Edgeworth, Maria (1768–1849)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Edgeworth, Maria (1768–1849)

Irish author who wrote influential treatises on education in the early 19th century, as well as pioneering works in the genres of regional fiction and children's literature. Born on January 1, 1768 [earlier sources cite 1767] in Oxon, England; died at her family estate, Edgeworthtown, in County Longsford, Ireland, on May 22, 1849; eldest daughter of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (an inventor and educator) and Anna Maria (Elers) Edgeworth ; educated at a girls' boarding school in Derby, England, until 15, then at home by her father; never married; no children.

Mother died when she was seven; returned to her family estate in Ireland at 15; published her first works on education (1795–98); wrote her best-known work, Castle Rackrent (1800); wrote several dozen volumes of children's stories, romances, plays, treatises on education, and novels about rural Irish life; supervised the Edgeworthtown estate after the death of her father (1817).

Selected writings:

Letters for Literary Ladies (1795); Practical Education (1798); Castle Rackrent (1800); Leonora (1806); Tales of Fashionable Life (1809, 1812: 6 vols.); Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1820); Helen (1834); Orlandino (1848).

In July of 1782, a coach made its way along the rutted roads of County Longsford in Ireland. Gazing out the window, young Maria Edgeworth saw a forlorn landscape, dotted with ramshackle peasant's cottages, filthy streets, and the decaying mansions of absentee landlords. At age 15, she and her family were coming home to Edgeworthtown, their family's estate. What Maria saw when she arrived looked nothing like the grand world of England where she had been living for the past seven years. Long abandoned, the Edgeworth mansion had been battered by time, sadly in need of repair. And the surrounding lands and cottages, where peasants did the work that supported the estate, were in even worse condition, suffering from years of poverty, neglect, and the greed of unscrupulous overseers.

Maria Edgeworth">

There is no picture of me. My face has nothing remarkable in it of any kind nor has it any expression such as you would expect; therefore I would rather you took your idea of me from my writings.

—Maria Edgeworth

Gazing at this tattered scene, none would have imagined that Edgeworthtown would soon become one of the most celebrated spots on Europe's literary landscape, that writers and reformers from around the world would one day find their way to this remote place in the Irish countryside. This remarkable transformation was made possible by one of the great collaborations in literary history, the partnership of Richard Edgeworth and his daughter, a woman who was called by her contemporaries "the Great Maria."

Maria's father was born on the family estate in Ireland, into the privileged class of English Protestant landlords who had taken over the country from the native Catholics two centuries earlier. While a student at Oxford, Richard fell in love with the daughter of a family friend, Anna Maria Elers. The two eloped and, when a son was born a year later, Richard ended his formal studies. But he spent the rest of his life learning, spurred on by a voracious curiosity, a remarkable talent for mechanical invention, and a self-confidence that many thought spilled over into egotism. One of his inventions brought him to the attention of Erasmus Darwin, the great poet, scientist, and grandfather of the evolutionist, Charles Darwin. Erasmus invited Richard to join the Lunar Society, a gathering of the most progressive scientists and philosophers in England at that time.

While Richard's intellectual life was stimulating, his marriage to Anna Maria was troubled. She apparently took little interest in his ideas, a gulf that was probably widened by his disastrous experiment with their son. Fascinated by Rousseau's romantic educational theories, Richard tested them on his own child. Rousseau was a great believer in the goodness of a child's natural instincts and encouraged parents not to damage these impulses with early education or discipline. Accordingly, Richard gave his son free rein through his early childhood, with terrible consequences. The boy became unbearably rude and unruly, forcing his father to abandon the experiment and reexamine his theory of education.

Born two years after the Edgeworths' first child, Maria experienced a different kind of neglect, the product not of deliberate experiment but of unhappy circumstances. She received little attention from her parents, who were preoccupied by their crumbling marriage and her mother's failing health. Anna Maria died when Maria was seven. Within four months, her father married Honora Sneyd , a beautiful and accomplished young Irishwoman who shared his interest in educational reform. Honora taught her new stepdaughter some important lessons. According to biographer Elisabeth Inglis-Jones , it was here that Maria learned "obedience and the scrupulous neatness and orderliness in whatever she did," traits that would mark her character for the rest of her life. But Maria was soon sent off to an English boarding school, separated from her family for most of the next seven years.

These were trying years for Maria. The school was designed to polish the social skills of upper-class girls, preparing them for marriage, but she felt too unattractive to ever win the heart of a suitor. She was short at 4'7". And, according to Inglis-Jones, "her pale narrow face looked altogether too small for her big, beaky nose and wide mouth." Making matters worse, she suffered inflammations of her eyes that contorted her entire face, and even threatened blindness.

Racked by insecurity, Maria's only refuge was her correspondence with her father. Perhaps hoping to compensate for his neglect, he wrote her long letters, instructing and encouraging her. Anxious to draw out her imagination, he asked her to write stories for him, thus awakening the talent that would one day make her famous. Edgeworth enjoyed these assignments and soon found that she could gain the attention of her classmates by improvising fanciful tales. From this point on, words became her way of winning the approval of the world in general, and her father in particular.

