Edgeworth, Maria (1768–1849), novelist and educationist
by W. J. McCormack

Edgeworth, Maria (1768–1849), novelist and educationist, was born on 1 January 1768 at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, the eldest daughter and third child of , inventor and educationist, and his first wife, Anna Maria Elers (1743–1773). The year of her birth was long given as 1767, but the revised date has been generally accepted. Her place of birth was the home of her maternal grandfather, Paul Elers, a person of limited financial acumen. Her mother died when Maria was six shortly after the birth of a child who did not survive. Her father was married a further three times, first to Honora Sneyd in 1773.

Family and early life

The Edgeworths were Irish landowners, with property in co. Longford. Richard Lovell Edgeworth inherited a neglectful attitude to the estate and, prior to 1782, spent little time at Edgeworthstown (formerly Mastrim). No fewer than eight members of the family sat in the Irish House of Commons between 1661 and 1800, but only Richard Lovell Edgeworth among them has any claim to political reputation. The family's return in 1782 was in part prompted by the Enlightenment views of English midlands industrialists and philanthropists with whom he associated, but it coincided with a campaign for constitutional reform of the Irish parliament in its relations with Britain. The title-page of Maria Edgeworth's most famous novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), describes it as ‘taken from the manners of the Irish squires, before the year 1782’, a date with great domestic and political significance for the anonymous author and her family.

The 1780s in Ireland were dominated by a self-congratulating House of Commons which had extracted major concessions from London in the context of the American crisis. The political scene was frequently theatrical, and rival reformers contended for leadership. Among disputed issues was the Catholic question, with some arguing for a near complete relaxation of the penal laws. The Edgeworths were conspicuously lax in their religious practice. But, at the Volunteer Convention of November 1783, Richard Lovell Edgeworth pulled back from radical reform, realizing (as many gentry delegates did) that their material interests might not be best served by an extension of the franchise and reform of land tenure. Maria Edgeworth herself was proud of his role, exaggerating it at the time, but tended to downplay it when she wrote about him after his death.

Maria Edgeworth's childhood was unhappy: she was neglected by her father, who was too much involved with his new wife, and she was deemed to be a difficult child. With the collapse of the health of her stepmother Honora Sneyd in 1775, Maria was dispatched to Mrs Lattafière's school in Derby, where she entertained her fellow pupils with her story-telling in the dormitories, and later in 1780 to Mrs Devis's flashier establishment in Upper Wimpole Street, London. Diminutive in height, she was subjected to stretching, being held by the head with her feet off the ground. A better, if still uncomfortable, experience came when she spent extended periods with her father's friend the Rousseauesque Thomas Day at Anningsley in Surrey. He encouraged her education and stimulated self-respect in an anxious girl. In 1781 he also nearly blinded her by applying tar water to cure eye disease.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth was both libidinous and abstracted. He used the term ‘your present mother’ to describe young Edgeworth's surrogate parent, as if to emphasize the temporary or serial nature of the appointment: after Honora's death in 1780 he married her sister Elizabeth. The threat to Maria's sight late in 1781 brought the girl more to his attention, though he still recommended arithmetic because it ‘requires no attention of the eyes’ (M. Butler, 76). He later encouraged her in her reading, although he disapproved of her reading novels, and set her to translate Mme de Genlis's Adèle et Théodore (which was recalled before publication in 1783). The removal to Edgeworthstown in June 1782 renewed the bond between father and daughter, leading to a formidable intellectual partnership of which she was the more able and nimble mind. The house, which was her permanent home for the rest of her life, was unremarkable, the estate in a condition of mismanagement. From the outset Edgeworth accompanied her father on tours of the property and acted as rent clerk at the twice yearly gale days. This practical experience of estate business, which brought her into direct contact with tenants, is reflected in the detail and colour of her novels dealing with Ireland, notably Castle Rackrent (1800), Ennui (1809), The Absentee (1812), and Ormond (1817).

Early writings: education and collaboration

During this time Edgeworth's domestic role was expanding, as she became responsible for the education of her younger half-siblings: thirteen of them were educated at home. She experimented with various teaching techniques, and documented the children's progress. The reprehensible conduct of her eldest brother Richard (1764–1796), who had entered the navy, increased the sense of her being deputy and heir apparent.

