the English nation.

Although Ragussis justly points to Edgeworth's overturning of stereotypes by means of subverting the master-text of The Merchant of Venice, this paper will take a different angle to articulate her subversive gesture. Specifically, I will argue that the novel denies stereotypical representations a reality status by exposing their foundation upon nothingness. My argument will show how Edgeworth's philosophical anatomy of the prejudice operates through nothing, and the novel's subversive logic is hinged on the insolvent-from-the-start economy of prejudice. To be sure, her exposition of the distorting nature of representations and critical take on association of ideas aim to point to precisely nothing that upholds prejudice on its quicksand ground. While the novel treats prejudice in terms of a secret, this secret, once opened, ironically reveals nothingness at its heart. This nothingness built into the core of prejudice accounts for the possibility to deconstruct it, to peel the onion, so to speak, by stripping away fictions and representations. Moreover, Edgeworth is in fact suggesting a self-destroying economy of prejudice that cannot infinitely sustain itself on a secret. As the climax effectively demonstrates, prejudice ends in an open secret that no longer holds as secret the very fact that it has no secret to hide. The underlying nothingness informs not only the structure of prejudice, but also the vacuity of representations that feed it. Hence, comes Edgeworth's maneuver to scrutinize the workings of prejudice in close conjunction with the metaphor of a theatre, a stage of representations. Modeling the mechanisms for a social change, Harrington heralds both an individual and societal move away from chimeras of a prejudiced mind and illusions of theatricality to the supremacy of reason.


Harrington begins his personal narrative from the time when he is a six-year-old boy who has recently arrived in London. The story of his childhood allows us to trace the development of his 'idiosyncratic' perception of the Jews from a concrete incident. The boy falls victim to Fowler, the nursery-maid, when her malicious invocation of Simon's 'great bag' with macerated bodies of children is reinforced with successive anti-Semitic horror stories (Edgeworth, p. 70). While she finds this methodology of affecting the child with terror an effective disciplinary measure, she secures her power even more by turning the incident into a secret. Harrington recalls that 'she extorted from me a solemn promise that I would never tell anybody the secret she had communicated' (Edgeworth, p. 71). He soon finds himself both affected by and effecting the power of the secret. On the one hand, he becomes 'her slave and her victim' (Edgeworth, p. 72) and, on the other, he discovers the ability to puzzle and amaze the public because he 'alone knew the real, secret, simple, cause' (Edgeworth, p. 75). The aura of secrecy that emerges around the prejudice suggests an inherent, complex connection between Harrington's being the cause and the effect of his own prejudice.

Yet, secrecy alone does not suffice for Edgeworth to tap into the workings of a growing prejudice. She invests in the theory of association of ideas as an explanation for the tenacity of prejudice. Due to the associative power of prejudice, Harrington points to Fowler's futile attempts to reverse the process: 'its terror was in that power of association, which was beyond her skill to dissolve' (Edgeworth, p. 73). David Hartley was the foremost source of the associationist theory for Maria and her father.6 Moreover, David Hume, her older contemporary, if only for eight years, whose History of England she cites in the novel, discussed association of ideas as 'some universal principles' in his treatise on human understanding.7 Entrapped with associations, Harrington becomes not just a victim of Fowler, but a hostage of his own mind. Something that originated through the power of association will later take the shape of a 'natural antipathy' to the Jews (Edgeworth, p. 75). With a close attention to the origins of ideas, Edgeworth takes off from Locke who rebuts a once popular thesis on innate ideas.8 Edgeworth, like Locke, contests the opinions of Harrington's 'natural' prejudice that the scientific circles concocted regarding the boy. Associationism allows her to get to the origins of prejudice that are otherwise lost in the haze of the secret. This move will be crucial both with Harrington's getting to his own beginnings and Edgeworth herself going back to examine the original literary sources of prejudice: 'We must be content to begin at the beginning if we would learn the history of our own minds' (Edgeworth, p. 78).

