1902 Encyclopedia > Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth
Anglo-Irish writer

MARIA EDGEWORTH, (1767-1849), the creator of the novel of national manners and moral purpose, was the daughter, by his first wife, of Richard Lovell Edgeworth noticed below. She was born at Hare Hatch, Berkshire, in 1767, and did not see Ireland till she was twelve years old. She was educated by her father, who devoted himself with great enthusiasm to the intellectual ad-vancement of his children. In most of her literary undertakings Miss Edgeworth had the advantage of her father's criticism, who also wrote introductions to her novels. " It is my business," he used to say, " to cut and correct ; yours to write on." Many tales and essays were written by Maria for private pleasure before publication was thought of. Practical Education (1798) was a joint work by father and daughter. In 1800 appeared Castle Raclèrent, which at once made for her a reputation as a national novelist. This was followed soon after by Belinda, and by the Essay on Irish Bulls, published in partnership with her father, and intended to famfliarize the English public with Irish humour and pathos. The work is so thoroughly the joint-product of two minds, that Miss Edge-worth, in writing her father's life, cannot tell distinctly which parts are his, but says that passages in which classical allusions and quotations occur must be her father's, as she was " entirely ignorant of the learned languages " (Memoirs, second edition, ii. 315). In 1804 appeared Popular Tales; in 1806 Leonora; in 1809 the first instal-ment of Fashionable Tales, which were finished in 1812; in 1814 Patronage; and in 1817 Harrington, Ormond, and Comic Dramas, which failed on the stage. The death of her father, in that year, recalled her from novel writing to fulfil the sacred duty of completing his Memoirs, which were given to the world in 1820, and of which a second edition was called for in 1821. In 1822 appeared Rosa-mond, a Sequel to Early Lessons, a work published earlier with contributions from Mr Edgeworth's pen. In August 1823 Miss Edgeworth visited Sir Walter Scott at Abbots-ford, where she remained a fortnight; and Scott repaid this visit at Edgeworthtown exactly two years afterwards. In 1825 Miss Edgeworth further continued her tales for the young by the publication of Harry and Lucy. In 1834 appeared Helen, a Tale, her last and one of her best novels; and she afterwards wrote Orlandino, a book for children. Her Letters for Literary Ladies were suggested by a correspondence between Thomas Day and her father as to the propriety of " female authorship," in which the former stoutly maintained the negative.
Miss Edgeworth died on the 21st of May 1849, after having lived to see her works take rank as English classics. Her influence was deep and lasting. Sir Walter Scott confesses that he was anxious to do for Scotland what Miss Edgeworth had done for Ireland ; and it is said that O'Connell regretted deeply that one so powerful did not serve Ireland as an agitator. Her society was courted by the most distinguished of her contemporaries; and countless tourists, who visited her, returned home charmed by her lively conversation and by the domestic virtues which brightened the home of which she was the centre. With Scott she was on terms of the closest inti-macy ; Byron admired her works, in spite of his sarcastic reference to " Miss Edgeworth's novels stepping from their covers ;" and Lord Macaulay was one of her most enthusiastic worshippers. " Among all the incidents," says Mr Trevelyan, " connected with the publication of his History, nothing pleased Macaulay so much as the gratification that he contrived to give to Maria Edgeworth, as a small return for the enjoyment which, during more than forty years, he had derived from her charming writ-ings." Macaulay mentions Miss Edgeworth's name in a note, in which he describes her delineation of King Corny, in Ormond, as " that admirable portrait." Miss Edgeworth, in a letter to Dr Holland, speaks of the " self-satisfaction, vanity, pride, surprise, I had in finding my own name in a note."

