Celtic Junction Arts Review

Maria Edgeworth: Forgotten Irish Literary Celebrity

Mary McCormick

Maria Edgeworth
Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth led an unlikely and remarkable life.  The second child of an educated, quirky, inventor father, and a mother who died when she was five, she became teacher and governess to her 21 siblings by four mothers. 

Her masterpiece, Castle Rackrent (1800), considered one of the most famous unread novels in English, gathered an array of firsts: the first Irish novel, the first socio-historical novel, the first Big House novel, the first saga novel.  A clever, ground-breaking satire of the Anglo-Irish landlord class to which her own family belonged, the novel had a pervasive influence on such writers as Sir Walter Scott (who called her “the great Maria”), Jane Austen, her younger English contemporary, and Ivan Turgenev (immensely influential Russian writer and friend to Tolstoy).

Her four major Irish novels Castle Rackrent (1800), Ennui (1809), The Absentee (1812), Ormond (1817) turn on plots that test the legitimacy of Ascendancy land ownership. These are political novels, their pages crowded with social knowledge and historical observations, inspired by English and French literary culture, Scottish Enlightenment thought and Irish life.

Maria was born on January 1, 1768, near Oxford, England at the house of her maternal grandfather.  When she turned eight, she was sent to Mrs. Lattafiere’s Superior Seminar for Young Ladies at Derby.  In 1780, she was sent to the Mrs. Davis School in London.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth

Her father encouraged her omnivorous reading and lively storytelling bent; Maria kept her boarding school roommates awake at night, spinning stories of Romance and Horror.

Maria was very short—less than five feet tall.  At school, she had to submit to exercises, including being swung by the neck to draw out her muscles.

The family moved back to County Longford from England in 1782, the bright year that Ireland achieved legislative independence.  Her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth determined to reside on his Irish lands and “improve” his family, estate, and nation.  The Edgeworth family had first arrived in Ireland in 1583, well before Cromwell and the Plantations.  But Irish independence proved a mirage, and Edgeworth’s efforts at improvement were soon out of step with the times.

Edgeworthstown House

Maria was 15 years old when she returned with her family to the Big House, called Edgeworthstown, in County Longford.  There, she rode her pony Dapple beside her father on his rounds of the estate, and helped keep the accounts.  Her father was a self-styled philosopher and admirer of Rousseau, a moralist and utilitarian, member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal group of scientists and inventors.  Richard busied himself with inventing a plethora of useful gadgets–telegraphic devices, patent “wheel carriages” and a new spire for the local church.  He was also the local magistrate and head of the local yeomanry.

Maria was 27 years old before beginning her first Irish tale.  She had written a few children’s tales before that; had been an assistant to her father on Practical Education; then wrote children’s stories for her younger siblings to amuse herself, published as The Parent’s Assistant.

Castle Rackrent 1800 Title Page

In the 1790’s, as stepmothers and several siblings died of consumption (see a portrait of The Edgeworth Family at the National Portrait Gallery), Maria began collecting the story fragments that became Castle Rackrent.  In 1798, the family took refuge from anti-Ascendancy rebels and the invading French at the Inn in Longford.  Local landowners grew suspicious when Edgeworthstown was not burned to the ground.  Richard Edgeworth’s two candles in the window of the Inn (he was reading the newspaper) were assumed to be signals to the French.  The locals stormed the Inn, but Richard prevailed upon an English officer friend and his men to beat them back.

In 1800, Castle Rackrent was published anonymously.  With her father, an intrusive and pedantic editor of her books, busy organizing militias, it was written entirely without his advice or supervision.  Castle Rackrent was such a success in the first year, that the second edition had the author’s name on it.

In 1801, Belinda, her first society novel, was published.  Set in London drawing rooms, it centers on the intrigues of the marriage market.  Her father’s editorial hand fell most heavily and destructively on Belinda.

Maria’s unconventional upbringing in Edgeworthstown meant that she could be oblivious to what, in London, was thought proper for women to see, know and write about.  In Belinda, she had an English country girl marry a West Indian slave.  She changed the plot in subsequent editions, remarking to her friend and editor, “My father says that gentlemen have horrors upon this subject”.

Library at Edgeworthstown House 1888 by Richard Lovett

In 1802, Maria visited Paris with her parents and sister, where she met all the notables.  In her mid-thirties, she was introduced there to a Swedish gentleman named Mr. Edelcrantz, whose offer of marriage she turned down.  The family fled Paris in the nick of time before war resumed.  In 1803, she made a trip to Edinburgh, but did not meet Sir Walter Scott.  In 1804, Maria fell seriously ill.  Her sister read her Scott’s poetry for the first time, and Maria said it healed her.  Her father disapproved of poetry, and banned it from their house, along with Romance.

All of Maria’s books were written at her corner of the table in the huge family library, the common living room of the house, amid family chatter and lessons of the children, who were both a source and an audience for her.  But Maria did not pity herself.

Maria Edgeworth by John Downman, 1807

In 1809, Maria published Tales of Fashionable Life, which satirized the fashionable nouveau riches.  It contained her novel Ennui, which was savaged by some critics for containing no references to religion.  In 1812, Tales of Fashionable Life – Vol. 2 was published.  It contains the novel The Absentee.  Maria started that novel as a play for the children.  Her father sent it off to the playwright Richard Sheridan, but the political situation, and not enough Irish actors in London, prevented its staging.

By 1813, Maria Edgeworth was an established literary celebrity. She dined with the greats, observed the world of London literary life and drew on these experiences for her fiction.  There is a point in her career, around 1814, when her reputation for admirable commitment to social reality became shadowed by criticisms of a socially improper skill at copying from life.  These are the rumors that attend success.  Edgeworth was then at the pinnacle of her career: she was paid £2,100 for Patronage in 1814, the year in which Walter Scott earned £700 for Waverley and Austen paid to publish Mansfield Park herself.  The novel did not sell well, however.  Among the many aspects of Patronage singled out for criticism was Edgeworth’s use of the word “spittle” – considered improper for a woman.

On June 13, 1817, her father died at the age of 71.  Maria was crushed, and carried traces of that sorrow for the rest of her life.  She began finishing her father’s memoirs.

Abbotsford House CC BY-SA 2.0 de, Link
Sir Walter Scott by Sir Thomas Lawrence

In April 1820, at the age of 52, Maria made a second visit to Paris, and was warmly received by friends and the French Royal extended family – she spoke excellent French.  In May 1823, she made a second trip to Edinburgh with two younger sisters, and was invited to Sir Walter Scott’s house at Abbotsford.  After years of correspondence, Maria and Scott were instant friends.  He called her “the lioness” and “full of fun and spirit”.  Two years later, Sir Walter Scott visited Edgeworthstown and toured the Irish countryside.

In Maria’s last years, she received many visitors from England, America, and the Continent.  Her house became a place of pilgrimage.  Everyone had to stop at Edgeworthstown.

From 1846 to 1849, the population of Edgeworthstown’s village was halved by the Famine, and Maria worked hard to support her Irish tenants, organizing donations from as far away as America.  During that period, her vigor declined, but she was still climbing ladders like a kid.  She had “indomitable youthfulness,” and a “childlike enjoyment of the very smallest adventures”.  On May 23, 1849, Maria Edgeworth died of a heart attack at the age of eighty-one.