Tapping into Harrington's juvenile mind promises a discovery of the origins of prejudice and its secret workings. It is clear then why Edgeworth in the beginning examines a single human mind rather than society as a whole. The readers observe the most overwhelming manifestations of Harrington's sensibility at the moment of his isolation from everyone else, when he is left vis-à-vis his fancy in the darkness. Harrington is particularly afraid of being alone in the darkness that costs Fowler many hours by his bedside as well as many candles. Elsewhere, Harrington recalls the cook's daughter 'leaving the room to darkness and to me—and there I lay in all the horrors of a low nervous fever, unpitied and alone' (Edgeworth, p. 77). The imagery of a dark room and the need to imagine the mind in spatial terms evoke parallels with Locke's and Hume's accounts of the human mind. We are ready to accept the slippage between Harrington's mind and the dark room he is in because we are aware that he is unable to distinguish between his self and the world outside. As his earlier confession shows, 'I really often did not know the difference between my own feelings, and the descriptions I heard given of what I felt' (Edgeworth, p. 76). Then, the dark room outside seems to merge with his inner world thus presenting us with a spatial metaphor of the mind.

Locke's model of human understanding is that of a dark room; yet, the darkness is only a backdrop for images that are deposited into this space and remain there until being retrieved on demand. For him, 'external and internal sensation' functions as 'the windows by which light is let into this dark room' (Locke, p. 100). Harrington's mind is not just a dark room. The spatial image that we encounter in the novel is that of prison. As he refers to it, 'I never betrayed the secrets of my prison-house' (Edgeworth, p. 72). A prisoner of his own mind, he is bombarded with images of the Jews when asleep: 'I saw faces around me grinning, glaring, receding, advancing, all turning at last into one and the same face of the Jew with the long beard and the terrible eyes. . .' (Edgeworth, p. 72). Locke gives a strikingly similar description of the mind's manipulation of images and representations of the outer world: 'the understanding is not much unlike the closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without; would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them' (Locke, p. 100). However, if in Locke the “dark room” of a rational mind is ordered, Harrington's distressed mind stages a jumble of uncontrollable images.

In addition to the problem of representation in the workings of the mind, Locke makes another curious observation that links nicely to Harrington—namely, construing the mind as a theater. It is precisely in the theatre, or other venues functioning as a theatre, that Edgeworth most acutely performs the anatomy of prejudice. Locke explains that sense organs convey ideas 'from without to their audience in the brain,—the mind's presence-room' (Locke, p. 72). The 'audience', representations, and the 'presence-room' play as key elements in a whole range of significant episodes. Similarly, Hume allows us to see the validity of Edgeworth's enterprise—employing the concept of a theatre to anatomize prejudice nurtured by appearances or representations. Hume claims: 'The mind is a kind of theater, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations' (Hume, p. 165). The metaphor of a theater cuts into the essence of prejudice because it becomes a space of blurred reality and fiction. As Katherine Gallagher observes, it is not only the Jewish characters, but Harrington himself dwells in 'this theatrical twilight zone between being and representation'.9

The first instance of Harrington finding himself involved in such theatricality is when (after Simon's disappearance) he is confronted with proliferating representations of the Jews: 'Jews I should not call them, though such they appeared to be at the time; we afterwards discovered that they were good Christian beggars, dressed up and daubed for the purpose of looking as frightful and as like the traditionary representations and vulgar notions of a malicious, revengeful, ominous-looking Shylock as ever whetted his knife' (Edgeworth, p. 79). Harrington goes on to underscore the theatricality of this incident: 'The figures were well got up; the tone, accent, and action suited to the parts to be played; the stage effect perfect, favoured as it was by the distance at which I saw and wished ever to keep such personages. . .' (Edgeworth, p. 79). The beggars representing Shylock (a theatrical representation himself) seem to join in a theatrical masquerade, a play of signifiers, without a tenable attachment to the signified 'the Jew.' In Harrington, these anti-Semitic signifiers are represented as self-sustainable and self-replicating through literary works and in the English popular imagination at large.

What does this scene suggest about the relationship between prejudice and performance? In fact, the stakes of both lie in the realm of representations, a 'show of life'. Moreover, just as performance of the beggars circulates representations without a deep investment in the origins (but reproducing Shylock10 as a given) so is prejudice concerned with its circulation and proliferation rather than looking back at its origins. Thus, performance shares with prejudice a parasitic power of proliferation. The proliferation of beggars dressed up as Jews (exploiting the Shylock archetype) parallels the proliferation of prejudice that 'not only grows on what it feeds upon, but converts everything it meets with into nourishment' (Edgeworth, p. 183). Notwithstanding, a sense of emptiness haunts both performance and prejudice. This defective nothingness threatens to undermine the affective power of the beggars passing for Jews. Therefore, a prejudiced image in the mind and a theatrical personage on stage sustain themselves insofar as the secret of their fictional origins remains hidden.