Castle Rackrent, the first and one of the most character-istic of her novels, is lit up throughout with sunny Irish humour, Sir Condy complaining that he " was very ill used by the Government about a place that was promised him and never given, after his supporting them against his conscience very honourably" (1857 edition, p. 39). Leonora has a painful plot. It treats of the seduction of an attached husband by a professed friend of his wife. Leonora's forbearance, however, and her deep-seated love for her husband prove, in the end, too much for the hollow professions and vaunted " sensibility " of Olivia. The Tales of Fashionable Life include Ennui, The Hun, Manoeuvring, Almeria, Vivian, The Absentee, Madame de Fleury, and $milie de Coulanges. Ennui is a powerful story, and relates how the earl of Glenthorn was cured of the disease which gives its name to the book. There are several fine character studies, including the Earl; M'Leod, the cool, but faithful, Scotch agent; witty Lady Geraldine; Christy, the blacksmith; and Ellinor, the Irish foster nurse, who said, on one occasion, that " if it plased God, she would like to die on a Christmas day, of all days, becaase the gates of Heaven, they say, will be open all that day, and who knows but a body might slip in unknownst 1 " (1857 edition, p. 231). The Dun portrays, with a realism almost too painful, the dreadful privations undergone by the poor who are unable to get in the money justly their due. Manoeuvring depicts the efforts of Mrs Beaumont, a clever, scheming, deceitful woman, to marry her son and daughter contrary to their inclinations. For a while all seems to go well with Mrs Beaumont, until she is herself entangled in her net of white lies, and finally thoroughly outwitted. Her character, and that of Mr Palmer, a wealthy merchant from Jamaica, are worthy of the author's high reputation. Almeria traces the rise of the worldly spirit in the breast of a young girl, and the debasing con-sequences of a passionate pursuit of fashion for its own sake, unredeemed by any ennobling feature. Vivian is an admirably told story, and illustrates the terrible evils which sometimes arise from indecision of character. Vivian, the undecided, brilliant, young noble; Russell, the faithful tutor; Wharton, the unscrupulous politician and voluptuary; self-willed Lord Glistonbury ; prim Lady Glistonbury; and vivacious Lady Julia seem to start from the canvas. The Absentee, considered by many as Miss Edgeworth's master-piece, is written to expose the misery entailed on the tenantry by the Irish gentry, who deserted their native country for London, and abandoned their affairs to be managed by unscrupulous agents. The characters are among the most life-like in the annals of fiction. Lady Clonbrony makes herself exquisitely ridiculous in her vain endeavours to act the fine English lady; Lord Colambre, the hero of the novel, travels, under an assumed name, among his father's tenants in Ireland, finds out how rudely they have been oppressed, and champions their cause so skilfully as to win over even Lady Clonbrony ; Lady. Dashfort and her daughter are wonderfully real representations of heartless women of fashion ; the sufferings of the Irish peasantry are drawn with a loving and masterly pencil; and the general sadness of the work is relieved by such humorous sketches as Colonel Heathcock, Sir Terence O'Fay, and Larry Brady, whose inimitable letter closes the book. Macaulay considered the scene in which Lord Colambre discovers himself to his father's tenantry the best passage of the kind since the beginning of the 22d book of the Odyssey. This is very high praise, especially when we remember that Macaulay seems to have read almost every novel—so much was he fascinated by narrative composition. Madame de Fleury is the story of a French lady who set up a school in Paris for neglected girls. The school came to grief at the great Revolution; and its benevolent founder had to fly to England, where she was supported mainly by donations from the girls, who were instigated by Victoire, the heroine of the book. Ultimately her return to France was secured by Basile, Victoire's lover, who had obtained influence with his general through his valuable engineering knowledge. Fmilie de Coulanges describes the mortifica-tions two French refugees had to undergo in living with Mrs Somers, an excessively ill-tempered English lady, who was generous enough with her money, but neglectful of kindness of a more delicate order. Mrs Somers's incessant outbursts of temper and reconciliations with Emilie, to be followed inevitably by fresh quarrels, are somewhat weari-some reading. The Modern Griselda, a story treating of the attempts of a wife to bring her husband to abject submission, manifests fine satiric power, and great liveliness—thedialogue being particularly animated. Patronage, which is in the same vein as the Tales of Fashionable Life, rather disappointed the critics, who concluded that Mr Edgeworth had written considerable parts of it. This, however, is expressly denied by Miss Edgeworth (Memoirsfix. 323). Ormond is an Irish tale, and ranks among the best of Miss Edgeworth's works. It shows how a youth, whose education had been neglected, and whose temper was naturally impetuous, managed to reach true nobility of character. King Corny, Ormond, Sir Ulick CShane. Moriarty Carroll, Dora, and Mademoiselle O'Faley are masterly creations. There is a true Irish ring about the book, although it is composed in the purest English. Helen is a novel of thrilling interest, and displays greater passion and a finer insight into the more subtle moods of the human mind than any of Miss Edgeworth's previous works. The moral is that falsehood and deceit almost invariably bring misery in their train. Although on a more elaborate scale than her other books, Helen surpasses them all in grace, charm, and lightness of touch. Such powerfully conceived characters as Lady Davenant, Helen, Cecilia, Beauclerc, Churchill, and the Clarendons, leave an indelible impression on the memory.