Concern for the young was a theme which early took root in Edgeworthstown House. In 1788–9 Edgeworth's father entertained his household of adults and children with an invented oral saga about a large family, generally referred to as ‘The Freeman Family’. Maria Edgeworth sought to commit these performances to paper, checking details with her father as they toured the estate. Her first version was completed by the end of 1790.

The saga developed into Edgeworth's longest novel, Patronage, and though the final version did not appear until 1814, a rough draft was complete by early 1791, and a revision of the whole accomplished between November 1793 and the following May. As the ultimate dénouement of the published novel (set almost entirely in England) involves a repercussion of the Irish rising of 1798, this dimension of the work may be assigned to Edgeworth's taking the manuscript with her to England in 1799. Consideration of Patronage raises two interrelated and intractable problems—how much Edgeworth as a writer was influenced by her father, and the extent to which some of her work originated far earlier than dates of publication would suggest. For example, the Essays on Practical Education (1798), which Edgeworth and her father jointly wrote, is echoed in the heavily didactic and moralizing Patronage. The fact that she defended the education of women in Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) and tutored her brother Henry suggests independence of paternal dominance, though her public references to her father were later decidedly loyal. Letters for Literary Ladies was a retort to Thomas Day, who had strong objections to women publishing. In the following year she published The Parent's Assistant, the first evidence of her concern to write for children, and further stories for the young were published in her Early Lessons in 1801.

Independence: Castle Rackrent

In 1791 tuberculosis (not a newcomer to the household) struck one of the Edgeworth children and Richard Lovell Edgeworth took him to England in search of treatment. During this first period of Edgeworth's extended separation from her father, she turned to an aunt, Margaret Ruxton (1746–1830), for emotional support. It was to her that Edgeworth recounted the verbal antics of John Langan, a steward at Edgeworthstown, and he became in time the fictional narrator of Castle Rackrent. Mrs Ruxton's preferred reading was literary, and she provided a counterbalance to her brother's predominantly scientific interests. Although the publication of Castle Rackrent in 1800 coincided with the union debates, its origins lie in 1792 and a very brief period in early 1795 when William Wentworth Fitzwilliam (second earl Fitzwilliam) as lord lieutenant promised drastic reform of the Irish administration. The novel's oscillations between verbal antic and brute fact reflect the disappointed optimism in liberal circles. The onset of greater violence in 1797 and especially in 1798 further affected its evolution.

In February 1798 Richard Lovell Edgeworth entered the Irish House of Commons. On 31 May he married for the last time. Before summer was out, the family was forced to flee Edgeworthstown as a French invasionary army moved eastward towards Dublin. Later returning with her family, Maria Edgeworth found the house relatively undisturbed, despite her father's having to seek refuge in Longford town. The battlefield at which the French were finally defeated (8 September) lay close to Edgeworth property. Her immediate reaction as a writer was to disinter the Langan narrative (in October 1798) and to bring it closer to its final state as Castle Rackrent (January 1800).

Castle Rackrent was published in London by Joseph Johnson, a radical whom the Edgeworths once visited in prison. Edgeworth's loyalty to Johnson, and to his successors after his death in 1809, only partly explains her studied indifference to Irish outlets (none the less the work was quickly published in pirated editions in Dublin). Her father spoke in favour of, and voted against, the union between Britain and Ireland, but Edgeworth's attitude to the measure is not extensively recorded. The family welcomed better prospects for Irish commerce but deplored British corruption. Thady Quirk's fictional narrative in Castle Rackrent concludes with an editorial note about the union. Its final cryptic sentences read ‘Did the Warwickshire militia, who were chiefly artisans, teach the Irish to drink beer? or did they learn from the Irish to drink whiskey?’ Apart from occasional brief tours, the family displayed no wish to abandon Ireland after 1800.

Public and private life, 1802–1830

In November 1802 Edgeworth and her father visited Paris, where they were well received as the authors of Practical Education. While there, Edgeworth received an unexpected proposal of marriage from a Swedish courtier, Abraham Niclas Clewberg-Edelcrantz, who shared her father's scientific interests. Though her father appears to have been tolerant of the notion, Maria Edgeworth refused the offer and both parties remained unmarried. Reticent on personal matters, she none the less referred to the Swede as ‘one who was once dear to me’ (Edgeworth to various family members, 27 Nov 1817)—this less than six months after her father's death. The episode of 1802 constitutes virtually the only instance of intimate emotion intruding from a source outside the family circle, despite the extent of her growing fame and her success in London and Parisian society.

