Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.
1 January 1768 – 22 May 1849
Maria Edgeworth was a prolific Anglo-Irish writer of adults’ and children’s literature. She was one of the first realist writers in children’s literature and was a significant figure in the evolution of the novel in Europe. She held advanced views, for a woman of her time, on estate management, politics and education, and corresponded with some of the leading literary and economic writers, including Sir Walter Scott and David Ricardo.
Maria Edgeworth was born at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire. She was the second child of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (who eventually fathered 22 children by four wives) and Anna Maria Edgeworth (née Elers); Maria was thus an aunt of Francis Ysidro Edgeworth. She spent her early years with her mother’s family in England, until her mother’s death when Maria was five. When her father married his second wife Honora Sneyd in 1773, she went with him to his estate, Edgeworthstown, in County Longford, Ireland.
Maria was sent to Mrs. Lattafière’s school in Derby after Honora fell ill in 1775. When Honora died in 1780 and Maria’s father married Honora’s sister Elizabeth (considered somewhat shocking in that time’s moral climate), Maria transferred to Mrs. Devis’s school in London. Her father’s attention became fully focused on her in 1781 when she nearly lost her sight to an eye infection. Returning home at the age of 14, she took charge of her many younger siblings and was home-tutored in law, Irish economics and politics, science, and literature by her father. She also started her lifelong correspondences with learned men, mainly members of the Lunar Society.
She became her father’s assistant in managing the Edgeworthtown estate, which had become run-down during the family’s 1777–1782 absence; she would live and write there for the rest of her life. With their bond strengthened, Maria and her father began a lifelong academic collaboration “of which she was the more able and nimble mind.” Present at Edgeworthstown was an extended family, servants and tenants. She observed and recorded the details of daily Irish life, later drawing on this experience for her novels about the Irish. She also mixed with the Anglo-Irish gentry, particularly Kitty Pakenham (later the wife of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington), Lady Moira, and her aunt Margaret Ruxton of Black Castle. Margaret supplied her with the novels of Anne Radcliffe and William Godwin and encouraged her in her writing.
In 1798 Richard married Frances Beaufort, daughter of Daniel Augustus Beaufort, who instigated the idea of travelling to England and the European continent. Frances, a year younger than Maria, became her lifelong confidante. The family travelled first to London in 1800.
In 1802 the Edgeworths toured the English midlands. They then travelled to the continent, first to Brussels and then to Consulate France (during the Peace of Amiens, a brief lull in the Napoleonic Wars). They met all the notables, and Maria received a marriage proposal from a Swedish courtier, Count Edelcrantz. Her letter on the subject seems very cool, but her stepmother assures us in the Augustus Hare Life and Letters that Maria loved him very much and did not get over the affair quickly. They came home to Ireland in 1803 on the eve of the resumption of the wars and Maria returned to writing. Tales of Fashionable Life, The Absentee and Ormond are novels of Irish life. Edgeworth was an extremely popular author who was compared with her contemporary writers Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott. She initially earned more than them, and used her income to help her siblings.
On a visit to London in 1813, where she was received as a literary lion, Maria met Lord Byron (whom she disliked) and Humphry Davy. She entered into a long correspondence with the ultra-Tory Sir Walter Scott after the publication of Waverley in 1814, in which he gratefully acknowledged her influence, and they formed a lasting friendship. She visited him in Scotland at Abbotsford House in 1823, where he took her on a tour of the area. The next year, Sir Walter visited Edgeworthstown. When passing through the village, one of the party wrote, “We found neither mud hovels nor naked peasantry, but snug cottages and smiles all about.” A counterview was provided by another visitor who stated that the residents of Edgeworthstown treated Edgeworth with contempt, refusing even to feign politeness.
Richard Edgeworth was comparatively fair and forgiving in his dealings with his tenants and was actively involved in the estate’s management. After debating the issue with the economist David Ricardo, Maria came to believe that better management and the further application of science to agriculture would raise food production and lower prices. Both Richard and Maria were also in favour of Catholic Emancipation, enfranchisement for Catholics without property restrictions (although he admitted it was against his own interest), agricultural reform and increased educational opportunities for women. She particularly worked hard to improve the living standards of the poor in Edgeworthstown. In trying to improve conditions in the village she provided schools for the local children of all denominations.
After her father’s death in 1817 she edited his memoirs, and extended them with her biographical comments. She was an active writer to the last.
She worked for the relief of the famine-stricken Irish peasants during the Irish Potato Famine. She wrote Orlandino for the benefit of the Relieve Fund. Her letters to the Quaker Relief Committee provide a vivid account of the desperate plight facing the tenants in Edgeworthstown, the extreme conditions under which they lived, and the struggle to obtain whatever aid and assistance she could to alleviate their plight. Through her efforts she received gifts for the poor from America.
During the Irish Famine Edgeworth insisted that only those of her tenants who had paid their rent in full would receive relief. Edgeworth also punished those of her tenants who voted against her Tory preferences.