The metaphor of a theatre reemerges when Harrington plays the role of an audience watching his father's and his constituents' passionate debate on the Naturalization Bill. Not only does the table discussion in many ways adhere to the conventions of a play, but the rule of passion rather than reason reinforces the underlying theatrical imagery. Harrington recollects this convention in terms of spectator experience: 'I remember one day sitting for an hour together, turning from one person to another as each spoke, incapable of comprehending their arguments but fully understanding the vehemence of their tones, and sympathizing in the varying expression of passion. . .[my emphasis]' (Edgeworth, p. 85). Like characters on stage, the speakers gather around the table. Each utters his speech as if rehearsed according to a script. Passing judgments about who is his father's friend or enemy, in other words 'A Jew' or 'No Jew', Harrington employs the basic reactions of a spectator, sympathy or antipathy with the personages. The child cannot articulate the arguments used during the discussion, yet is precociously correct in his Jew/No Jew identifications because he perceives the action on a purely emotional, affective, plane. To be sure, focusing on the reasons is beside the point in a space that operates according to the theatrical practice. It is this theatrical mode of sociality and Harrington's anti-rational engagement with the represented ideas that become two sides of the same coin whose social currency Edgeworth attempts to subvert.

As her anatomy of prejudice explodes the boundaries of the mind and acquires a social dimension, Edgeworth takes up the question of party-spirit. It is already evident in the Jew/No Jew scene that party-spirit accounts for the persistence and contagiousness of opinions. In other words, in the realm of crowd mentality, the mass production and circulation of anti-Semitic images counts more than the truthfulness of representation. Reason and party-spirit in this scene form a pair of opposites. While we are not shown concrete manifestations of reason, since they slip away from Harrington's attention, the pinnacle of party-spirit becomes a joining together for a toast: 'The Jews are down, and keep 'em down' (Edgeworth, p. 85). Yet, the implicated communal power of the toast quickly comes to nothing given that Edgeworth incriminates party-spirit as an empty construction, nothingness, and pitches it against the positive powers of individual reason.

She attempts to demystify this social component of prejudice—party-spirit—drawing on Bacon's idea of contagiousness noting that he emphasized the importance of an inquiry into 'the history of the power and influence of the imagination, not only upon the mind and the body of the imaginant, but upon those of other people' (Edgeworth, p. 77). In this move of hers, we can trace the same overarching logic of disempowering the secret that scaffolds prejudice. Once the mechanism of the party-spirit is dissected and challenged by reason, the opinion that is supported by the inexplicable power of multitudes is viewed as a contagion spreading from body to body, or better, mind to mind, by physiological laws. In his reading of Harrington as a narrative of the nervous body, Peter Logan has aptly articulated Edgeworth's stakes in reason and her foregrounding of 'the transformation of an entire society from one ruled by the nervous body of a mobbish past to an enlightened utopia ruled by objectivity.'11 The reflexivity of the crowd and the tyranny of the mob illuminate the logic of the “audience” in the theatrical settings where Edgeworth investigates the performance of prejudice.

The incident when Lord Mowbray humiliates Jacob and manipulates the sensibilities of his 'audience' offers one more setting in which to investigate prejudice as a theatricalized performance. Here the nature of party-spirit and that of a theatrical performance merge together to illuminate the social mechanics of prejudice. Assuming leadership over the 'anti-Jewish party' (Edgeworth, p. 94), Mowbray creates a live wall of his partisans as if indeed to circumscribe Jacob in an enclosed space of a stage from which there is no escape. Thus, everybody gets assigned a role: ' “Only give me fair play,” said Mowbray, “and stick close, and don't let the Jew off; for your lives don't let him break through you. . .' (Edgeworth, p. 94). To get a real start with this 'play', Mowbray evokes the image of Shylock to address Jacob, which immediately transforms Jacob into a representation and surrounds him with the aura of the contemptible archetype. When Jacob mentions his dying father, Mowbray continues to carry out his dialogue in the same performative mode: 'Why now, Jacob, that's bad acting out o' character, Jacob, my Jew' (Edgeworth, p. 95). Although continuously contained in the performance conventions, the dynamics of this squabble quickly moves away from the watches to a much more powerful organizing focus—the absent figure of Jacob's father.

