The British author Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) wrote novels that are characterized by clear, vivid style, good humor, and lively dialogue.
Maria Edgeworth was born on Jan. 1, 1767, the second of the 21 children (by four wives) of Richard Edgeworth, whose family supposedly came from Edgeware, England, to Edgeworthtown, Ireland, about 1573. Richard Edgeworth was a model landlord, living on his estates and improving them. Maria's mother died when she was 6, and within a few months her father married again. Maria was happy with all her stepmothers, the last being 20 years her junior, and spent her whole life surrounded by her family, never even having a room of her own. She worked in the living room at a desk her father made for her, writing on folio sheets she sewed together in chapters.
When she was 16, Maria became her father's secretary and accountant. Edgeworth was devoted to J.J. Rousseau's ideas and brought up his children on Thomas Day's Sand-ford and Merton, a didactic educational book. Richard encouraged Maria to write, and together they produced Practical Education, which advised parents to deliver short sermons, to instruct gradually, and to teach mainly by conversation. Maria's own first book was The Parents' Assistant (1796), a delightful collection of short stories, of which the most famous is "Two Strings to His Bow." The same year appeared her Letters from Literary Ladies.
In 1800 Miss Edgeworth published Castle Rackrent, of which Irish author Padraic Colum wrote, "One can read it in an hour. Then one knows why the whole force of England could not break the Irish people." She was the first to depict Irish peasants as human beings. Miss Edgeworth's The Absentee (1812) was written as a play, but Richard Sheridan, who wanted to produce it, found the censor would not allow public discussion of the spending of Irish rents in England. The Russian Ivan Turgenev declared he got a revelation from Maria Edgeworth's stories, and the word "absenteeism" occurs on the first page of his Smoke. Sir Walter Scott said that he hoped "in some distant degree to emulate the admirable Irish portraits of Miss Edgeworth" and that she had shown him his path; in fact, Waverley has been called a Scots Castle Rackrent. Jeanie Deans, in Scott's Heart of Midlothian, may have been modeled on Maria Edgeworth.
Later novels by Miss Edgeworth were Belinda (1801), Ormond (1817), Frank (1822), and Harry and Lucy (1825). Sir Walter Scott stated that "in natural appearance she is quite the fairy Whipity of our nursery tale … who came flying in through the window to work all sort of marvels. Maria writes while she reads, speaks, eats, drinks and no doubt while she sleeps." Calm, cheerful, and unselfish, she was small and slight, with bright, very blue eyes and tiny hands and feet.
In 1802 Miss Edgeworth went with her father, stepmother, and a small sister to Paris, where she met Madame de Genlis, one of whose books she had translated, and J.A. de Ségur, who had translated her Belinda. Her father, to whom she submitted and who corrected all her writing, was thought by all to be a pompous bore. Miss Edgeworth was so modest that Lord Byron wrote, "No one would have suspected she could write her name"; he added, "Her father thought nothing except his own name worth writing." After her father's death Miss Edgeworth took two of her sisters abroad, spending more than a year in France and Switzerland. She was proposed to by the Chevalier Edencrantz, confidential secretary to the king of Sweden, but she would not leave her family, or he his monarch.
In 1823 Miss Edgeworth spent 2 weeks with Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, and in 1825 Scott visited her at Edgeworthtown, which had become a shrine at which all visitors to Ireland paid homage. In 1844 she was made a member of the Royal Irish Academy. At 70 she learned Spanish. During the potato famine of 1847, she worked among the starving. She died on May 22, 1849. Asked during her lifetime to furnish biographical details, she replied that "as a woman" her life had been "wholly domestic and could be of no interest to the public." Her stepmother wrote after Miss Edgeworth's death that "her whole life of eighty-three years, has been an aspiration after good."
Two works on Maria Edgeworth are Isabel C. Clarke, Maria Edgeworth, Her Family and Friends (1950), and Elizabeth Inglis-Jones, The Great Maria (1959). An older work is Emily Lawless, Maria Edgeworth (1904).
Clarke, Isabel Constance, Maria Edgeworth, her family and friends, Philadelphia: R. West, 1976.
Inglis-Jones, Elisabeth, The great Maria: portrait of Maria Edgeworth by Elisabeth Inglis-Jones, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978 1959. □