With the election of William Rowan Hamilton to president of the Royal Irish Academy, Maria became a dominant source of advice for Hamilton, particularly on the issue of literature in Ireland. She suggested that women should be allowed to participate in events held by the academy. For her guidance and help, Hamilton made Edgeworth an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1837, following in the footsteps of Louisa Beaufort, a former member of the academy and a relative of hers.
After a visit to see her relations in Trim, Maria, now in her eighties, began to feel heart pains and died suddenly of a heart attack in Edgeworthstown on 22 May 1849.
Though Maria Edgeworth spent most of her childhood in England, her life in Ireland had a profound impact on both her thinking and views surrounding her Irish culture. Fauske and Kaufman conclude, “[She] used her fiction to address the inherent problems of acts delineated by religious, national, racial, class based, sexual, and gendered identities.” Edgeworth used works such Castle Rackrent and Harrington to express her feelings on controversial issues.
In her works, Edgeworth created a nostalgic past of Ireland in an attempt to celebrate Irish culture. Suvendrini Perera said Edgeworth’s novels traced “the gradual anglicanization of feudal Irish society.” Edgeworth’s goal in her works was to show the Irish as equal to the English, and therefore warranting equal, though not separate, status. Essay on Irish Bulls rejects an English stereotype of Irishmen and portrays them accurately in realistic, everyday settings. This is a common theme in her Irish works, combating the caricatured Irish with accurate representations. In her work Edgeworth also places focus on the linguistic differences between Irish and English societies, as a foil to how dynamic and intricate Irish society was in spite of English stereotypes.
Edgeworth’s writing of Ireland, especially her early Irish tales, offer an important rearticulation of Burkean local attachment and philosophical cosmopolitanism to produce an understanding of the nation as neither tightly bordered (like nations based on historical premises such as blood or inheritance) or not borderless (like those based on rational notions of universal inclusion). Edgeworth used her writing to reconsider the meaning of the denomination “Anglo-Irish”, and through her interrogation she reinterpreted both cosmopolitan and national definitions of belonging so as to reconstitute “Anglo-Irish” less as a category than as an ongoing mediation between borders. In Edgeworth’s Irish novels, education is the key to both individual and national improvement, according to Edgeworth, “it is the foundation of the well-governed estate and the foundation of the well-governed nation”. More specifically, a slow process of education instills transnational understanding in the Irish people while retaining the bonds of local attachment by which the nation is secured. The centrality of education not only suggests Edgeworth’s wish for a rooted yet cosmopolitan or transnational judgment, but also distinguishes her writing from constructions of national identity as national character, linking her through to earlier cosmopolitan constructions of universal human subjects. By claiming national difference as anchored in education, culture rather than nature, Edgeworth gives to national identity a sociocultural foundation, and thereby opens a space in which change can happen.
Maria agreed with the Act of Union, but thought that it should not be passed against the wishes of the Irish people. Concerning education, she thought boys and girls should be educated equally and together, drawing upon Rousseau’s ideas. She believed a woman should only marry someone who suits her in “character, temper, and understanding.” Becoming an old maid was preferable to an incompatible union. The story Vivian from Tales of Fashionable Life and Patronage attack eighteenth-century English Whig governance of Ireland as corrupt and unrepresentative. Edgeworth strove for the self-realization of women and stressed the importance of the individual. She also wanted greater participation in politics by middle class women. Her work Helen clearly demonstrates this point in the passage: “Women are now so highly cultivated, and political subjects are at present of so much importance, of such high interest, to all human creatures who live together in society, you can hardly expect, Helen, that you, as a rational being, can go through the world as it now is, without forming any opinion on points of public importance. You cannot, I conceive, satisfy yourself with the common namby-pamby little missy phrase, ‘ladies have nothing to do with politics’.” She sympathised with Catholics and supported gradual, though not immediate, Catholic Emancipation.
To help illustrate the care that must be taken in teaching children and to emphasise the necessity of properly directing and managing their attentiveness, Maria Edgeworth drew several comparisons with non-European peoples. In her 1798 book Practical Education she maintained that unnecessarily causing fatigue should be a great concern of educators. In making the point that any mode of instruction that tired the attention was hurtful to children, her reasoning was that people can pay attention only to one thing at a time, and because children can appear resistant to repetition, teachers naturally should vary things. However, educators should always be mindful of the fact that, “while variety relieves the mind, the objects which are varied must not all be entirely new, for novelty and variety when joined, fatigue the mind” as Edgeworth states. The teaching of children needed to follow carefully considered methods, needed to evidence concern for appropriateness and proper sequencing, and needed to be guided by consideration from forms of teaching that would be empowering and enabling, not fatiguing or disabling. In Edgeworth’s work, the attention of the child appears as a key site for pedagogical work and interventions.