As Jacob avoids telling Mowbray the name of his father, the anonymity of the father figure constructs a secret around which the performance revolves. This secret is necessary for Mowbray so that he can proceed with his own interpretations, such as 'father of straw', (Edgeworth, p. 95) and reinforce the prejudiced opinion among his cohort. The building up of curiosity goes along with the amassing of spectatorship around the place of action. Catching up with Mowbray's supporters, 'the Jewish party' 'had by this time gathered in a circle at the outside of that which we had made round Jacob, and many had brought benches and were mounted upon them, looking over our heads to see what was going on' (Edgeworth, p. 95). Now at the center of Mowbray's verbal attack, Jacob's absent father whose name is concealed as the secret creates a situation that foments the boys' prejudice. The secret supplies nourishment for Mowbray's hate rhetoric, makes Jacob defenseless before the public, and exerts a magical power over the schoolboys. After the incident is over, Harrington recalls that 'we made many attempts to trace him and to discover his secret; but all our inquiries proved ineffectual: we could hear no more of Jacob, and our curiosity died away' (Edgeworth, p. 99). The incident with Jacob and the secret about his father, the old Simon, is important because the scene emphasizes once again the relationship between secret and prejudice. Secrecy proves an organizing structural element in performing prejudice for the public.

Mowbray's invocation of a long-circulating Shylock stereotype and attaching it to his victim, Jacob, contrasts against Macklin's active choice of going back to the original Shylock and offering a revised representation to the public. Macklin's theatrical success with his 'serious' Shylock implies a deeper inquiry into the workings of representations. Macklin's commitment to his revised personage overcomes societal rigidity, which signifies that not only representations can overpower human mind, but human mind can have control over revising, producing, and circulating certain kinds of representations. Here again, it is not accidental that Edgeworth chooses to subvert the circulation of prejudice on a theatrical stage. Macklin's innovation marks a meaningful turning point of reversing social conventions:

A play altered from Shakespeare's, and called The Jew of Venice, had been for some time in vogue. In this play, the Jew had been represented by the actors of the part as a ludicrous and contemptible rather than a detestable character; and when Macklin, recurring to Shakespeare's original Shylock, proposed in the revived Merchant of Venice to place the part in a serious style, . . . it was with the utmost difficulty he could screw the manager's courage to the sticking-place, and prevail upon him to hazard the attempt. (Edgeworth, p. 115)

Macklin presents his image of Shylock to the public eyes, but he just as much observes them: 'I eyed them [critics] through the slit in the curtain, and was glad to see them there' [in the pit] (Edgeworth, p. 116). Similar to Harrington's 'experiments . . . concerning sympathies and antipathies' (Edgeworth, p. 78), Macklin is ready to conduct his own experiment with representations on his 'special jury' (Edgeworth, p. 116), and the new image of Shylock comes into being when Macklin is 'dressed for the part, with my red hat on my head, my piqued beard, my loose black gown, and with a confidence which I had never before assumed' (Edgeworth, p. 116). Even though Macklin's acting by no means subverts the stereotype as such, his manipulations with representation begin to destabilize prejudice and expose its highly mutable, if not yet obviously empty, essence.

Shylock who can either be 'ludicrous and contemptible' or 'detestable' repeats himself as a theatrical personage without alignment with the audience's unmediated experiences or reason. Yet, to exercise reason and rely on personal experience, as Edgeworth calls for, is as much human as to fall under the spell of Shylock's aura. Interestingly, for Hume the formation of prejudice seems to be a natural phenomenon:

A fourth unphilosophical species of probability is that deriv'd from general rules, which we rashly form to ourselves, and which are the source of what we properly call PREJUDICE. An Irishman cannot have wit, and a Frenchman cannot have solidity; for which reason, tho' the conversation of the former in any instance be visibly very agreeable, and of the latter very judicious, we have entertain'd such a prejudice against them, that they must be dunces of fops in spite of sense and reason. Human nature is very subject to errors of this kind . . .[my italics] (Hume, p. 99-100)

