In praise of Maria Edgeworth, by Margaret Kelleher

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘Read the novels and you’ll find much more mischief than morals, along with wit, compelling characters and keen human understanding’

Maria Edgeworth: ‘Austen’s bestselling rival’ was the author of ‘Castle Rackrent’ amongst many other novels. Photograph:  Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Maria Edgeworth: ‘Austen’s bestselling rival’ was the author of ‘Castle Rackrent’ amongst many other novels. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

 

In 2010 two of Maria Edgeworth’s novels, Patronage and Helen, came back into print with the cover slogan “Jane Austen’s bestselling rival” and with great introductions by John Mullan. The sales pitch was clever and more or less accurate; in fact, for more than a decade in the early 19th century Edgeworth was the most commercially successful novelist in Britain. Admirers of her work included Austen, Byron, Stendhal, Turgenev, Trollope, Thackeray and, for her enigmatic Irish tale Castle Rackrent, one George III.

So why is this author so neglected and little read? One reason has been that her books are hard to find – a difficulty now overcome for her and myriads of other female writers by downloadable PDFs from free-access sites, such as Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg, and the odd enlightened reprinting. More damaging has been the bad press she has received from some critics, who criticise her moralising judgments. But read the novels and you’ll find much more mischief than morals, along with wit, compelling characters and keen human understanding. Other favourites Kate O’Brien and Somerville and Ross.

Margaret Kelleher is professor of Anglo-Irish literature and drama at UCD and chairwoman of the Irish Film Institute

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