Miss Edgeworth's novels are distinguished by good sense, humour, and an easy flowing style. As the construction of a plot is not ber strong point, she is generally more successful in tales than in lengthy novels. The vivacity of her dialogues is extraordinary ; and in them her characters reveal themselves in the most natural way possible. Her books are character-studies, rather than in-tensely interesting narratives. Sobriety of judgment is seen throughout ; and passion, romance, and poetry rarely, if ever, shed their lustre on her pages. Three of her aims were to paint national manners, to enforce morality, and to teach fashionable society by satirizing the lives of the idle and worldly. She ex-pressly calls some of her stories "Moral Tales"; but they all fall under this category. The two poles of thought in regard to the moral tendency of Miss Edgeworth's works are well represented by Robert Hall, the eminent Baptist preacher, and Monsieur Taine

Miss Edgeworth "does not," says Hall, "attack religion or inveigh against it, hut makes it appear unnecessary by exhibiting perfect virtue without it. No books ever produced so bad an effect on my own mind as hers. I did not expect any irreligion there : I was off my guard ; their moral character beguiled me : I read volume after volume with eagerness ; and the evil effects of them I experienced for weeks" (Hall's Works, vol. i. Bonn's edition, 1846, appendix, note A). Monsieur Taine, again, says that "this regular presence of a moral intention spoils the novel as well as the novelist. It must be confessed a volume of Thackeray has the cruel misfortune of recalling the novels of Miss Edgeworth" (English Literature, Criticism on Thackeray). To Eobert Hall's criticism it is to be objected that a novel is scarcely the place to explain and inculcate the systematic theology of the evangelical school; while we must concede to Taine and the French critics that to burden a novel with a moral, or other special purpose, is artistically a blemish, especially when it is professedly made an aim as in Miss Edgeworth's case. She remarks very beautifully of Sir Walter Scott, that " his morality is not in purple patches, ostentatiously obtrusive, but woven in through the very texture of the stuff" (Helen, 1838 edition, 123)—a statement which scarcely holds true of herself. Still, strong national tendencies must be allowed to assert themselves in fiction, and there can be no doubt that the didactic or moralizing tendency is deeply seated in the English-speaking peoples.

No writer teaches a more admirable practical philosophy than Miss Edgeworth; and she reaches her object by making her characters natural, and capable, as well as worthy, of imitation. She plainly belongs to the realistic school of fiction ; and it is in-teresting to remember that her Tales are expressly founded on a carefully thought out philosophy of education. She thus gives no countenance to the popular fallacy that teaching is a mere trick or knack, rather than a science resting on well-ascertained mental phenomena. Few novelists display less extravagance than Miss Edgeworth. We feel that her minor characters especially are genuine flesh and blood. Sometimes the hero or heroine of the story is liable to the charge of being the incarnation of a single quality, rather than a man or woman. However, in the case of one who writes with a didactic purpose, this is almost inevitable. Miss Edgeworth has drawn attention to the less brilliant faculties of humanity, and always prefers to be useful, where others would have endeavoured to be striking. In her pages the heroic virtues give place to prudence, industry, kindness, and sweetness of temper. There are few instances of overwhelming emotions or tumultuous passions in her works ; and it is remarkable how little the love of nature appears. She never uses material which does not yield some direct moral lesson. All this is the natural consequence of Miss Edgeworth's method and utilitarian aim. But, working under such self-imposed conditions, she has done wonders. Her represen-tations of the humour, pathos, and generous character of the Irish peasantry are an imperishable monument of her genius. Nor is it fair to depreciate the English novels in comparison, Helen being quite equal to any of her distinctively national tales. The freshness of her stories, her insight into character, lively dialogues, originality of invention, and delightfully clear style render it quite possible to read her works in succession without any sense of weariness. As a painter of national life and manners, and an illustrator of the homelier graces of human character, Miss Edgeworth is surpassed by Sir Walter Scott alone ; while as a direct moral teacher she has no peer among novelists. Among the many sweet memories her unsullied pages have bequeathed to the world, not the least precious is her own noble character, which ever responded to all that is best and most enduring in human nature.

In 1832 a collected edition of Miss Edgeworth's novels was published in London in 18 volumes:—I. Castle Rackrent; Essay on Irish Bulls; Essay on Self-Justifi-cation. II. Forester; the Prussian Vase; the Good Aunt. III. Angelina; the Good French Governess; Mademoiselle Panache; the Knapsack. IV. Lame Jervas; the Will; the Limerick Gloves ; Out of Debt, Out of Danger; the Lottery; Rosanna. V. Murad the Unlucky; the Manufacturers; the Contrast; the Grateful Negro; To-morrow. VI. Ennui; the Dun. VII. Manoeuvring; Almeria. VIII. Vivian. IX. The Absentee. X. Absentee {concluded); Madame de Fleury; Emilie de Coulanges; the Modern Griselda. XI. andXII. Belinda. XIII. Leonora; Letters: XIV. andXV. Patronage. XVI. Comic Dramas. XVII. Harrington; Thoughts on Bores. XVIII. Ormond. To this list are to he added Essays on Practical Education, written in conjunction with Mr Edgeworth (1798), Helen (1834), ind numerous stories and books for children. In 1848 a new collected edition of Miss Edgeworth's works appeared in London in nine volumes; and, after her death, an edition was published in ten volumes, with steel engravings. (T. GL)

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