Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849)

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

This celebrated authoress was born at Bourton Abbots in Oxfordshire, January 1st, 1767. She was the eldest daughter by his first marriage of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, himself born in Bath in 1744, but whose family had settled in Ireland in the reign of Elizabeth, and given name to the village of Edgeworthstown in county Longford. Shortly after 1773 Mr. Edgeworth removed with his family to Ireland, and the mansion-house of Edgeworthstown from this time became their home. Although born out of Ireland, yet the life and works of Maria Edgeworth are so closely connected with that country as to entitle her to a place in our pages. One who knew her well says, "She was to all intents and purposes Irish; so she must be considered, and so she considered herself." Her father was a man distinguished for literary taste and a turn for mechanical invention. He erected the first telegraph in England, was a member of the Irish parliament, an earnest advocate of reform, and devoted much of his time to scientific pursuits and the improvement of his tenantry. Under his care Maria soon became an accomplished scholar, and at a very early age was able to join him in various literary projects. These, however, were not given to the world at the time, and it was only in 1798 that their first joint production, A Treatise on Practical Education, appeared. The famous Essay on Irish Bulls, another joint production, was published in 1802, and at once took a high place in the estimation both of the critics and the public.

In 1810 Miss Edgeworth published Early Lessons in ten parts, and in 1815 her father added a continuation to this work. Castle Rackrent, the first of Miss Edgeworth's independent works, appeared in 1801. This tale, which in some respects is one of her best, proved a great success, and was followed for a number of years by a remarkable series, comprising Belinda, Leonora, Popular Tales, Tales of Fashionable Life (containing The Absentee), Patronage, Harrington, Ormond, &c. The rich humour, pathetic tenderness, and admirable tact displayed in these works, prompted Sir Walter Scott, as he himself says, to "attempt something for my own country of the same kind with that which Miss Edge-worth so fortunately achieved for Ireland." In her works Miss Edgeworth showed very considerable versatility, being now philosophic with wisdom, now humorous, now cleverly descriptive, now pathetic, and always master of the immediate subject in hand. She discarded the style of the trashy novel of the day, and followed simplicity and common sense alone.

The death of Mr. Edgeworth in 1817 was a severe blow to Maria. Of him she writes, "Few, I believe, have ever enjoyed such happiness, or such advantages, as I have had in the instruction, society, and unbounded confidence and affection of such a father and such a friend." Mr. Edgeworth had been married four times, and left a numerous family, the care and education of whom was ever a grateful duty to his affectionate daughter. In 1820 she published his Memoirs, partly written by himself.

In 1822 Rosamond, a sequel to Early Lessons, appeared, followed by Harry and Lucy and The Parent's Guide. In 1823 Miss Edgeworth, with two of her sisters, visited Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, where they spent a fortnight. Here she was delighted with everything she heard and saw, and captivated by the massive genius of the "man of the house." He was equally delighted with the culture yet simplicity of her manners, and the visit ended in conducing still more to their mutual respect and esteem. In 1834 appeared her exquisite and popular story Helen, perhaps the best of all her works. She concluded her life's work by the juvenile tale Orlandino.

Miss Edgeworth's name had now attained to world-wide celebrity, and in recognition of her valuable contributions to the literature of her country she was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy. The value of this distinction may be estimated when it is known that but three ladies besides Miss Edgeworth have been so rewarded — Miss Beaufort, Mrs. Somerville, and Miss Stokes. The latter years of her long life, with few exceptions, were passed at Edgeworthstown, where she remained "unspoiled by literary fame, loved in the family circle which daily assembled in the library, and admired by all as a pattern of an intellectual and amiable woman." Here, too, she died rather suddenly of heart disease on the 22d of May, 1849.

Such are the leading points in the literary life of this gifted lady, whose rare modesty caused her to wish that no life of her should ever be published, and who once declared, "My only remains shall be in the church at Edgeworthstown." It is to be regretted that, for the same reason, no portrait of her exists; but we give the following sketch of her appearance from the loving pen of her friend Mrs. S. C. Hall. "In person she was very small—she was 'lost in a crowd;' her face was pale and thin, her features irregular; they may have been considered plain even in youth; but her expression was so benevolent, her manners were so perfectly well bred, partaking of English dignity and Irish frankness, that one never thought of her with reference either to beauty or plainness. She ever occupied without claiming attention, charming continually by her singularly pleasant voice, while the earnestness and truth that beamed from her bright blue, very blue eyes, increased the value of every word she uttered. She knew how to listen as well as to talk, and gathered information in a manner highly complimentary to those from whom she sought it; her attention seemed far more the effect of respect than of curiosity; her sentences were frequently epigrammatic; she more than once suggested to me the story of the good fairy, from whose lips dropped diamonds and pearls whenever they were opened. She was ever neat and particular in her dress, a duty to society which literary women sometimes culpably neglect; her feet and hands were so delicate and small as to be almost childlike. In a word, Maria Edgeworth was one of those women who do not seem to require beauty."

Of Miss Edgeworth's writings Lord Jeffrey says, "They exhibit so singular a union of sober sense and inexhaustible invention; so minute a knowledge of all that distinguishes manners, or touches on happiness in every condition of human, fortune, and so just an estimate both of the real sources of enjoyment and of the illusions by which they are so often obstructed, that it cannot be thought wonderful that we should separate her from the ordinary manufacturer of novels, and speak of her tales as works of more serious importance than much of the true history and solemn philosophy that comes daily under our inspection. ... It is impossible, we think, to read ten pages in any of her writings without feeling not only that the whole, but that every part of them was intended to do good." The circulation of Miss Edgeworth's works has been something enormous. An edition of the novels and tales was published in eighteen small volumes, London, 1832; and of the tales and miscellaneous pieces in nine volumes, in 1848.