Hume talks about prejudice in the vein of juxtaposing custom/belief to experience, and education to natural reason. He notes, 'tho' custom and education produce belief by such a repetition, as is not deriv'd from experience, yet this requires a long tract of time, along with a very frequent and undesign'd repetition' (Hume, p. 96). Elsewhere, he develops the dichotomy education/reason: 'education is an artificial and not a natural cause' and 'its maxims are frequently contrary to reason and even to themselves' (Hume, p. 81). Unlike Hume, however, Edgeworth does not leave prejudice even an ambivalent claim for naturalness. If for Hume prejudice is a natural error, for Edgeworth this (pseudo)nature should be afforded no tolerance. In the novel, it is the experience of meeting a range of Jewish characters from under Edgeworth's pen as well as his novel-long journey of mastering his emotions and attaining rational self-control that allows Harrington to estrange himself from custom and Fowler's 'education'. Altogether, the origins of Harrington's prejudice are unnatural.

Reason, however, ironically does not prove to be sufficient in Harrington's metamorphosis into a rational prejudice-free individual. Macklin's performance of Shylock affects Harrington not by means of reasoning but, ironically, by means of emotions. At first, his emotional experience is entirely concentrated on Macklin: 'Shylock appeared—I forgot everything but him' (Edgeworth, p. 136). As the play unfolds, Harrington's emotional admiration of Macklin's acting transforms into his emotional identification with Berenice's response as a viewer. Harrington's inability to distinguish between his own sensibility and that of others (as we observed in the beginning of the novel) now is at work to show his compassion with Berenice: 'I could no longer enjoy Macklin's incomparable acting; I was so apprehensive of the pain which it must give to the young Jewess. [. . .] I shrunk as though I had myself been a Jew' (Edgeworth, p. 137). Sympathy for the other, even a complete stranger, (not reasoning for the other!) lends itself to upturning the structures of prejudice. Why does Edgeworth, to the point of compromising her faith in reason as an antidote for prejudice, opt for this exception? The emotional relationship with Berenice acquires for Harrington a reality principle that exposes the nothingness behind Macklin's conjuring of theatrical appearances. This scene allows for a moment of distinction between truth and fiction, reality of the other human and chimerical representations on stage.

But the clear-cut line between reality and performance is blurred again when Mowbray and Harrington compete for Berenice. Somewhat following Macklin in his footprints, Mowbray becomes an insidious mastermind of appearances. With Mowbray's skillful acting and Harrington's genuine feeling, Berenice faces a challenge: 'How could Miss Montenero, the most unsuspicious and least practised of women, discern the difference between the real and the false lover; between the perfection of art and nature?' (Edgeworth, p. 207). This is one more crux dramatizing the relationship between art and nature, reality and performance, truth and fiction as a critical point in the novel. The genuine feeling of Harrington is pitched against the artificial appearances of Mowbray and the nothingness of his pretentious courtship. Mowbray puts on his own show, which accommodates his anti-Semitism together with a pursuit of Berenice's fortune through marriage. To be sure, for a man without content his prejudice is just as much a part of him as it is not. From a staunch anti-Semite, Mowbray turns into a man without content. The nothingness of his character seems to shed new light on the nature of prejudice. Hence his persona becomes a site of pure performance, when Harrington recalls: 'I scarcely knew him, though I had been, as it were, behind the scenes, and had seen him preparing for his character. Though he knew that I knew that he was acting, yet this . . . never gave him one twinge of conscience, or hesitation of shame in my presence' (Edgeworth, p. 207). Because Mowbray's nature is performance, his show of true love for Berenice is bound to end in debacle.

If there is a hint of something real in Mowbray underneath the veneer of performance, it is nothing but representation. Once Harrington sees through Mowbray's artificiality, he sees no other but Shylock—a representation in itself: 'Lord Mowbray found it often difficult to conceal his real feelings of resentment, and then it was that he began to hate her [Berenice]. I, who knew his countenance too well to be deceived by his utmost command of face, saw the evil turn of the eye. . .looks of hatred, malice, vengeance, suddenly changed to smiles, submission, and softness of demeanour' (Edgeworth, p. 219). The evocation of Shylock here is unmistakable; it dovetails with Harrington's almost identical description of Macklin's Shylock: 'Such a countenance! Such an expression of latent malice and revenge, of everything detestable in human nature!' (Edgeworth, p. 136). On stage and in real life, Harrington finds himself surrounded with appearances only to once again challenge their inadequate tools to construct reality.

