On a May day in 1849, Maria Edgeworth was laid to rest in a vault of Edgeworthstown Church. The great famine which decimated the people she loved marred her last years. Even though in her late seventies, no-one had worked more strenuously or with such hospitality and kindness as she had worked for the relief of the stricken peasants at the height of the famine. She had shown the same involvement and generosity throughout her entire life and had devoted her best talents to the betterment of the people of her adoption. Maria Edgeworth's books on the Irish people brought her world fame and the acclaim of such writers as Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Byron and the Russian writer Turgenev.
The second child of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Maria was born on New Year's Day 1767, at Blackbourton, Oxfordshire. She was sent to school at Derby until when she was 14. The death of her mother at this time brought Edgeworth and his eldest daughter closer together. He wanted her to contribute something to the world (he himself was an inventor, road builder, politician, educationalist and writer) . He was determined that Maria would "have a tincture of every species of literature, and form a taste by choice and not by chance." Thus after Derby she went to school in London.
In 1782 she came to
Edgeworthstown with her father and acted as his chief assistant and
secretary in the management of his estates here. She
gained the intimate knowledge of Irish peasant life that was to form
the backbone of her novels. She helped to educate her brothers and
sisters, and the stories she invented for them were later published
and sold well
Maria's first publication was "Letters for Literary Ladies" (1795), a plea for the reform of woman's education. In it she expressed view very closely akin to those of her father. Her critics have claimed that much of her work was due to her father's influence, and it is argued that, but for him, some of her works would be free from the frequent moralising which makes them somewhat less palatable to the uncommitted reader.
Her first novel 'Castle Rackrent' published in 1800, was an immediate success. It was, for once, written without any help from her father.
Maria and Scott were mutual
admirers and in August, 1825, he visited Edgeworthstown and they
toured the Goldsmith country, which was owned mainly by the
Edgeworths. They also visited Pallas, where Oliver
Goldsmith was born, (Maria herself was born a short distance from
where Goldsmith spent his last days in Oxfordshire). Maria returned
Scott's visit and stayed at
Maria never married but she was courted by the private Secretary of the King of Sweden, M. Edelcrantz. It is clear from their letters that marriage was discussed and would have taken place but Edelcrantz would not leave his King and career to live in Ireland and Maria would not leave Ireland.
In 1798, General Humbert landed in Kilalla, Co. Mayo, took Castlebar and marched for the Midlands. Maria and her father went to Longford town with a corps of infantry to help to defend it against the French. After the news of the French defeat at
Ballinamuck, the jubilant mob
turned on Edgeworth for suspected rebel sympathies and stoned him.
After visiting the battlefield, Maria and her father returned to
Edgeworthstown to find windows in the house smashed but no other
After 1817 she wrote little; she completed her father's "Memoirs" and from 1826 she was preoccupied with running the estate. Her main literary work during this time was "Helen" which represents one of her first attempts to put" female politician into fictional literature.
In 1845 the first signs of the famine appeared in Ireland, and in the following years along with starvation came disease and death. Thousands died and thousands more were drowned in trying to escape in the coffin-ships. The Edgeworths did what they could to alleviate the suffering and Maria herself had a large quantity of flour and rice sent over from Boston to give out among the starving. The Edgeworths went hungry too, and barely survived. Within two years Maria herself died at the age of 82.
Her realistic but fictional characters, combined with her sense, dignified peasantry and country life, were all new things in the literature of fiction and where she had shown the way, many others were to follow. It is this on which the literary reputation of Maria Edgeworth rests but in Edgeworthstown, it is, above all, the humanity and generosity of the Edgeworths that lives on.
Maria's published works.