At this time Edgeworth was exploring questions of nationality, gender, and the authorial profession. In the advertisement to Belinda (1802) she questioned the form of the novel itself:
The following work is offered to the public as a Moral Tale—the author not wishing to acknowledge a Novel … so much folly, errour and vice are disseminated in books classed under this denomination, that it is hoped the wish to assume another title will be attributed to feelings that are laudable, and not fastidious.
Her Essay on Irish Bulls (1802) manipulates professed authorship in a brilliant fashion, as the ‘narrator’ is successively English, Irish, singular, plural, and so on. Her fictions focused sharply on women tended to prefer English settings, and her treatment of Irish women veered towards the satirical (Mrs Rafferty, for instance, in The Absentee) or the sentimental (Ellinor in Ennui). She commented in a notebook on the absurdity of a woman wishing to be a lawyer. To Lord Grey she declared in 1832 that ‘facts are of no sex’, while preparing for the last of her novels which take a woman's name as title, Helen (1834). Beginning with Belinda Edgeworth had encountered resistance to her frank treatment of female characters and the vicissitudes they could endure, and The Modern Griselda (1805) was written without her father's knowing. Both series of Tales of Fashionable Life (1809 and 1812)—whose longest tale was ‘The Absentee’—feature stories in which a woman's life is the predominant theme. Leonora (1806) may be a lesser performance.

Partly as a consequence of timely excursions to London from co. Longford, Edgeworth's fiction was reviewed widely. Between 1804 and 1820 Francis Jeffrey contributed six anonymous notices of her work in the whiggish Edinburgh Review of which he was editor, to which should be added Sydney Smith's review of Patronage in the same organ. Less predictably, John Wilson Croker wrote favourably of Tales of Fashionable Life (2nd series) but harshly of the Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth in the tory Quarterly Review. Lesser magazines also noted her work, which vied with that of Jane Austen in certain areas of critical esteem. Edgeworth was also well rewarded for her work, receiving £1050 for Tales of Fashionable Life (2nd series), and becoming the most commercially successful novelist of her age. She received numerous private endorsements and congratulations, counting Jeremy Bentham, Sir Humphrey Davy, Etienne Dumont, David Ricardo, and Walter Scott among her friends and admirers. From Scott's description of her it seems that her appearance matched her vivacity, good sense, and friendliness. There was, however, a vein of opinion which regarded her as too didactic and moralistic in the fiction: triste utilité was a phrase of Madame de Stäel's which stung the novelist. In May 1820 she conversed with Talleyrand in the British ambassador's Paris home. In 1825 Scott and J. G. Lockhart visited her at Edgeworthstown.

Scott was by far the most important reader of her work. He was prompted by The Absentee to unearth his incomplete manuscript of what became Waverley in 1814. Indirectly, Edgeworth helped to launch the historical novel across Europe, even if her own contribution to the genre was limited to Ormond. What she demonstrated was a means of relating one cultural tradition to another, whether across a long passage of time or in a tense contemporary setting (the stories of émigrés, for instance). Scott's public acknowledgement of the debt came in the collected edition of his works (1829–33), when Edgeworth's star seemed to have waned.

The family's strong interest in pre-revolutionary French society and thought is reflected in Ormond (1817), a novel which Edgeworth wrote in haste as her father was dying. The novel counterbalances its scenes of fashionable Parisian society (drawn from Edgeworth's own experiences over forty years previously) with primitivistic settings on the west coast of Ireland, and appeared in tandem with Harrington, a fiction of English life in which Edgeworth sought to make amends for an antisemitic passage in The Absentee. These were her last novels for adults for sixteen years. The desire to complete Ormond for her father was followed by her completion of his Memoirs three years after his death in 1817, the second volume being entirely her work.

Later work

After her father's death Edgeworth moved towards a more conservative attitude towards Irish politics and the possibilities of local reform, and resumed writing for children with, for example, Rosamond, a Sequel (1821). Deteriorating economic and social conditions in Ireland of the 1820s laid the ground for a retrenchment of her thinking. The rise of Daniel O'Connell and the politicization of many Catholic clergy alarmed her, and she viewed the activities of individual priests virtually as insubordination. Catholic emancipation in 1829 and the Reform Act of 1832 sank a double ditch between the world she had been brought up in and a new Ireland of which she was only superficially aware. In 1833 Gaelic translations (by Tomás Ó Fianachtaigh) of Forgive and Forget and Rosanna were published in Belfast and Dublin.