In 1782, Maria's life changed course dramatically. Honora Sneyd died of consumption, on her death bed encouraging Richard to take her sister, Elizabeth , as his new wife. Though some in English society considered the new match a scandal, Richard complied with Honora's last request just a few months after her funeral. At the same time, he resolved to make a fresh start with his lands and with his family, devoting his talents to his children's education and to the restoration of his estate along progressive lines. That summer, he reunited his family at their ancestral home in Edgeworthtown.

Although the house was badly dilapidated, Maria hardly noticed, entranced as she was by this sudden attention from her father. With his new wife absorbed much of the time in caring for a new set of Edgeworth babies, Richard looked to his eldest daughter, the plain but eloquent Maria, for a partner in his intellectual pursuits. He carefully supervised her education and, in turn, enlisted her in the education of her growing flock of younger brothers and sisters. This sense of purpose, and the intense bond of affection and intellectual partnership that grew between Maria and her father, dispelled her insecurity, replacing it with what Richard called "an inordinate desire to be beloved." For the rest of his life, Richard used Maria's need for his affection as a way to inspire her to write.

Undaunted by his failed attempt to create a natural man out of his first son, Richard continued his interest in educational reform. He and Maria spent long hours discussing the newest pedagogical theories, trying them out on the Edgeworth children and carefully noting the results. He even "gave" Maria one of her younger brothers to supervise as her own special project, granting her the chance to test the educational ideas they were developing. Using their family as a laboratory, the father and daughter team were pioneers in the field of experimental education, summarizing their findings in a work they called Practical Education (1798). While Richard had been working on these ideas for many years, much of the writing was done by Maria.

The Edgeworths argued that parents and educators should learn to see their children as individuals, each one with unique talents and needs. Children learn best, they found, when they are motivated by a love of learning and a desire to win the affection of their teachers, rather than by the fear of stern discipline. And their attentions are more easily engaged in practical, hands-on learning, than in the rote memorization of dead

languages. Finally, they insisted that the education of girls was particularly in need of reform, that they were as capable as boys of learning all branches of knowledge and should be given an equal chance to do so. All of these ideas sound like modern-day common sense, but they were controversial innovations at the time. Maria's writings on education were avidly read and discussed by parents and educators all across Britain and Europe, and soon made the Edgeworths the most widely respected authorities on education in the early 19th century.

Maria also published The Parent's Assistant, a volume of children's tales designed to illustrate the Edgeworths' educational theories. These stories, the first of her many volumes of "wee-wee tales," transformed the fledgling field of children's literature. Like other children's stories written at the time, Maria's stories were extremely moralistic, written primarily to teach children right and wrong. But Maria learned how to instruct without sacrificing the art of storytelling. True to the Edgeworth tradition of experimental education, she did this by testing each story out with the audience of her brothers and sisters, noting what they liked and what bored them, and revising accordingly. As a result, she was one of the first adults to write stories that truly appealed to the mental world of children, teaching them by enchanting them.

While Maria was becoming one of Europe's leading experts on childhood education, she was receiving another, quite different education of her own at Edgeworthtown. Her father made her a partner in the running of his estate. After years of neglecting his land, Richard was determined to apply humane and scientific principles to his job as a landlord. He introduced many agricultural innovations and improved his tenants' living conditions. While most Protestant landlords took advantage of their Catholic tenants, he was a broad-minded man who preached religious toleration and treated all his tenants equally. Maria accompanied her father each day as he made his rounds, kept all of the estate's books, and helped him deal with a steady stream of tenants, beggars, and middle men. Few women of her day had such an opportunity to learn about the practical affairs of business and to observe such a wide spectrum of the human condition.

A keen and compassionate observer, Maria created a new form of fiction to record her observations about life in rural Ireland. In 1800, she published Castle Rackrent, a humorous short novel about the ruinous mismanagement of an Irish estate by generations of proud but incompetent landlords. Told from the perspective of a "loyal" old servant, Rackrent captured the rich flavor of Irish dialect and culture, and the conflicts of class and religion endemic to Irish society. Though Maria and her father did not think much of the book at the time, critics consider it to be her masterpiece, its influence echoed in the works of Thackeray, Turgenev, and Cooper. Maria's sharp eye for manners, dialect and other traits of the Irish peasantry made her the founder of a new genre of "regional" literature. When Sir Walter Scott published the first of his popular tales about life in his native Scotland a few years later, he explained that his goal was "to emulate the admirable Irish portraits drawn by Miss Edgeworth."

In 1802, Maria traveled abroad in the company of her father and his wife. In London, Edinburgh, and even in Paris, where most of her works had appeared in translation, she was surprised to find herself at the center of attention. At social gatherings and literary salons, artists and aristocrats clamored for a sight of the great writer. From a distance, many were surprised at her physical appearance; her enormous talents seemed mismatched with her tiny frame, plain face, and, as one observer put it, her "look of utmost reserve and modesty." But those thoughts were soon dispelled when they drew close enough to hear her conversation and found her to be remarkably eloquent, witty, and charming. Her admirers' only regret was that she so often deferred to her father, who dominated the conversation and basked in his daughter's limelight.

