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01 Jan

“My accomplished friend”: the life and philosophy of Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth was born at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, 250 years ago on 1 January 1768. She was the eldest daughter and third child of the inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his first wife, Anna Maria Elers. Maria Edgeworth’s mother died when she was six and her father remarried the following year.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth had inherited both an estate in Mastrim, Co. Longford and an neglectful attitude to it. He spent little time there until 1782, when the entire family removed there. The move was partially prompted by the views of the English midlands industrialists and philanthropists with whom he associated (he was a Benthamite and a friend of many members of the Lunar society including Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, and Josiah Wedgewood). This was also constitutionally an interesting time: there was an ongoing demand in Ireland for parliamentary reform, and Grattan’s Parliament was established the following year.

The move also created a bond between Maria and her father, who had been a neglectful parent with whom she previously had had little contact. They formed “a formidable intellectual partnership of which she was the more able and nimble mind.” She took an active part in estate business, which brought her into contact with tenants, an experience and familiarity reflected in her novels about Ireland. She also took responsibility for the education of her younger half-siblings, thirteen of whom were educated at home1

Maria’s first publications were nonfiction. Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) explores the power relations between the sexes, ultimately calling for educational reform, particularly in the education of women. It was also a retort to Thomas Day, who had encouraged her education as a girl, but objected to women publishing. Her next work stemmed from the education of her siblings: The Parents Assistant (1796), book of didactic stories and plays for children2

Title page of

More theoretical was the treatise written jointly with her father, Practical Education (1798). This book was based on the liberal educational theories of her father and his circle, including ideas from John Locke, Claude Helvétius and Jacques Rousseau (particularly from Emile). These theories were probably modified since their application to Maria’ elder brother could hardly be called a success. Practical Education advocated “education of the heart” for both boys and girls and cultivation of memory by “well-arranged associations” rather than rote. Rather than passive learning, the Edgeworths advocated exploration and observation of the world though play and the study of nature. Rational rather than fanciful explanations should be given to children’s questions, extending to not reading fairy tales or discussing religion3

Like Wollstonecraft, the Edgeworths felt the mother should take responsibility for teaching her children: “her knowledge of their minds, her taste, her judgement, her affection, her superintending intelligence will be of inestimable value to her children”4 This was in line with Maria Edgeworth’s idea of the role of women: she believed that women were equal to men both morally and intellectually, but she also praised domesticity. She was not a radical5

This time of literary production was also a time of turmoil. Richard’s departure for England with one of the children suffering from tuberculosis led Maria to turn to her aunt Margaret Ruxton for emotional support. Her aunt’s literary interests encouraged Maria’s own, and in this period Maria’s first published novel (based on the verbosity of John Langan, a steward at Edgeworthstown) was substantially written: Castle Rackrent. The novel was reshaped and completed after the events of the 1798 Rebellion. The entire family, except Richard, left Edgeworthstown for Dublin as the French army under General Humbert came closer. The final defeat of the French was close by at the Battle of Ballinamuck. The house at Edgeworthstown was left intact by the rebels but Richard Edgeworth was stoned by a Orange mob after the French defeat6.

Castle Rackrent was published anonymously in 1801 and has been credited as the first regional novel, the first true historical novel and the originator of the “Big House” setting in Irish literature and thought. The title page says it is “taken from the manners of the Irish squires, before the year 1782” and explores the relationship between landlord and tenant, and the decline of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. The very name is ironic; a rack-rent being an extortionate or excessive rent, and it was probably intended as a comment on the Union.

Instead it became part of the burgeoning romantic movement, which celebrated the particular and regional over the universal. Sir Walter Scott specifically cited Maria Edgeworth’s influence in the introduction to his celebration of Scotland, Waverley7:

Without being so presumptuous as to hope to emulate the rich humour, pathetic tenderness, and admirable tact, which pervade the works of my accomplished friend, I felt that something might be attempted for my own country, of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland.

Maria Edgeworth’s familiarity with Irish idiom and practice also were used in the novels Ennui (1809), The Absentee (1812), and Ormond (1817). She also wrote a defence of the (often mocked) idioms of Hiberno-Irish: the Essay on Irish Bulls (1802). However many of her novels were in an English setting, including her next, Belinda (1801).

