Maria Edgeworth

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Edgeworth, Maria, daughter of preceding by his first marriage, was born at Hare Hatch,near Reading,in Berkshire, 1st January 1767. Her early life was spent with her maternal aunts in England; but upon her father's second marriage, in 1773, he took her with him to Ireland. Her step-mother was all to her that the most affectionate mother could have been, but as Mrs. Edgeworth's health began to fail in 1778, Maria was placed at a school in Derby. Her father paid much attention to her education, corresponding with her, and suggesting subjects for short essays and stories.

In 1780 she was removed to a fashionable London school, where she was put through the rigid routine of accomplishments customary at the time. She exhibited much talent for languages, writing her Italian and French exercises for the quarter in advance. In 1782 she returned home, and the ennobling influences of the period in Ireland were not without their effect upon her character. She wrote much in conjunction with her father, and together they prepared some pieces for publication, which were held back until after the death of their friend Mr. Day, in deference to his prejudices against female authorship.

Much was written at this period that afterwards appeared in the Parent's Assistant and Early Lessons. Maria Edgeworth first came before the public in 1795 in her Letters for Literary Ladies, Practical Education, the joint production of father and daughter, was published in 1798. She struck into her peculiar vein of novel-writing in 1800, in Castle Rackrent. Its success was triumphant. In 1802 appeared the Essay on Irish Bulls, another joint production. During the peace of Amiens she with her father and family visited Paris. Her account of their travels is lively and sensible; they were introduced to Kosciusko, Madame de Genlis, and Madame d'Houdetot (Rousseau's Julie), and other celebrities.

Whilst in Paris she received a proposal of marriage from M. Edelcrantz, a Swedish gentleman: it cannot be doubted that she was somewhat attached to him, that she refused him from feelings of duty, and that the suppression of her real sentiments is reflected in her after works, where the obligation of subordination of feeling to duty is so often descanted upon. Ennui and Leonora were afterwards written, as was said, in the style her lover preferred, and with the desire that he should think favourably of them. She fortunately returned home before the declaration of war. Her eldest brother Lovell was stopped on his journey from Geneva to Paris, and detained prisoner until the peace in 1814.

Her publications now followed each other in rapid succession, and she became widely and deservedly known as an authoress. Byron, in one of his letters, says that while he had been the lion of 1812, Miss Edgeworth and Madame de Stael were the exhibitions of the succeeding year — "She was a nice little unassuming Jeannie Deans-looking body, and if not handsome, certainly not ill-looking. Her conversation was as quiet as herself. One would never have guessed she could write her name; whereas her father talked, not as if he could write nothing else, but as if nothing else was worth writing." Her father's death in 1817 was a severe blow to her. His Memoirs, completed and published by her, were so severely handled in the Quarterly Review, that she followed her friend Dumont's advice, and never even looked at the article. After this she indulged in a long-projected visit to Paris with two younger sisters by her father's fourth marriage, and they were settled at the Place du Palais Bourbon, 29th April 1820. Their relationship to the Abbe Edgeworth was now a passport to the best society.

Some time was spent in Switzerland, a sojourn at Geneva being especially enjoyed. Miss Edgeworth was warmly received by Madame de Stael, Decandolle, and many others who then resided there. Thomas Moore, about this time, thus writes of her appearance in society: "The moment anyone begins to speak, off she starts too, seldom more than a sentence behind them, and in general contrives to distance every speaker. Neither does what she says, though of course very sensible, make up for this over activity of tongue." Scott's estimate of her a few years later was different: "It is scarcely possible to say more of this very remarkable person than that she not only completely answered, but exceeded, the expectations which I had formed. I am particularly pleased with the naivete and good-humoured ardour of her mind, which she unites with such formidable powers of acute observation."

George Ticknor described her in 1834 as "a small, short, spare lady of about 67, with extremely frank and kind manners, and who always looks straight into your face with a pair of mild, deep grey eyes, whenever she speaks to you." In London we find her spending a morning in Newgate with Mrs. Fry, receiving Sir Humphry Davy, being taken by Whitbread to the House of Commons, and finishing by a visit to Almack's. The latter part of her long life was spent at Edgeworthstown. She continued vigorous to the last, and died rather suddenly of heart disease, 22nd May 1849, aged 82.

It is said that she left many unpublished works in MS. Her literary labours were not profitable; and she never realized for the best of her tales a third of the sum given for Waverley, yet Waverley was called the Scotch Castle Rackrent, and Scott admitted that he was inspired to write his national tales from a perusal of her Irish sketches. Her Harry and Lucy and other children's books are amongst the best fruits of her genius. "All are agreed in ranking amongst her qualities, the finest powers of observation; the most penetrating good sense; a high moral tone consistently maintained; inexhaustible fertility of invention; firmness and delicacy of touch; undeviating rectitude of purpose; varied and accurate knowledge; a clear flexible style; exquisite humour; and extraordinary mastery of pathos. What she wants — what she could not help wanting with her matter-of-fact understanding and practical turn of mind — are poetry, romance, passion, sentiment. In her judgment, the better part of life and conduct is discretion. She has not only no toleration for self-indulgence or criminal weakness; she has no sympathy with lofty, defiant, uncalculating heroism or greatness; she never snatches a grace beyond the reach of prudence; she never arrests us by scenes of melodramatic intensity, or hurries us along breathless by a rapid train of exciting incidents to an artistically prepared catastrophe."[32] Miss Edgeworth was one of the four ladies who have been honorary members of the Royal Irish Academy — the others being, Miss Beaufort, Mrs. Somerville, and Miss Stokes.

Sources

15. Athenaeum, The—Principally referred to under No. 233.

32. Biographical and Critical Essays: A. Haywood, Q.C. London, 1873.

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