|Local Ireland's Writer of the Month - September 1998|
|Every month the Local Ireland website features an Irish writer of the month and the writer of the month for September 1998 was Maria Edgeworth. The following piece(apart from the quotation) is copyright Maighread Medbh who also edits the Local Ireland Literature section. I would like to thank her for permission to use this article.|
' "But an oath's an oath, taken before priest or parson - an oath, taken how you will, will operate. But stay, to make it all easy, 'tis I'll take it." "Against drinking, you! King Corny!" said Father Jos, stopping his hand, "and in case of the gout in your stomach?" "Against drinking! Do you think I'd perjure myself? No! But against pressing him to it - I'll take my oath I'll never ask him to drink another glass more than he likes."
The oath was taken, and King Corny concluded the ceremony by observing that, after all, there was no character he despised more than that of a sot. But every gentleman knew that there was a wide and material difference betwixt a gentleman who was fond of his bottle, and that unfortunate being, an habitual drunkard. For his own part, it was his established rule never to go to bed without a quantity of liquor under his belt; but he defied the universe to say he was ever known to be drunk.
At a court where such
ingenious casuistry prevailed, it was happy for our hero that an
unqualifying oath now protected his resolution.'
Maria's father was an inventor, scientist, educationalist, politician, writer and humane landlord. He had four wives and twenty two children, and boasted that when he was sixty, he could still jump onto a table from a standing position. One of his projects was the invention of a velocipede, a kind of forerunner to the bike.
Maria's mother died when she was five, which began a very unhappy stage of her life, exacerbated by the habitual absence of her father. At the age of seven, as she had become difficult in her behaviour, Maria was sent away to Mrs. Latuffierre's school in Derby, where she was instructed in Italian, French, Handwriting, Embroidery and Dancing. While there, she began to cultivate her father's and stepmother's approval, writing many letters to both. Her father's attitude, perhaps typically of the time, was didactic and exacting, as indicated by this extract from one of his letters:
'With a benevolent heart, complying Temper, & obliging manners, I should make no doubt, that by your mother's assistance you might become a very excellent, & highly improved woman - Your person, my dear Maria, will be exactly in the middle point, between beauty and plainness - handsome enough to be upon a level with the generality of your Sex, if accompanied with gentleness, Reserve, & the real good sense - Plain enough to become contemptible, if unattended with good qualities of the head & heart.'
Richard Edgeworth's principles and standards were, however, matched by his personal behaviour and the relationship between father and daughter became what appeared to be a happy and fulfilling one. He encouraged Maria's writing and came to exercise, with other members of the extended family, a huge influence over the published works.
Maria was later sent to Mrs. Devis's school in London, where she never settled. Having spent most of her early years in England, she came to Ireland with her father and her second stepmother in 1782, at the age of 15. She had, by this time, already begun to write stories.
Castle Rackrent, published in 1800, tells the story of the decline of a family of profligate landlords and was Maria's first successful novel for adults. Its device of a narrator who is not an active participant in the story, and who is not a reliable witness, was original in its day. She broke new ground in reporting the speech and customs of the Irish characters with what has been described as documentary accuracy.
John Ward, Earl of
Castle Rackrent was closely followed by Belinda, The Absentee, Ennui and many others. Ormond is a kind of Irish Tom Jones, telling the story of the maturing of a wild young Irishman in learning to manage his estate, after a gay life in England. These books, with the exception of Castle Rackrent, were all written in close collaboration with her father with whom she also produced a series of educational treatises.
Maria's work inspired the regional novels of Walter Scott; Turgenev said he would never have found his own subjects were it not for her stories of landlords and peasants; King George 111, after reading her work said, 'I know something now of my Irish subjects.'
Richard Edgeworth was an
improving landlord. But the whole class bias of Maria's Irish writing,
in appearing to be against the landlords, is - according to her
biographer Marilyn Butler - accidental. She was not a radical, says
the biographer, and it was only 'through complex personal
circumstances that she became the author of three progressive, at
times even radical, studies of the Anglo-Irish in Ireland.'
Castle Rackrent pulls no punches about the mismanagement of estates by landlords, absentee and otherwise. The Edgeworths constantly encouraged other landlords to be loyal to Irish political tradition rather than English. They espoused responsibility to the tenants, and Richard granted security of tenure to improving tenants, a right previously only held in Ulster. This social consciousness is apparent in Maria's earlier novels, particularly Ormond.
characters are free up to a point; but they are still tethered to
their creator. The rope may be a long one, but they are tugged to
conformity all the same. Miss Edgeworth was essentially a didactic
writer for whom the virtue of the novel was that it was a particularly
graphic form of tract. Fiction was an aid to education, and Miss
Edgeworth's theories of human nature and right behaviour trip her up
as a novelist. This is most apparent in her English novels. In her
Irish ones she is writing much more of what she knows at first hand,
writing with her eye on the object.'
From 1800 to 1814 Maria was the most celebrated and successful of practising English novelists. This led to social success and a place in London society, which persisted into her later years. She was paid up to £2000 for a single work. She was admired by Jane Austen and Lord Byron. Stendhal described her tale Vivian as 'excellente comedie do caractere et roman, excellent dessin a la Michel-Ange.' Ruskin said that he had read her tales and her long novel Patronage, 'oftener than any other books in the world, except the Bible...'
Socially, Maria was a fluent, if sometimes over-voluble wit. Walter Scott's son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, who was not given to raptures, said: (She is) '...a little, dark, bearded, sharp, withered, active, laughing, talking, impudent, fearless, outspoken, honest, whiggish, unchristian, good-tempered, kindly ultra-Irish body. I like her one day, and damn her to perdition the next.'
Maria particularly liked her work to be well received by her father. She said of him when he was ill in April 1805: 'Where would I be without my father? I should sink into that nothing from which he has raised me.'
While his influence was profound, and has been criticised for stunting her novels, there are indications that the relationship was not exclusive of disagreement. Other members of the family also had influence, including Maria's aunt, to whom she would regularly read her work in progress. The family in general performed the cutting and correcting of texts, which, having been read daily to Maria's aunt, would be presented nightly to the rest of the family.
After her father's death in June 1817, Maria took over the running of the estate, saving it from a state of decline. In the last three decades of her life she wrote constantly, particularly children's books, but did not publish a substantial work of fiction for adults until Helen in 1834, a book which departed from the didactic tones previously evident in much of her work.
Maria Edgeworth died peacefully at Edgeworthstown on 22 May 1849, having just returned from a drive. She is buried in the cemetery of St John's Church, in the town. The Edgeworth house is now a nursing home run by the Sisters of Mercy.
'Her interest in the
detail of how people of all classes spoke, dressed, acted; her almost
sociological awareness that, however remarkable as individuals, people
are better studied most revealingly in terms of what they do to get
their bread; all this, an interest in society rather than place, was
what made Maria Edgeworth typical of her time and was to make her
significant in the development of the novel.'
'The one serious novelist
coming from the upper classes in Ireland, and the most finished and
famous produced by any class there, is undoubtedly Miss Edgeworth.'