Two secrets—that of Berenice's non-Jewish identity and Harrington's 'insanity'—become the culminating case-studies for Edgeworth to inquire into the nothingness that subtends both the Harringtons' prejudice against Berenice and Montenero's suspicion of Harrington. Mowbray's plot to represent Harrington as pathologically enthusiastic to the point of hysteria is proven a fraud, that is, a malicious fabrication out of nothing. Yet, before it is disclosed, it fully exercises the power of a secret, the appealing something that escapes everybody as an intangible nothing. Mrs. Harrington, for example, readily falls under the spell of the secret that she dies to find out when Mr. Montenero seems reluctant to accept the young Harrington as a future son-in-law: ''What can this obstacle—this mysterious obstacle be?' (Edgeworth, p. 264). Fowler's confession in her involvement with the conspiracy clears off the way for Harrington to marry Berenice. Meanwhile, one more secret is revealed: Berenice is not only non-Jewish, she is an English Protestant. The heavy aura of Jewishness that accompanies Berenice and operates as her identity for the outsiders becomes nothing that puts an end not only to the secret about her identity, but the existence of prejudice per se. The authority of appearance is once again challenged: her public persona was constructed on nothing but who she appeared to be. This turn of events has been often criticized as anti-climactic12, not to mention the fact that Ms Mordecai was very reserved in expressing encomium to the novel. However, this ending becomes just what the novel's logic demands. By making Berenice a non-Jew, Edgeworth writes nothingness into the center of prejudice to expose its vacuity under the masquerade of appearances.

Besides revealing the nothingness behind appearances, Edgeworth continues to act on another front critiquing the arbitrariness of association of ideas. Indeed, Berenice is assumed to be Jewish by association with her Jewish father, Mr. Montenero. The narrative is peppered with many other instances of false judgments exercised by this principle. For example, the mob takes Lady de Brantefield and Anne Mowbray to be Catholics by association with the Catholic chapel they happened to be near: 'The mob had seen the carriage stop at the chapel, and the lady and her confessor get into it, and this led to the suspicion that Lady de Brantefield was a Catholic, or in their language, a concealed papist' (Edgeworth, p. 238). The same hasty judgment is at work in Lady de Brantefield's accusations against Jacob regarding the loss of Sir Josseline's topaz ring when she 'recollects having left it in the hands of one of Mr Manessa's shopmen, a young man, she believes, of the name of Jacob, the only person, except Mr Manessa, who was in the little parlour while her ladyship and Lady Anne Mowbray were there' (Edgeworth, p. 268). Obviously, her ladyship is too quick to connect the dots while omitting a more complete picture of the event, including her ladyship's ill-fated muff. Subverting these false associations with faith in sound reason, Edgeworth seems more optimistic than Hume in regards to human nature. While she celebrates progressive reason over emotions and prejudices in the novel, Hume arrives at a much more pessimistic expostulation: 'We have . . . no choice left but betwixt a false reason and none at all' (Hume, p. 174).

And yet, however divergent their takes on the prospects of human understanding may be, Edgeworth and Hume are involved in the same project—envisioning a society free from prejudice. A staunch believer in 'the progress of human knowledge and reason” and “the perfectibility of human nature' (Edgeworth, p. 171), Edgeworth steps into Hume's shoes in order to deconstruct the world of traditional systems of prejudice. Hume announces the end of superstition to mark a moment of possibility for a new societal common sense:

For as superstition arises naturally and easily from the popular opinions of mankind, it seizes more strongly on the mind, and is often able to disturb us in the conduct of our lives and actions. Philosophy on the contrary, if just, can present us only with mild and moderate sentiments; and if false and extravagant, its opinions are merely the objects of a cold and general speculation, and seldom go so far as to interrupt the course of our natural propensities. (Hume, p. 176)

Harrington then signifies something more than an apology to Rachel Mordecai Lazarus or a narrative of recovery from anti-Semitism where the protagonist and the author herself curiously mirror each other. The novel delineates a possibility for a social change that looms large on a range of scales: from undergoing an inward psychological drama of cultivating one's rationality to transforming popular sentiments fueled by xenophobic representations.

