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.
Edgeworthstown was the home of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his daughter Maria Edgeworth who wrote many novels including Belinda and Caste Rackrent. These two, particularly Maria are the focus of the Literary Tour of Edgeworthstown. Also referenced are Maria’s cousin the Abbé Edgeworth (who was with King Louis XVI when the king was guillotined), Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth and Oscar Wilde.
The eighteenth century had seen changes in the position of women, not all positive. While arguments for rights for all citizens clearly offered an opening for women to claim these rights, the tendency to assign women to a separate domestic sphere counteracted this. Even in charity work, where women were long pivotal, the growth of institutions tended to push female control to the sidelines. The setting up of institutions for women by women tended to counteract this trend, and women also continued to operate within the boundaries society had set for them.
The campaign against the slave trade was one philanthropic cause that appealed to women, and for which they could directly act. In January 1792 William Drennan in Dublin wrote to Samuel McTierin Belfast: “The Quakers here are forming associations against sugar, and I should much like to see family resolutions on the subject drawn up and subscribed by some of the matrons of Belfast most famous for conserves and preserves.” If a boycott of West Indian sugar was to be effective, it needed the support of those in charge of food production: the women.
Continue reading “Am I not a woman and a sister?”
Reproduced with permission of Ciarán MacGonigal @IrishArtHistory, originals here and here. Both schools, set up by Maria Edgeworth, are in Edgeworthstown. The one on the left which bears her family arms was opened in the Porters Lodge. The one on the right was the eighth and last she opened.
Maria Edgeworth (1 January 1768 – 22 May 1849) not only expressed philosophical ideas through her novels and short stories but also wrote a treatise Practical Education (1798), a progressive work that joins the ideas of Locke and Rousseau with scientific inquiry.