In the preface to Tales of Fashionable Life, in which Ennui first appeared in 1809, Maria Edgeworth's father asserts that his daughter uses these stories to 'point out some of those errours to which the higher classes of society are disposed' (I:v). In Ennui itself, 'The causes, curses, and cure of this disease, are exemplified ... in such a manner, as not to make the remedy worse than the disease' (I:vi).
In Ennui, Lord Glenthorn, the narrator and main character, is orphaned young and bred to be indolent. His tutor goes along with the young earl's desires, saying that anything the earl doesn't know by native genius isn't worth his knowing. When eighteen, the narrator makes the Grand Tour, moving quickly to stave off the boredom from which he already suffers. When twenty-one, he comes into Sherwood Park in England, and, in Ireland, 'the ancient castle of Glenthorn' (7). At Sherwood Park, he is too bored to appreciate the estate's beauty. He hires Captain Crawley as his agent, doubting that Crawley is honest but too indolent to care. He goes to London for the winter, lives extravagantly but without pleasure, and gambles himself into debt, lacking anything better to do. He marries an heiress but finds her silly so neglects her through boredom, he contemplates suicide but is never strong-willed enough to commit the act.
On his twenty-fifth birthday, while riding, he meets Ellinor, who claims to have nursed him as a baby in Ireland. He's thrown from his horse and Ellinor nurses him back to health. A footnote explains that the Irish are superior to the English at loving the children they foster. One of his workers then tells him that Lady Glenthorn is about to elope with Captain Crawley. He tries to get her to give up this scandalous plan, apologizing for having been a bad husband, but she elopes in any case and persuades him to grant her a divorce.
Restless ennui drives him to his Irish estates. The mild hardships of the journey rouse him as ease never does. When he arrives, his adoring tenants all want something from him, which staves off ennui. At the neighboring estate, Ormsby-Villa, he meets Lady Geraldine and Cecil Devereaux. Unbeknownst to Lord Glenthorn, Lady Geraldine loves Devereaux but his status and wealth are too low to satisfy her mother, Lady Ormsby. From respect for Lady Geraldine and Devereaux, our narrator exerts himself to gain their esteem. He proposes to Lady Geraldine, who explains her situation to him. The earl then exerts himself to use his influence to improve Devereaux's status, getting him a post in India, which leads Lady Ormsby to approve of Devereaux's marriage to Lady Geraldine and earns our narrator the couple's lifelong friendship.
He then he falls back into 'habitual indolence' which leads back into ennui, his 'former state of apathy and disease' (212). He hires a scheming semi-idiot, Joe Kelly, when rebellion breaks out in Ireland and his English servants flee. Lord Glenthorn refuses to exert himself to show his patriotism, but when Ellinor's son Christy has his house ransacked and arm shot for being suspected of rebellion, Lord Glenthorn defends him, which temporarily eases his ennui. An anonymous note informs him that Joe Kelly and insurrectionists plan to kidnap Glenthorn and force him to lead them, after which they will kill him; if he refuses to lead them, they plan to kill him immediately. He puts down the rebellion, imprisoning the rebels.
Ellinor begs for the release of her son Owen, whom she announces is one of the prisoners; when Lord Glenthorn refuses to let Owen escape, Ellinor says he's wronging his own mother and brother: Christy, not our narrator, is the real heir to the titles and estates (272). She switched them when they were young, because the real heir seemed likely to die, and she considered it was better for the estate to have a fake heir than no heir, and better for both father and (her own) son as well. She remains satisfied with the change, because the sick child remained sickly - too weak to run an estate, she asserts (278-82). Christy is now perfectly healthy and strong, however. While Owen turns out not to have been one of the prisoners, our narrator gives up estate and title and becomes Christy O'Donoghue. The new Earl of Glenthorn, the man formerly known as Christy, provides our narrator with three hundred pounds per year and financial stability for Ellinor for life.
Then our narrator becomes friends with Lord Y--- in Dublin, who recommends that O'Donoghue go into law and rise according to his abilities. Lord Y--- introduces him to two women: Lady Y---and the beautiful Cecilia Delamere. The two women review the gossip about the ex-Earl of Glenthorn: Lady Y- suggests that his indolence was appropriate for a man of that position, but Cecilia says that such indolence would have made him undesirable as a husband. They like O'Donoghue and are surprised to hear that he is the ex-earl. He falls in love with Cecilia Delamere but knows he cannot wed her, his prospects being what they are. She turns out to be heir at law to the Glenthorn estates, but because the new Earl has a son, it looks unlikely she'll inherit.
Lord Y--- tells the now lovelorn narrator that if he perseveres in his studies and proves himself - shows willingness and ability to support Cecilia independently - friends will provide more money to make the match acceptable to the more conventionally ambitious mother. For five years he studies, inaugurating a new life and identity. His motivations to do well lead him to become 'active, permanently active. The enchantment of indolence was dissolved, and the demon of ennui was cast out for ever' (344). He performs well enough in his legal career to be able to marry Cecilia. Because her mother objects to the name O'Donoghue, he takes the name Delamere.
Meanwhile, Lady Glenthorn lives expensively, and their son, Johnny, lives a short and merry life: while drunk, he leaves a candle on his bedstead which sets the castle on fire. Johnny dies in the blaze. His parents survive, but Lord Glenthorn wants no more of the wealth that offers pleasure bereft of happiness. He transfers the estate to Cecilia - and, by extension, to her husband, our narrator, who now has earned the position and faced the responsibilities attending it by overcoming his ennui. Our narrator sums up his lessons thus:
[Devereaux and Lady Geraldine] first wakened my dormant intellects, made me know that I had a heart, and that I was capable of forming a character for myself. The loss of my estate continued the course of my education, forced me to exert my own powers and to rely upon myself. My passion for the amiable and charming Cecilia was afterwards motive sufficient, to urge me to persevering intellectual labour: fortunately my marriage has obliged me to continue my exertions, and the labours of my profession have made the pleasures of domestic life most delightful. The rich, says a philosophic moralist, are obliged to labour, if they would be healthy or happy; and they call this labour exercise (379)....
... I shall not relapse into indolence; my understanding has been cultivated - I have acquired a taste for literature, and the example of Lord Y--- convinces me, that a man may at once be rich and noble, and active and happy. (383).
Julie A. Shaffer, University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh
© 2000 Julie A. Shaffer / Sheffield Hallam University