On 3 October 1833 a party set out from Edgeworthstown heading westwards into Connemara by way of Athlone. This was Edgeworth's first extended encounter with the west of Ireland. Her account of the trip was published in 1950, edited from letters which she wrote home. It confirms her preference for people and events over landscape and setting, and the experience did not inspire any further fiction. Her last full-length novel, Helen, was set among English middle-class folk. In a significant departure from her other novels, the story was focused not on a didactic theme, but on a dramatic situation and the relationships between three main characters. ‘I have been reproached for making my moral in some stories too prominent’, she wrote to her publisher J. G. Lockhart, ‘I am sensible of the inconvenience of this both to reader and writer & have taken much pains to avoid it in Helen’ (Edgeworth to J. G. Lockhart, 12 May 1833). At Lockhart's suggestion the novel was published by Bentley, a younger firm than those with whom Edgeworth had been associated; an American edition was in circulation by the end of August 1834, and a German translation by Christmas. Earlier in the year Edgeworth had declared ‘it is impossible to draw Ireland as she now is in a book of fiction—realities are too strong’, though by November her position had softened (‘the scene of the next story I write, if ever I do write again shall be in Ireland’ (Edgeworth to Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, 10 Nov 1834).

In the event, only Orlandino (published Edinburgh, 1848) extended her range. This temperance story was sold to ‘earn a little money for our parish poor’ at the end of the great famine (Slade, 203). Her endorsement of Father Theobald Mathew, the pioneer of total abstemption among Ireland's Catholics, should be weighed against her determination ‘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’. Her father's practice of 1782 in the management of Edgeworthstown was steadily maintained in the face of demographic catastrophe.

When Sir William Rowan Hamilton was elected president of the Royal Irish Academy in 1837, he sought Edgeworth's advice on the advancement of polite literature in Ireland. Her lengthy reply (Edgeworth to W. Hamilton, 6 Jan 1838, Royal Irish Academy, 24.F.23.2) recommended the admission of women to the academy's evening parties, among other reforms. She was elected an honorary member of the academy on 13 June 1842 (Royal Irish Academy minutes, 2.258), her kinswoman Louisa Beaufort having preceded her as a member.

At the end of the famine, Edgeworth was over eighty though she still addressed her third stepmother, Frances Beaufort (one year her junior), as ‘Mother’. With other bereavements, she lost a favourite stepsister Fanny (1799–1848), and was increasingly deprived of company of her own age. In spring 1849 she paid a visit to relatives at Trim, co. Meath. Safely back home at Edgeworthstown House she complained of heart pains, and died quite suddenly on 22 May in the house to which she had come from England nearly seventy years earlier. She was buried in the churchyard of St John's, Edgeworthstown.

Afterlife

Maria Edgeworth is unrivalled among Irish women as an intellectual, working both as a literary writer and (in the broad sense) as an educationist. Her practice of textual allusion was at once dense and deft, and her reading exceptionally broad. Patronage (1814), her longest and most complex novel, draws on a wide range of sources, including seventeenth-century English political intrigue and the philosophical quest for a universal language. The list of her publications testifies to almost uninterrupted endeavour over a quarter of a century, followed by a period (1818 onwards) in which she oversaw two multi-volume collections of her work, and later re-engaged with fiction. Though the 1830s saw a renewal of literary publication in Ireland, Edgeworth remained aloof: in April 1834 the Dublin University Magazine lamented her indifference to ‘anything like revealed religion’—an old complaint revived at a time of increasing sectarian conflict. Nevertheless, her influence on younger writers, for instance the Banim brothers and Charles James Lever, is obvious. Anthony Trollope's first two novels are written clearly in an Edgeworthian mode. Less obviously so, the debt owed by William Makepeace Thackeray to her hero-less social novels has been remarked on. The influence of The Absentee can be traced down to J. G. Farrell's Troubles (1970), though the ‘troubles’ of 1969 onwards have led to some hostility towards Edgeworth as an allegedly ‘colonial’ writer.