Belinda ostensibly follows the titular heroine Belinda as she (an innocent abroad) passes though the perils of high society, eventually finding love, happiness and marriage. However it is also a exploration of relations between the sexes and of the role of women. Belinda encounters three models might follow: the fascinating, brilliant, deeply unhappy Lady Delacour; the outrageous Harriet Freke and the domestic Lady Anne Percival. The difference between true equality of the sexes and mere adoption of outwardly male traits; the importance of relationships (within marriage and friendship) and even a satirical treatment of Rousseau’s theory (in Emile) that women are not equal to men and are best educated explicitly to be wives and mothers.

There is also a racial aspect: the first and second editions feature a suitor for Belinda, Mr Vincent, a rich West Indian creole whom she almost marries; and an African servant Juba, who marries an English farm-girl named Lucy. The later editions omit Juba and alter the relationship between Mr Vincent and Belinda, probably at the insistence of Richard Edgeworth, who often edited Maria’s books. The Modern Griselda (1805) was written without her father’s knowing8

Belinda was a success. Jane Austen was a fan, singling it out in Henry Tilney’s praise of the novel as an art-form in Northanger Abbey: “‘Oh, it is only a novel…..It is only Cecilia or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed”. It can also (along with the works of Iris Murdoch and Laurence Sterne) be viewed as a counter-example to the theory that there are no philosophical novels in English.

The exploration of the female role continued, notably in Leonora (1806). She also explored other themes, such as Patronage(1814) which explored political issues and Harrington(1817) which explored anti-Semitism 9 Her story “The Grateful Negro”, published in Popular Tales (1804), was part of the antislavery movement current in the late 18th and early 19th century.

Maria Edgeworth travelled in Europe (she refused a proposal of marriage in Paris in 1802), but remained firmly rooted in Edgeworthstown. Her correspondents and friends included Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Mrs Gaskell, Laetitia Barbauld and Elizabeth Hamilton. After her father’s death she became more conservative. The political currents in 1820s Ireland alarmed her, particularly the rise of Daniel O’Connell and the politicization of many Catholic clergy. In 1834 she declared in a letter “it is impossible to draw Ireland as she now is in a book of fiction—realities are too strong”10

Maria Edgeworth by Richard Beard daguerreotype, 1841 NPG P5 © National Portrait Gallery, London

When her friend Sir William Rowan Hamilton was elected president of the Royal Irish Academy in 1837, he sought Maria Edgeworth’s advice on the advancement of polite literature in Ireland. She replied in a lengthy letter which, among other things, recommended the inclusion of women in the Royal Society. She was voted an honourary member of the academy on 13 June 1842, following her relation Louisa Beaufort11 .

Maria Edgeworth had taken over the running of the estate from her brother before the Great Famine started in 1845. She used her fame to seek out contributions for famine relief worldwide, including items like shoes to allow men and boys to work on relief projects, and (in 1847) seed corn to allow alternative crops to be grown. However her views remained bounded by the past, stating a preference “to excite the people to work for good wages, and not, by feeding gratis, to make beggars of them, and ungrateful beggars, as the case may be”: an unrealistic approach in a time of catastrophe12. Her efforts, however, did save lives and raise awareness of the disaster worldwide.

Her last book, Orlandino (1848) was written to raise money for famine relief. Maria Edgeworth died suddenly on 22 May, 1849 in Edgeworthstown House, Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford. “Maria Edgeworth is unrivalled among Irish women as an intellectual, working both as a literary writer and (in the broad sense) as an educationist”13 Though overshadowed by later the later Irish Literary Revival, her legacy lives on.

Featured Image: Maria Edgeworth (1807)
Wikimedia, Public Domain.

References

  1. W. J. McCormack (2008) “Edgeworth, Maria (1768–1849)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/8476.
  2. Stephanie Forward (2004) “Edgeworth, Maria” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 114-5. McCormack (2008).
  3. Maria Edgeworth and Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1798) Practical education London : J. Johnson (archive.org). Forward (2004).
  4. Practical Education (1798) p. 536.
  5. Forward (2004).
  6. McCormack (2008); Bruce Stewart (2010) “Maria Edgeworth: (1767-1849)” on RICORSO (online).
  7. Walter Scott (1829) “General Preface” to The Waverley Novels, Edinburgh, p.xv.
  8. McCormack (2008).
  9. Forward (2004).
  10. Quoted in McCormack (2008)
  11. McCormack (2008)
  12. McCormack (2008). Christine Kinealy (2013) Charity and the Great Hunger in Ireland: The Kindness of Strangers Bloomsbury, pp. 156-8.
  13. McCormack (2008).

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