The Royal Irish Academy recently marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Maria Edgeworth with a series of events in Dublin that included readings by Marina Carr, Claire Kilroy, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. But who was Edgeworth and what is her legacy for contemporary women writers?
Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) is a highly distinctive figure – an early 19th-century writer, details of whose life and character were long remembered in her homeplace, where energetic efforts to mark her memory are under way. In 1913, Biddy Macken, a former servant of the Edgeworth family, recollected “helping in the parlour of the Big House” during the Famine, “and glad I was able to be there during those awful times”. “Maria Edgeworth, the great writer, was then old and feeble”, Macken recalled, “but her heart went out to the poor and afflicted in the locality, all of whom were tenants on the Edgeworth estate”. Edgeworth died in 1849, aged 81, having witnessed the halving of the population of Edgeworthstown over the previous three years.
Her family had moved to Longford from England in 1782, the bright year that Ireland achieved legislative independence, when her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth determined to reside on his Irish lands and “improve” his family, estate and nation. But Irish independence proved a mirage and Edgeworth’s efforts at improvement were soon out of step with the times. In the end, it was his eldest daughter’s novels that were to have lasting impact. From the mid-1790s, when she was in her late 20s, Maria Edgeworth began a prolific and successful career as a writer. At a time when many authors depended on aristocratic supporters, she, with her father, believed that “the London booksellers are the best patrons”.
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.
Although phenomenally successful in her own time, Edgeworth is no longer widely read outside universities. Packed with political and philosophical content, her novels can feel exacting to readers familiar with the easy cadences of her contemporary, Jane Austen. Sometimes, too, Edgeworth’s politics seem rather pointed, so that along with a reputation as a writer of considerable complexity, she has also earned a name for fiction containing simple, straightforward morals.
Throughout her long life, she wrote across a variety of forms: essays and novels for adults as well as innovative educational books for what we would now call young adult audiences. If Edgeworth was a standout success in the literary marketplace, the obstacles that she overcame were considerable: she had to negotiate a London-dominated industry from her home in Longford, that is, from a provincial corner of post-Union Ireland. Her 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 (1801), she had an English country girl marry a West Indian slave. She changed the plot in subsequent editions, remarking to her friend and editor, the poet Anna Letitia Barbauld that "My father says that gentlemen have horrors upon this subject".
In 1804, she and her father proposed to Barbauld the establishment of a journal devoted to the work of "literary ladies". Yet Edgeworth turned down invitations to review books and held back from giving public opinions of the writing of others. Taken up by the Edinburgh Review, Edgeworth earned a reputation as the author of serious books about Ireland. She soon got a taste of censure when, in 1809, an anonymous review in the Quarterly dismissed her first series of Tales of Fashionable Life as "unambitious", "flat" and "inferior". The reviewer found her novels to be at once "rigid" and improper, with a lack of references to religion earning particular censure.
Edgeworth's friend Barbauld defended her. "Write on, shine out, and defy them", she wrote from London. But when Barbauld was herself attacked following her controversial anti-war poem England in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, Edgeworth preferred "silent contempt" to public defence.
By 1813, 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. "In London, one book drives out another," Lady Davenant remarks in Helen (1834), Edgeworth's last novel, as she reflects on the constant circulation of titles and fresh literary news. In suggesting that books do more damage in the country than in the city, Edgeworth reverses the expected moral, making quiet rural simplicity seem more dangerous than the buzz of metropolitan cultural life.
The celebrity, who was observed, was herself perceived to watch too closely. 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. "If she has put in her novels people who fed her and her odious father she is not trustworthy", the critic Sydney Smith wrote in 1814. Edgeworth herself recorded a rumour picked up from a Mr Ward "that he had heard in London that I had a sort of Memoria Technica, by which I could remember everything that was said in conversation, and by certain motions of my fingers could, while people were talking to me, note down all the ridiculous points!".
These are the rumours 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. The character of Lord Oldborough discovers that he has inadvertently offended an important duke by sending him a private note sealed with a wafer. Disgusted at the sight of the seal, the duke gives it to his secretary, saying "Open that, if you please, Sir – I wonder how any man can have the impertinence to send me his spittle!".
Bridled by the criticism, Edgeworth wrote to the playwright Elizabeth Inchbald, “But pray observe the fair authoress does not say the word in her own person. Why impute to me the characteristic improprieties of my characters”. These are words that resonate with women writers today.
A contradiction was now becoming apparent: as the novel rose in prestige, due in no small part to the works of Edgeworth, the reputation of women novelists declined. The world that Jane Austen knew in the 1790s and early 1800s – a field dominated by strong women exemplars including Edgeworth and Frances Burney – gave way to the more familiar experiences of the Bronte sisters and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) in the middle decades of the century, when male pseudonyms were adopted for publication.
Stung by poor reviews of her father’s Memoirs in 1820, Edgeworth did not publish another novel until Helen in 1834. It responded to the changed cultural environment with vigour. In one scene, the heroine and the man who is to become her husband, Granville Beauclerc, discuss “albums and autographs”. Beauclerc mocks Helen’s interest in such souvenirs and asks stern questions about how owning the autographs of the great could possibly affect our appreciation of literature. Part of his “raillery” is to speculate that Helen will herself turn collector and one day be the chatelaine of “a valuable museum in which would be preserved the old pens of great men”.
Whether Edgeworth is poking fun at the masculinisation of the novel is debatable. Certainly, though, her life and work give powerful expression to the place of women in a divided Irish society. One consequence of those divisions was a falling off in her reputation among nationalist-minded critics. In 1838, the poet Ellen O'Connell Fitz-simon, eldest daughter of Daniel O'Connell, described Castle Rackrent as a novel of "revolting unpleasantness", "overcharged in its details ... crudely and coarsely drawn". As political judgments shaded into Victorian expectations of propriety in women, Edgeworth's reputation declined. Yet if we turn our attention to her vivid, wry and knowing treatment of the precarious position of women in a thriving literary culture, her legacy is secure. It only remains to read her.
Claire Connolly is professor of modern English at University College Cork and a member of the Royal Irish Academy.