Edgeworth's contemporary fame was greater perhaps in England than in Ireland. Tales and Miscellaneous Pieces appeared in fourteen volumes in 1825, but the texts of some items (notably Patronage) were unsatisfactory. A better Tales and Novels succeeded in eighteen monthly volumes (1832–3), over which she exercised more control. The Victorian period saw several reissued ‘collected’ editions, most notably that edited by Anne Thackeray Ritchie. In Ireland the rise of cultural nationalism with W. B. Yeats and others led to an eclipse of her reputation, though Castle Rackrent has been almost continuously in print. (A Soviet Russian edition appeared in 1972.) Feminist publishing houses, followed by Oxford University Press and Penguin, issued a number of the novels in the late twentieth century. The latest effort at a collected edition was published by Pickering and Chatto, and by 1999 eight volumes had appeared.

The great bulk of Edgeworth correspondence awaits publication. The nineteenth-century selections are unreliable, though Lettres intimes de Maria Edgeworth pendant ses voyages en Belgique, en France, en Suisse, et en Angleterre en 1802, 1820 et 1821 (Paris, 1896) deserves attention, not least because it provided a model when Lady Colvin came to publish her selections in the 1970s. The result is that few of the multitudinous letters written from Edgeworthstown House have been edited for publication.

W. J. MCCORMACK

Sources  

Life of William Allen with selections from his correspondence (1847) · H. J. Butler and H. E. Butler, The ‘Black book of Edgeworthstown’ and other Edgeworth memories, 1585–1817 (1927) · A. Romilly, ed., Romilly–Edgeworth letters, 1813–1818 (1936) · B. Coolidge Slade, Maria Edgeworth, 1767–1849: a bibliographical tribute (1937) · H. Edgeworth Butler, ed., Maria Edgeworth: tour in Connemara and the Martins of Ballinahinch (1950) · M. Hurst, Maria Edgeworth and the public scene: intellect, fine feeling, and landlordism in the age of reform (1969) · Maria Edgeworth: letters from England, 1813–1844, ed. C. Colvin (1971) · M. Butler, Maria Edgeworth: a literary biography (1972) · The education of the heart: the correspondence of Rachel Mordecai Lazarus and Maria Edgeworth, ed. E. E. MacDonald (Chapel Hill, NC, 1977) · Maria Edgeworth in France and Switzerland: selections from the Edgeworth family letters, ed. C. Colvin (1979) · W. J. McCormack, Ascendancy and tradition in Anglo-Irish literature from 1789 to 1939 (1985)

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., corresp., literary MSS, and papers · Hunt. L., letters · NL Ire., family and other corresp., account book, notebooks · TCD, letters · Yale U., Beinecke L., papers |  Beds. & Luton ARS, corresp. with Elizabeth Whitbread · Birr Castle, co. Offaly, letters to Lawrence Parsons, second earl of Rosse · BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40423–40603, passim · Bodl. Oxf., letters mainly to Mary Somerville · Bristol RO, letters to Zoe King and papers · Denbighshire RO, Ruthin, letters to John Brinkley and Esther Brinkley · Derbys. RO, letters to Fanny Strutt and corresp. with Edward Strutt · Derbys. RO, letters to Sir R. J. Wilmot-Horton · FM Cam., letters to William Strutt · Lincs. Arch., letters to George Elers · LPL, letters to Archbishop Howley · NL Ire., letters to Mary Leadbeater · NL Ire., corresp. with T. Spring-Rice · NL Scot., corresp. with Archibald Constable · NL Scot., corresp. with J. G. Lockhart · NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Walter Scott · NRA Scotland, priv. coll., letters to John Swinton · PRONI, corresp. with John Foster · RCS Eng., letters to Joanna Baillie and Agnes Baillie · RS, corresp. with Sir John Herschel · TCD, corresp. with Sir Philip Crampton · TCD, corresp. with W. R. Hamilton · TCD, letters to marquess of Lansdowne · U. Birm. L., letters to J. E. Moilliot, banker · U. Nott. L., corresp. with the countess of Charleville · Yale U., Beinecke L., letters mainly to Mary Leadbeater


Likenesses  

group portrait, lithograph, 19th cent. (after crayon drawing by A. Buck, 1787), NG Ire. · F. Mackenzie, line and stipple engraving, pubd 1808 (after W. M. Craig), BM, NPG · pencil drawing, c.1819–1821, NPG · F. Mackenzie, line and stipple engraving, 1822 (after W. M. Craig), NG Ire. · R. Beard, daguerreotype, 1841, NPG [see illus.] · M. P. Edgeworth, calotype print, 1846–7, NPG · stipple, 1873 (after A. Chappel), NG Ire.


© Oxford University Press 2004–14 All rights reserved  

Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/8476