She didn’t have a lot of time for Jane Austen, she earned more money from her books than did the Queen of Irony during her lifetime. She was a frequent correspondent of Sir Walter Scott, another celebrated contemporary. She was also hugely important in the development of the novel and of children’s writing. Not bad for a woman who spent much of her life in rural Longford.
Maria Edgeworth, although seen as an Irish novelist, was actually born in England, the second of 22 children of her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who was married four times. She moved to Ireland with her father at the age of five, after the death of her mother. She spent much of her teenage years looking after her younger siblings and was, essentially, educated by her father whom she also assisted in managing the family estate at Edgeworthstown. Her father was a huge influence, some would say far too great an influence, on her writing. She claimed to have written only to please him.
Edgeworth adopted what would today be identified as liberal causes in her novels. She championed the underprivileged of her adopted country and sought to counteract English literary stereotypes of Ireland in her work. In addition she parodied elements of her own landed class, especially in her best known work, the often hilarious Castle Rackrent – written without her father’s knowledge – where the worst excesses of landlordism are satirized. In much of Edgeworth’s the peasantry are dignified, the aristocracy rapacious. In her work Letters for Literary Ladies she pleaded the case for the proper education of women. Later, in the novel Helen, – written after her father’s death and not set in Ireland -she introduced a female politician to English literature
Castle Rackrent, her first novel, published in 1800 was an instant success. Narrated by an employee of the Rackrents, Thady Quirk, it predicts the rise of the Catholic middle class. The novel, actually not much more than a novella, brought her to the attention of Sir Walter Scott. The two writers became friends and visited each other in Ireland and Scotland.
Such was the nature of her writing that in 1798, after the defeat of the French invasion in the west of Ireland the windows of Edgeworth House were stoned because the family was suspected of having radical sympathies. In fact Edgeworth was a supporter of the Union, but also an advocate of Catholic Emancipation.
While Jane Austen was a great fan of Edgeworth’s the admiration was not entirely mutual. Austen sent Edgeworth a presentation copy of Emma in 1816. Edgeworth was not impressed with a novel that now ranks behind only Pride and Prejudice as Austen’s greatest achievement. The gift went unacknowledged and Edgeworth wrote to a friend about Emma that ‘It has no story’.
She wrote little from the 1820s onwards, concentrating on the management of the family estate. Then, in 1845, when she was in her late 70s the disaster of the Great Famine struck. Unlike many other landlords, who adopted a callous attitude to their starving tenants, Edgeworth was one of those who worked selflessly for her tenants. With her own money she purchased food from the USA which was distributed amongst her tenantry and others. The Edgeworth’s estate barely avoided bankruptcy and being purchased by carpetbaggers under the terms of the Encumbered Estates Act. Her compassion has, however, been somewhat exaggerated as her charity only extended as far as tenants who had paid their rent.
Maria Edgeworth, educationalist, farm manager, essayist and novelist, died 166 years ago, on this day.