“Thady begins his memoirs of the Rackrent Family by dating MONDAY MORNING, because no great undertaking can be auspiciously commenced in Ireland on any morning but MONDAY MORNING. ‘Oh, please God we live till Monday morning, we’ll set the slater to mend the roof of the house. On Monday morning we’ll fall to, and cut the turf. On Monday morning we’ll see and begin mowing. On Monday morning, please your honour, we’ll begin and dig the potatoes,’ etc.
All the intermediate days, between the making of such speeches and the ensuing Monday, are wasted: and when Monday morning comes, it is ten to one that the business is deferred to THE NEXT Monday morning. The Editor knew a gentleman, who, to counteract this prejudice, made his workmen and labourers begin all new pieces of work upon a Saturday.”
One of my writing heroes, Maria Edgeworth was an Anglo-Irish author who was friends with Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott, was wooed by a Swedish Count and was friends with the wife of the Duke of Wellington. Her love of Ireland, and in particular the family estate in Longford, coloured her writing and gave it a unique flavour.
Maria was born in Oxfordshire on the 1st January 1767, the second child of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (who eventually fathered 22 children by four wives). Her mother, Anna Maria Elers, passed away when she was five and she continued her schooling in England up to age 14. When her father married his second wife, Honora Sneyd, in 1773, she went with him to his estate, Edgeworthstown, in Co. Longford, Ireland. She took charge of her many younger siblings and was home-tutored in law, Irish economics and politics, science, and literature by her father. Honora, her step-mother and friend (there was only a few years between them), died in 1775 and her father married his sister-in-law, Elizabeth, which would have been considered shocking at the time.
Maria became her father’s assistant in managing the Edgeworthstown estate. She observed and recorded the details of daily Irish life, later drawing on this experience for her novels. Both Maria and her father were in favour of Catholic Emancipation, agricultural reform and increased educational opportunities for women. She particularly worked hard to improve the living standards of the poor in Edgeworthstown. In trying to improve conditions in the village she provided schools for the local children of all denominations.
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 damage done.
She travelled to England and Europe with her parents on many occasions. They met all the notables, and Maria received a marriage proposal from a Swedish courtier, Count Edelcrantz, which she refused as he would not come to live in Ireland and she would not leave it. She never married. On a visit to London in 1813, Maria met Lord Byron whom she did not like. She entered into a long correspondence with Sir Walter Scott after the publication of Waverley in 1814, in which he gratefully acknowledged her influence, and they formed a lasting friendship. She visited him in Scotland at Abbotsford House in 1823, and the following year, he visited Edgeworthstown.
After her father’s death on 13th June 1817 Maria travelled to London, Paris and Geneva before returning again to Edgeworthstown in 1821. By this time her European reputation as a writer was secure, she was warmly received in literary and social circles and had many great admirers of her work including Jane Austen, with whom she had a somewhat unusual friendship.
Maria was in her eighties when she witnessed the worst of the famine in Ireland. She was untiring in her attempts to help the distressed tenants she saw all around her and even influenced admirers in Boston to send food for the poor and starving Irish tenants. This gained her much respect and love within her locality. Unfortunately, she was not destined to see Ireland restored to the relative tranquillity of the post-famine era. The deaths of both her brother Francis in 1846, and sister Fanny in 1848, along with bouts of illness tried her severely. She died on 22nd May 1849 and was buried alongside her father in the family vault in the Churchyard of St. Johns in Edgeworthstown, where Isola Wilde, sister of Oscar Wilde, is also buried.
Her first literary output came in 1795 with the publishing of Letters to Literary Ladies, which was a feminist essay pleading for the reform of women’s education. Much of her earlier work was in collaboration with and heavily edited by her father, and had a didactic style as a result. But in 1800, her masterpiece Castle Rackrent, was anonymously submitted without her father’s knowledge and published by the London bookseller and publisher Johnson. It was not until it was in its third edition that she had the courage to put her name as author to the book. The novel portrays the Irish people and the social conditions which they endured at the time, in a very realistic and at the same time unhostile manner. The Irish author Padriac Colum remarked: “One can read it in an hour. Then one knows why the whole force of England could not break the Irish people.”
Her fictional but realistic characters, and the manner in which she portrayed a dignified peasantry and way of country life, was new in the literature of fiction. Where she led many were later to follow. It is mainly on this point that the literary reputation of Maria Edgeworth rests.
Although in her lifetime she would have witnessed the American revolution, the French revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and the suppressed revolts of 1798 and 1848, it is her memories of the famine years, and the abuse of the Irish peasants under cruel Landlords that had most effect on her and these issues that surface most in her work.
Her novels, Belinda, Helen and The Absentee, are firm favourites worldwide and in no small way contributed to her reputation and earned her the respect of both fellow authors and critics.
Partial list of published work:
- Letters for Literary Ladies– 1795 ; Second Edition 1798
- An essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification – 1795
- The Parent’s Assistant – 1796
- Practical Education – 1798 (2 vols; collaborated with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and step-mother, Honora Sneyd)
- Castle Rackrent (1800) (novel)
- Early Lessons– 1801
- Moral Tales- 1801
- Belinda – (1801) (novel)
- The Mental Thermometer- 1801
- Essay on Irish Bulls– 1802 (political, collaborated with her father)
- Popular Tales– 1804
- The Modern Griselda – 1804
- Moral Tales for Young People– 1805 (6 vols)
- Leonora – 1806
- Essays in Professional Education- 1809
- Tales of Fashionable Life– 1809 (first in a series, includes The Absentee)
- Ennui – 1809 (novel)
- The Absentee – 1812 (novel)
- Patronage – 1814 (novel)
- Harrington – 1817 (novel)
- Ormond – 1817 (novel)
- Comic Dramas– 1817
- Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth– 1820 (edited her father’s memoirs)
- Rosamond: A Sequel to Early Lessons- 1821
- Frank: A Sequel to Frank in Early Lessons- 1822
- Tomorrow– 1823 (novel)
- Helen – 1834 (novel)
- Orlandino- 1848 (temperance novel)