The feeling that Edgeworth overshadowed his daughter, obstructing a clear view of her, has frustrated literary critics ever since. Some think that his constant presence in Maria's life damaged her art. Because she so often placed her fiction in the service of his educational theories, they charge that he encouraged her to be more moralistic than she might otherwise have been. Too eager to drive home one of his points, they say, she sometimes sacrificed the complexity and subtlety of her art.

Yet others feel that the collaboration was essential to Maria's work. Richard spent long hours discussing his daughter's new works with her and listening to her read them around the family hearth each night. He edited each line carefully and wrote introductions to many of her volumes. Perhaps most important of all, he urged her to keep writing, despite all the other distractions of her duties at Edgeworthtown. In some cases, when Maria's inspiration ran dry, he even suggested lengthy passages, which she dutifully inserted into her stories. Richard's defenders say that his own contributions fit seamlessly into Maria's work. After years of conversation and friendship, it seems, the two spoke with a single voice. Maria certainly felt this way. The only reason she wrote, she often said, was to please her father.

Though Richard loved his daughter's company as much as she loved his, he looked forward to the day when she would be married. During their stay in Paris, that opportunity came at last. A Swedish count named Edelcrantz proposed and asked her to return with him to live in the Swedish court. Maria was taken aback. She seems never to have allowed herself to dream of having a life partner, other than her father. Besides, though Edelcrantz was gallant and distinguished, she hardly knew this man. And, worst of all, to accept this offer she would have to leave Ireland, losing the inspiration and protection of her loving, bustling family at Edgeworthtown. In the end, Maria turned down what she sensed would be her only offer of marriage. For years, she brooded over the decision, but there is no evidence to suggest that she ultimately regretted it.

Home at Edgeworthtown in 1804, Maria poured out a remarkable stream of writing. For more than a decade, she published at least one, and as many as seven new volumes each year. Responding to popular demand, she continued to write educational tales for children and more serious treatises on education for adults. Drawing on her brief flurry of exposure to high society, she also produced a number of novels she called Tales of Fashionable Life. Invariably, these romances tried to make a moral point. Though Maria considered herself "as fond of novels as you can be," she worried that the genre too often acted "on the constitution of the mind as dreams do on that of the body." She strove to write novels that would instruct as they entertained. In The Absentee (1812), for example, she continued to explore the social and economic injustices of Ireland's negligent landlords. And in Harrington (1817), she attacked the problem of anti-Semitism in English society.

These happy and productive years came to a close in 1817, with the death of her father. For Maria, the loss was profound, and, as might be expected, the torrent of her literary output slowed to a trickle without his counsel and encouragement. For several years, she worked on the completion of his memoirs, a project he had begun and, on his deathbed, had asked her to complete. In the early 1820s, Edgeworth returned to England, again enjoying the accolades of her contemporaries, this time without her father to interrupt. She particularly enjoyed her growing friendship with Sir Walter Scott and paid an extended visit to his plantation in Scotland.

One of the most successful writers of her day, Edgeworth was able to support herself on her own income, despite a penchant for giving generously to worthy causes and lavishing gifts on her family members. But in 1826, she learned that her family estate was deep in debt, on the verge of being seized by creditors. Since her father's death, Edgeworthtown had been super-vised by Maria's oldest living brother, Lovell. He had carried on the family tradition of commitment to education, founding a well-known school for boys in the nearby town. But he had expensive tastes and no head for business. The school, the home, and lands that had been in the family for centuries, and the annuities that Maria's father had set aside to support his large family, were now about to be lost by Lovell's recklessness. In desperation, he confessed his predicament to Maria, and she agreed, at age 56, to take over supervision of Edgeworthtown. Through years of hard work and careful management, she succeeded in saving the estate and restoring the family's financial stability.

As time healed the wound caused by the loss of her father, Maria felt "the delightful warmth of creation" returning to her. Though her art had to take a back seat while she struggled to save the family estate, she still succeeded in producing several volumes of children's stories. And in 1834, she completed her last novel, Helen. For the next 15 years, she continued to write occasional short stories, watch over affairs at Edgeworthtown, advocate for the poor during the Irish famine, and entertain the many poets and reformers who made their way to her door. She died in 1849, at the age of 81.

Now, Maria Edgeworth is best known for her depictions of the Irish peasantry, particularly in her masterpiece, Castle Rackrent. But a growing number of literary critics and historians believe that she should also be remembered for some of the other accomplishments that made her one of the most celebrated authors of her time. A re-examination of the full range of her writings, they suggest, will remind us that Edgeworth also made important contributions to the development of the novel, helped create a new children's literature, and made a major contribution to the history of educational thought.

sources:

Harden, Elizabeth. Maria Edgeworth. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1984.

Inglis-Jones, Elisabeth. The Great Maria: A Portrait of Maria Edgeworth. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1959.

Newcomer, James. Maria Edgeworth. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1973.

Ernest Freeberg , historian, Bath, Maine