Harrington presents an anatomy of prejudice on two fronts: the human mind and society at large. In both dimensions, Edgeworth's exploratory moves are preoccupied with the metaphor of a theatre. Looking into the secret springs of the human mind through the lens of theatricality, Edgeworth in many ways bears on Hume's philosophical tenets, that is, his vision of a human mind as a theatre. Penetrating into the social dimension of prejudice, the novel further engages in theatricality (at the actual theatre as well as in surrogate settings) to study the proliferation of prejudice in the world of emptied-out representations. The nature of circulating representations suggests the underlying nothingness, the uncontrollable play of signifiers whose origins are forgotten in history or blurred by secrecy. Thus, representations—the vehicles of prejudice—are grounded in nothingness just as much as nothingness lies at the heart of prejudice itself. Edgeworth is drawn to the secret origins of prejudice only to deconstruct its edifice and expose the fictional nothing at its core. In summary, it is precisely the fictional nothingness of performance and prejudice that explains the novel's intertwined treatments of theatricality and prejudice. Moreover, the power of prejudice lies in the power of a secret. Pursuit of the secret, a desire to explode prejudice, drives the plot of Harrington. Once we find out that the secret hides only its own absence; once we learn that Berenice is not a Jew, the prejudice momentarily loses its ground. The “empty” climax of Harrington demonstrates how much import nothingness bears in the novel's method and message. By all means, for Edgeworth, once the system of mass-reproduced judgment implodes into the void of nothingness, the possibility of social change looms on the horizon.



1 'Harrington and Ormond, Tales of Miss Edgeworth (Book Review)', North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal, 6 (1818), p. 153.

2 Richard Lovell Edgeworth, 'To The Reader', in Maria Edgeworth Harrington, ed. by Susan Manly (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2004), p. 67.

3 Maria Edgeworth, Harrington, ed. by Susan Manly (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2004), p. 69.

 4Eve Tavor Bannet underlies this problem of rethinking the English nation in Harrington and connects it to the potentialities of representation of the other. Bannet claims Harrington to be 'a prophetic guide to the conditions of possibility for assimilating Jews like Rachel into English society, and a damning reexamination of the role played by the imagination in understanding and representing the other' (p. 33). While Bannet focuses on the correspondence between Maria Edgeworth and Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, this paper explores the problem of representation based on the metaphor of the theatre employed in Harrington. (see Eve Tavor Bannet, 'Maria and Rachel: Transatlantic Identities and the Epistolary Assimilation of Difference', New Essays on Maria Edgeworth, ed. by Julie Nash (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006), p. 31-56.

 5 Michael Ragussis, 'The 'Secret' of English Anti-Semitism: Anglo-Jewish Studies and Victorian Studies', Victorian Studies, 40, no. 2 (1997), p. 298.

6 Michael Ragussis, 'Representation, Conversion, and Literary Form: 'Harrington' and the Novel of Jewish Identity', Critical Inquiry, 16, no.1 (1989), p. 123.

7 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. by David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.12.

8 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. by Maurice Cranston (New York: Collier Books, 1965).

9 Katherine Gallaher, Nobody's Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670-1820 (Berkley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 314.

10 While Shylock is perhaps most frequently mentioned anti-Semitic literary image in Harrington, Edgeworth is acutely aware of a slew of similar personages. The Wandering Jew is another example of a circulating stereotype in the novel. Carol Margaret Davison addresses the problem of origins and further circulation and permutation of the Wandering Jew in the literary realm (see Carol Davison, 'The Rise of the Vampiric Wandering Jew: A Sinister German-English Co-Production', in Carol Davison, Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2004).

11 Peter Melville Logan, Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in the Nineteenth-century British Prose (Berkley; London: California University Press, 1997), p. 134.

12 Ragussis describes the ending as “Jewish identity is once again exiled” ('Representation', p. 133). He discusses exile and conversion of the Jew as two alternatives that constitute the same process of deciding a Jew's place in a community. Berenice then becomes a converted Jew, and through this conversion gains a place in the community.

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