Edgeworth’s early literary efforts have often been considered melodramatic rather than realistic. Recent scholarship, however, has uncovered the importance of Edgeworth’s previously unpublished juvenilia manuscript, The Double Disguise (1786). In particular, The Double Disguise signals Edgeworth’s turn toward realism and is now considered a seminal regional narrative predating Castle Rackrent (1800). In addition, Edgeworth wrote many children’s novels that conveyed moral lessons to their audience. One of her schoolgirl novels features a villain who wore a mask made from the skin of a dead man’s face. Edgeworth’s first published work was Letters for Literary Ladies in 1795. Her work, “An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification” (1795) is written for a female audience in which she convinces women that the fair sex is endowed with an art of self-justification and women should use their gifts to continually challenge the force and power of men, especially their husbands, with wit and intelligence. It humorously and satirically explores the feminine argumentative method. This was followed in 1796 by her first children’s book, The Parent’s Assistant, which included Edgeworth’s celebrated short story The Purple Jar. The Parent’s Assistant was influenced by her father’s work and perspectives on children’s education.
Mr. Edgeworth, a well-known author and inventor, encouraged his daughter’s career. At the height of her creative endeavours, Maria wrote, “Seriously it was to please my Father I first exerted myself to write, to please him I continued.” Though the impetus for Maria’s works, Mr. Edgeworth has been criticised for his insistence on approving and editing her work. The tales in The Parent’s Assistant were approved by her father before he would allow them to be read to her younger siblings. It is speculated that her stepmother and siblings also helped in the editing process of Edgeworth’s work.
Practical Education (1798) is a progressive work on education that combines the ideas of Locke and Rousseau with scientific inquiry. Edgeworth asserts that “learning should be a positive experience and that the discipline of education is more important during the formative years than the acquisition of knowledge.” The system attempted to “adapt both the curriculum and methods of teaching to the needs of the child; the endeavour to explain moral habits and the learning process through associationism; and most important, the effort to entrust the child with the responsibility for his own mental culture.” The ultimate goal of Edgeworth’s system was to create an independent thinker who understands the consequences of their actions.
Her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800) was written and submitted for anonymous publication in 1800 without her father’s knowledge. It was an immediate success and firmly established Edgeworth’s appeal. The book is a satire on Anglo-Irish landlords, before the year 1782, showing the need for more responsible management by the Irish landowning class. The story follows four generations of an Irish landholding family, the Rackrents. It is narrated by an Irish catholic worker on the estate, named Thady Quirk, and portrayed the rise of the catholic-Irish middle class.
Belinda (1801), a 3-volume work published in London, was Maria Edgeworth’s first full-length novel. It dealt with love, courtship, and marriage, dramatising the conflicts within her “own personality and environment; conflicts between reason and feeling, restraint and individual freedom, and society and free spirit.” Belinda was also notable for its controversial depiction of interracial marriage between an African servant and an English farm-girl. Later editions of the novel, however, removed these sections.
Tales of Fashionable Life (1809 and 1812) is a 2-series collection of short stories which often focus on the life of a woman. The second series was particularly well received in England, making her the most commercially successful novelist of her age. After this, Edgeworth was regarded as the preeminent woman writer in England alongside Jane Austen.
Following an anti-Semitic remark in The Absentee, Edgeworth received a letter from an American Jewish woman named Rachel Mordecai in 1815 complaining about Edgeworth’s depiction of Jews. In response, Harrington (1817) was written as an apology to the Jewish community. The novel was a fictitious autobiography about overcoming antisemitism and includes one of the first sympathetic Jewish characters in an English novel.
Helen (1834) is Maria Edgeworth’s final novel, the only one she wrote after her father’s death. She chose to write a novel focused on the characters and situation, rather than moral lessons. In a letter to her publisher, Maria wrote, “I have been reproached for making my moral in some stories too prominent. I am sensible of the inconvenience of this both to reader and writer & have taken much pains to avoid it in Helen.” Her novel is also set in England, a conscious choice as Edgeworth found Ireland too troubling for a fictitious work in the political climate of the 1830s.
- Letters for Literary Ladies – 1795 ; Second Edition 1798
- An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification – 1795
- The Parent’s Assistant – 1796
- Practical Education – 1798 (2 vols; collaborated with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and step-mother, Honora Sneyd)
- Castle Rackrent (1800) (novel)
- Early Lessons – 1801
- Moral Tales– 1801
- Belinda – (1801) (novel)
- The Mental Thermometer– 1801
- Essay on Irish Bulls – 1802 (political, collaborated with her father)
- Popular Tales – 1804
- The Modern Griselda – 1804
- Moral Tales for Young People – 1805 (6 vols)
- Leonora – 1806 (written during the French excursion)
- Essays in Professional Education– 1809
- Tales of Fashionable Life – 1809 (first in a series, includes The Absentee)
- Ennui – 1809 (novel)
- The Absentee – 1812 (novel)
- Patronage – 1814 (novel)
- Harrington – 1817 (novel)
- Ormond – 1817 (novel)
- Comic Dramas – 1817
- Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth – 1820 (edited her father’s memoirs)
- Rosamond: A Sequel to Early Lessons– 1821
- Frank: A Sequel to Frank in Early Lessons– 1822
- Tomorrow – 1823 (novel)
- Helen – 1834 (novel)
- Orlandino– 1848 (temperance novel)
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